One of the major themes in Monique Truong's The Book of Salt is that of diaspora/ dispersion. In the novel, the main character, Binh, is analyzed in both the Asian diaspora and the homosexual diaspora. Quite obviously, the circumstances that surround Binh in the novel add to the complications. Take for instance, his relationship to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Binh is thrown into what seems a ridiculous situation; a Vietnamese chef in France cooking for two American women. Even in this juxtaposition, there are intense relations and plays of power. For example, the three are in France, yet none has quite grasped the language, yet Gertrude Stein insists (according to the novel) upon analyzing Binh's French in a manner that seems to mimic the analysis of an anthropological linguist of a "native" (Truong 35-36).
The other major actualization of diaspora is homosexuality. Binh is a homosexual as are Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and the Sunday Morning Man. The joining of each of these individuals in France speaks volumes about the transcendence of sexuality. Not to say that France is a rallying point for homosexuality, but the ability of the individuals involved to form a type of community away from their familiar/native shores (both figurative and literal) is impressive and speaks to the diasporic notion of claiming/reclaiming a heritage that is separate, distinct, yet somehow linked.
One of the most transcendent images in the novel, one that unites theories of diaspora beyond notions of color, race, and ethnicity, is the image of the ship. Paul Gilroy, in his 1993, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, uses the ship, the image from the Middle Passage in the history of the African Diaspora, in order to present an alternative view of nationality and origin, a place where identity is born or reborn. Gilroy writes, about the image of ships in the Middle Passage, "Ships immediately focus attention onÉthe circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs" (4). A ship, in this case, transfers ideas as well as people, while simultaneously allowing these people and ideas to reinvent themselves. In this way, Gilroy argues that various diasporic cultures evolved from the enslaved Africans who were transported across the Atlantic.
This argument transcends racial and cultural lines, because it applies to various societies. Monique Truong uses this very same archetype/chronotope to address Binh's development. He must leave his home in Viet Nam in order to come into himself (in the simplest of terms). Leaving Viet Nam and boarding the Niobe, the ship that transported him from Viet Nam to France, Binh began a personal voyage in which he reclaimed, reaffirmed, and recreated his identity, which is to be expected as a Vietnamese man leaves home and journey to Europe (where there is some vague sense of a mother country, due to colonial influence). Aboard the ship, according to Gilroy and evidenced by Truong, identity can be redefined. Binh's shipmate on the voyage from Viet Nam to France was Bao. His role is crucial because it aids Binh's self actualization and self realization. Throughout the novel, Binh recalls various lessons and stories that Bao told him while aboard the Niobe. Bao's role in the novel is integral in Binh's development. Truong makes this clear in the instances when Binh reflecta upon his life and the situations and complications which he faces. In these inwardly reflective moments (for example, the instances cited on pages 23-25, 241-243, and especially 249-250), Binh reflects outwardly upon his interactions with Bao; the way he carried himself, his reactions to events, and very importantly, his stories. Bao's character is pivotal for Binh, not because Bao helped Binh to come to himself, but more so that Binh uses his interactions with Bao, his time spent with him, as a historic marker, a landmark, in a sense, that aids him in remembering himself. It is at sea, on the ship with Bao that Binh grew to know himself, to come to terms with himself. Binh's self-conception as a homosexual Vietnamese immigrant was born on that ship and was carried with him throughout the rest of the novel.
His homosexuality is not the only aspect of his identity that was cultivated during the passage from Viet Nam to France. On this passage, Binh reconstructed himself with a new awareness of the various components that add to his being. Symbolically, on the ship Binh incorporated his homosexuality, his Vietnamese culture, his interactions with the French colonizers/employers and his desire to go to France, to name a few, into his new conception of self identification.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusettes. 1993.
Truong, Monique. The Book of Salt. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Last modified 7 January 2005