God tastes like a walnut. Jesus tastes like fried chicken. Dolly Parton tastes like Sweet’N Low, and matricide—for any correlation or the lack thereof—tastes like peach cobbler. Monique Truong’s second novel, Bitter in the Mouth (2011), is a coming-of-age story that is more memory palace than an ethnography that seeks to portray itself as a “Southern” or an “Asian” text. Couched in its sense of taste are not only the dynamics of belonging but also the matter-of-factness of how people are not reducible to the places they’re from, nor to the logics of phenotypic representation that often define a region. In Boiling Springs, North Carolina, we’re introduced to Linda Hammerick, a woman with synesthesia who can taste words. Heard or spoken, to Linda the word God tastes like a walnut, and you taste like canned green beans. These tastes, or “incomings,” as Linda calls them, are non-correlative (other than their shared regional flavor), and for the most part they taste as distinctly Southern as we read Linda to be. But, midway through the novel, after her full name, Linh-Dao Nguyen Hammerick, is announced at her college graduation, we learn that she is not only Southern but also Vietnamese. And adopted. As we follow Linda from Boiling Springs to Yale and New York City and back, we learn alongside her the power of narratives that create belonging and how fragile and changing family can be. Bitter in the Mouth is about the universality of family—of our demands from or our lack of it. Truong’s novel is about the weight and lightness of confession and revelation in the narratives we hold to be true; for every story told there is also conditionality, choice, and the price of admission.
As with Truong’s novels The Book of Salt (2003) and The Sweetest Fruits (2019), Bitter in the Mouth intimates relationships through food, or more so, the taste of it and other things. The novel’s namesake invokes Linda’s first memory, a taste so bitter, without memory of the word that caused it. The taste emerges when Linda’s biological parents die in an unexplained fire that destroys their home when she is seven years old. This event marks the beginning of Linda’s life as she knows it; Thomas and DeAnne become her parents by way of adoption. She holds her own curiosities about the bitter taste but isn’t much compelled to unearth the memory itself, which DeAnne later reveals to Linda. Rather, Linda lays out for us the bare facts of her life:
My name is Linda Hammerick. I grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. My parents were Thomas and DeAnne. My best friend was named Kelly. I was my father’s tomboy. I was my mother’s baton twirler. I was my high school’s valedictorian. I went far away for college and law school. I live now in New York City. I miss my great-uncle Harper.
Linda offers this succinct description in the novel’s first section, “Confession,” where we become familiar with Linda’s life in the rural South. This includes her grandmother, Iris, telling Linda on her deathbed: “What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two,” to which Linda responds, “Bitch.” Linda is closest to her great-uncle Harper, her first love and confidant. Baby Harper, as their family calls him, shares an unspoken understanding: what is difficult for their family to grapple with means trouble, and belonging comes at the price of unrecognition. Linda’s synesthesia and adoption and Baby Harper’s sexuality and closeted admiration for women’s clothing are beyond the limits of their family’s capacity. Illuminating the novel’s underlying queer assemblage of kinship, they have one another in the awareness that belonging, unlike love, is conditional.
As Truong states in a 2020 interview with the Houston Asian American Archive at Rice University, readers are introduced to Linda’s experience of difference through a condition that isn’t recognized in phenotype, region, or otherwise external identifier. For the first half of the novel, Linda’s synesthesia most prominently delineates her difference. She begins smoking a pack of cigarettes a day as the incomings inhibit her ability to focus in school. Later in college, sex and alcohol help. The incomings stifled, Linda becomes an outsider by way of becoming the smart girl, and she fulfills her patrilineal legacy of attending Yale, where she studies English and plans to attend law school. At the same time, synesthesia, as experienced by Linda, offers itself as an analytic through which one can examine race and belonging in the novel. As Linda’s experience of words is double and decentered with words adopting unassuming tastes, our readings of her in the novel’s two parts toe the line of pre- and post-racialized contexts. “Confession” and the second section, “Revelation,” bifurcate the novel into contexts wherein Linda’s race moves from unassuming abstraction to revealing clarity.
