Friday, May 10, 2013

Bitter in the Mouth

Bitter in the Mouth, a semi-autobiographical novel, is about a Vietnamese girl (Linda) who grows up in a small North Carolina town. Linda is the only minority child in all-white classrooms. Making life even harder for her is the neurological condition she suffers from--synesthesia. Words evoke tastes for sufferers of this genetic anomaly. "Incomings," as Linda calls the speech she hears, can be upsetting because too many senses are stimulated at once. Linda feels acutely different from others--especially her white parents--and her feelings of isolation and loneliness are acute. The only relative she truly bonds with is her uncle, Baby Harper. Linda senses he is a kindred spirit from the moment she sets eyes on him.

A quality that distinguishes Truong's books is her descriptive language as well as her use of food--literally and figuratively. In this passage, Linda is telling us about synesthesia.

My first memory was a taste. For most of my life I have carried this fact with me not as a mystery, which it still is, but as a secret...There was something bitter in the mouth, and there was the word that triggered it...It was bitter in the way that greens...were often bitter. Or in the way that simmering resentment was bitter. (P. 15)

In an interview for Lamda Literary (posted 26.Aug, 2010 by Jihii Jolly), we come to understand that the author and her main character share past experiences and past hurts. As Truong writes:

I set Bitter in the Mouth in Boiling Springs, NC, the small town where my family first lived in the U.S. because I wanted to revisit those first three years that have defined me in so many ways. I like to say that I am a Southern girl, twice over: south Vietnam and the American South.  It's only the former that defines me in people's eyes. But Boiling Springs is where I learned how to speak English. Boiling Springs was where I became--in a blink of an eye--not just a little girl but a Chink, a Jap, and a Gook (all the names my classmates called me). Boiling Springs was where I learned that I was physically different, ugly, and a target. So yes, I wanted to revisit this small town that I have carried with me with so much anger, and I wanted to make it mine. I wanted to tell my version of its story.

And tell it she does. Truong creates a moving coming of age story with a happy ending. This is a good book for readers who enjoyed The Book of Salt, as well as for those who are fans of multicultural literature.  Although the author does digress into historical narrative that seems unrelated to the plot, this is none-the-less a well-crafted story with eccentric, three-dimensional characters.

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