Post Colonial Diasporic Literature in English

Différance in The Book of Salt

David Ro, English 365, Northwestern University (2004)

When Chef Blériot and Binh parted ways (Chapter Twelve) in The Book of Salt, much of the action leading to the departure was based on a nearly circular progression of deferral. The process of deferment is salient as to how the discovery of these two lovers unfolds: the gardener's helper was first to notice, then the three Vietnamese boys, then the chauffeur, the Madame's secretary, and following her, a calculated train of meetings and notes resulting in Binh's dismissal. Yet, more pertinent to theory is how the language is used in the plot as a medium of différance. The language present is also sexually charged, which then, in bringing the two terms together -- sexual différance -- further illuminates Binh's homosexual sensibilities vis-ˆ-vis the other person, which happens several times throughout the whole of the narrative.

The precision of "one experience, one identity," according to Hall, cannot be sustained without incising with the edge of the "other side -- the ruptures and discontinuities" (Braziel 236). Hall employs the theorist, Jacques Derrida, to explain meaning is a deferment of the experience. The edges, then, are separated by the expanse of différance, that as "language depends on difference. Meaning is always deferred, perhaps to this point of an endless supplementarity, by the play of signification" (Braziel 239). This play of language and, more interestingly, its sexual play, are what drive the plot of chapter twelve of The Book of Salt.

The first nuance of the sexual can be seen in the first question Blériot raises: "Why green?" (Troung 119). Green here is in reference to the gardener's helper's garb, but it also helpfully paints the scene with overtones of envy: the helper's unfulfilled desire for a relationship and the envy of Madame's secretary. Indeed, much of the unraveling of the plot is done from a jealous tongue.

But the discovery actually begins with Blériot's careless, wanton statement: "'there are some things that are still new to you'" (Troung 123). The red flare of the relationship was thrown upward and the three boys "recognized it, and they laughed, skittish and cheerless, the same as if we had embraced in front of them and kissed each other with our mouths open, hungry" (Troung 123). The difference created by the emphasis of the words "some" and "new" is the différance; such emphasis had "differed" and "deferred" the language to the level of the sexual. The nuance in the voice, perhaps even in the body language, had supplanted the mere statement of words.

Further deferment occurs as the boys' laughter and Blériot's supposedly sensual look to Binh remind the green-garbed helper of something he had lost, moving him to a "posture akin to prayer" (Troung 124). Thus, the sexual language had undergone a différance into a language of silent supplication. From the text, the helper must have understood what illicit love Binh and Blériot because it seemed as if he had one time had experienced a love as passionate as theirs. He refused to tell anyone. But it was useless, since the sexual language had already shifted from words to a kind of body language.

The chauffeur, on the other hand, discerns the physical responses of the helper to his own advantage, hoping to cheer the distraught secretary with whom he is in love. Although the text never reveals his exact words, it is evident that the meaning had changed. From the helper's silent language of prayer, the chauffeur had deferred it to verbose, vainglorious language of appeasement, an appeasement to be in the favor with the secretary. The Madame's secretary, of course, also uses the meaning for her own language of compassion: "Leave it to me, Chef Blériot. But, if I'm to help, you must leave it all to me. All to me, do you understand?" (Troung 131). The emphasis in the text is not dissimilar to the emphasis that Blériot had spoken to Binh earlier.

The secretary continues to defer the meaning into languages appropriate for spreading the news to the Madame, Minh the Sous Chef, and even to Binh's father, the language undergoing a final transformation into a form of a note. Even at the very end, as the secretary translates "'I've told your father'" (133) into Vietnamese and French for Binh, the original meaning of the language that had left BlŽeacute;riot's lips had now turned into some completely different. Thus, what had begun as a sexual teasing had differed and deferred all the way to sexual dismissal, isolation, condemnation by the end of the chapter.

Hall suggests that identity is never an "already accomplished fact," that an identity even of homosexuality could undergo transformation as an identity in "production" (Braziel 234). Chapter twelve of The Book of Salt also seems to suggest a similar process through the language and plot development. By the end of the chapter, Binh seems rejected on all fronts, including his family; and perhaps he knew that his family would find it unbelievable. Essentially, the homosexuality was forced from a passionate secret to a political tool in other relationships in the house and became taboo. For the helper, chauffeur, secretary, and finally, Binh and Blériot, the sexual difference had eventually unraveled whatever hopes for a desire fulfilled. For this reason, sexual relationships become a relationally supplementary in the process of différance, "a play in signification," a ceaseless flirtation within the relational.

Works Cited

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Theorizing Diaspora. Eds. J. E. Braziel and Anita Mannur. Malden, Massachussets: Blackwell Publishing, (2003) 233-46.

Khachig Tölölyan. "Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment." Diasporas. 5.1 (1996): 3-36.

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.


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Last modified 7 January 2005