Linda’s lexical taste diffracts interpretations of racialized hybridity as commonly studied, as scholars such as Denise Cruz, Justin Mellette, and Michele Janette have argued. Rather than a bifurcation between two cultures or a story of acceptance upon racialized lines, Linda’s relationship to familial belonging is characterized by dominant family narratives. Biological relationships do not correlate to de facto belonging; adopted relationships don’t insinuate estrangement. The connection between the two, though, lies in how the entanglement of these narratives is communicated to those who are involved. When Linda’s birth name is revealed, we’re inclined to retroactively interpolate race throughout the novel’s previous events, as well as determine for ourselves how to frame Linda’s experiences thereafter. She foreshadows this inclination in a paragraph that immediately follows her initial self-introduction:
I grew up in (Thomas and Kelly). My parents were (valedictorian and baton twirler). My best friend was named (Harper). I was my father’s (New York City). I was my mother’s (college and law school). I was my high school’s (tomboy). I went far away for (Thomas and DeAnne). I live now in (Boiling Springs). I miss (Linda Hammerick).
This prompted reflection feels unreliable because it is. We’re left to decide what to take from Linda’s parenthetical admissions. Linda nods to how her most salient relationships, and the positions she occupies, are diverted by ones less recognizable and ostensibly non-correlative. People and places represent what we don’t expect. Truong discusses the significance of such unreliability, stating how Bitter relies on an “unreliable reader,” whose preexisting prejudice, preconceptions, and misconceptions construct the novel’s worldview based on one’s own. The novelty of the novel, Truong notes, is its being a literary story, not a visual one. It is, indeed, a book that demands its reader to not later recommend the novel to one’s friends and family without also asking that they not Google it, not spend time reading the backmatter, reviews (including this one), or anything about the author. Being unreliable readers insists that we are faulty ones—ones that may be so inclined to racialize the U.S. South as a place lacking in Asian communities; ones that locate, rather, Southern white conservatism that won the 2016 presidential election. In other words, the “South” that the unreliable reader imagines may be unequivocally rural, flatteningly white, and limited by its own lack of complexity. This is, I argue, as the novel does, an untruth. Nonetheless, the unreliable reader might, with misleading certainty, read Linda as white, too, by way of an implied nuclear and apparently white family, and render her complexities universal, and the book, not one “about race.” The unreliable reader does not run the risk of reading race as a priori difference because, for the first half of the novel, Linda’s synesthesia is the focus of her (non)belonging; the most outstanding peculiarity resonates in her author’s last name, reminiscent of a South that is elsewhere.
Such unreliability, though, does not mean that race “spoils” the novel. To disclose Linda’s adoption could cause enough speculation to rid Bitter of the shock value of its reveal midway through. But being an unreliable reader means to observe, wholesale, how Linda experiences selfhood before ever depending on sociocultural categories to define her for us. To be a reliable reader would require an immediate understanding and discernment of Linda’s self-identification of “growing up looking Asian in the South” and not “growing up Asian in the South.” But the book’s demands of the unreliable reader are just that—unreliable demands. In my own reading, there arose a narratological desire that hoped Linda would become just as keenly aware of racialization in her life as I have in my own—that she should be aware of how a book about an Asian American woman taking place in rural North Carolina might disappoint some readerly expectations if her story didn’t inevitably lead to her traveling across the Pacific Ocean to visit the motherland, or at least inquiring about it.Truong spent some of her childhood growing up in Boiling Springs, the first place she and her parents moved to after having been displaced to relocation camps as refugees of the Vietnam War. I, myself, am a Filipino American woman who moved to rural Georgia when I was seven. I have an adopted family and white parents. I agree with Truong, and I feel for Linda. It took leaving the South to see it and myself better.
Bitter in the Mouth explores the universal through the particular. It allowed me to consider the palatability, the digestibility, of race in a novel whose familiar regional aesthetics exclude Asian subjectivities. It allowed me to experience race as an aftertaste, question the ethics of even doing so, and later let myself marinate in whatever feelings surfaced. I won’t lie; I have my own biases about and personal investments in Linda and how she’s read. I’m invested in a novel that doesn’t locate race as either here or there. I value how Linda’s story takes race to be a plain fact, which reveals the utilitarian nature of things through familial relationships. Her story allows us to contemplate what family feels like when emotions and sentimentality are stripped away, asking us how we feel about race when it’s neither feeling nor felt. Linda ultimately doesn’t learn what the bitter taste was, and neither do we. All we know is that there are tastes, as bitter and sweet as those we’re familiar with and those we’re not. Bitter in the Mouth asks only that we sit with the sensation long enough to see what arises.
Bitter in the Mouth. By Monique Truong. New York: Random House, 2011. 297 pp. $17.00.