One cannot discuss Orientalism in Monique Truong's The Book of Salt without referring to the renowned postcolonial theorist Edward Said. In recognizing the manner in which individuals or entities are often defined through a contrast with an "Other," Said notes in his introduction to Orientalism that "the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience" (1-2); the West's "cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other" (1). Thus, while the meaning of "Orientalism" is too complex to summarize in a simple all-encompassing statement, the definition of Orientalism as "a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between Ôthe Orient' and (most of the time) Ôthe Occident'" (2) can serve as a useful starting point.
Within The Book of Salt, the narrator, a Vietnamese man named Binh, is acutely aware of Orientalism as it affects him on a deeply personal level. To begin with, he recognizes the Western fascination with what is perceived to be exotic or "other." In describing his employers and their rapacious desire to uncover his "true" origin, he observes that "They crave the fruits of exile, the bitter juices, and the heavy hearts. They yearn for a taste of the pure, sea-salt sadness of the outcast whom they have brought into their homes" (Truong 19) and thus "like a courtesan, forced to perform the dance of the seven veils, I grudgingly reveal the names, one by one, of the cities that have carved their names into me, leaving behind the scar tissue that forms the bulk of who I am" (Truong 16). Of course, the image of the dancing courtesan draws attention to another facet of Orientalism which is underscored in The Book of Salt, namely that Orientalism relies on a certain repertoire of images in distinguishing Eastern and Western identities. Truong illustrates the tendency to seek out familiar symbols of identity when Binh, in visiting what he believes to be a Chinese restaurant, notes that there are "No red letterings, no gold-leaf flourishes, no spangled dragon, no shiny bellied Buddha, all the things that the French look for in a good Chinese restaurant were here nonexistent" (Truong 94). Binh also encounters the somewhat Orientalist "idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European people and cultures" (Said 7) in virtually all of his personal interactions. For instance, in one passage his American lover proclaims "'Imagine how the health and well-being of your people could be bettered and improved with this Western science'" (Truong 114). Indeed, the most important manifestation of Orientalism can be seen in Binh's romantic relationships, in which, like the Orient itself, he is forever doomed to assume a fetishized and subservient role. As in Orientalism, his relationships with his lovers are based on a system of unequal exchange.
The principles of Orientalism are also deeply related to colonialism -- another important theme in The Book of Salt. In one passage, Binh notes somewhat bitterly that "when the French are in their colonies, they lose their natural inclination towards fraternity, equality, and liberty. They leave those ideals behind in Mother France, leaving them free to treat us like bastards in the land of our birth" (Truong 137). Said argues that "European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self" (3). Thus, while "the two geographical entities . . . support and to an extent reflect each other" (5), it is the West that has maintained control of the "power configuration" (5) that is created by this complex oppositional interdependence. In other words, Orientalism is connected to colonialism in behaving "as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (3). The French colonial presence is personified to a degree by another former lover of Binh, Blériot: "He walked several steps ahead, keeping enough distance between us to say, We are not one. Yet he was close enough to relay his exclusive control over the four Indochinese who followed him" (Truong 122).
Perhaps Binh's most powerful commentary on the effects of Orientalism appears in the following passage:
[My body] marks me, announces my weakness, displays it as yellow skin. It flagrantly tells my story, or a compacted version of it, to passerby curious enough to cast their eyes my way. It stunts their creativity, dictates to them the limited list of whom I could be. Foreigner, asiatique, and, this being Mother France, I must be Indochinese. They do not care to discern any further, ignoring the question of whether I hail from Vietnam, Cambodia, or LaosÉTo them, my body offers an exacting, predetermined life story. It cripples their imagination as it does mine. It tells them, they believe, all that they need to know about my past, and, of lesser import, about the life that I now live within their present . . . .I am an Indochinese laborer, generalized and indiscriminate. [Truong 152]
Here, he recognizes the Oriental identity as "compacted, distorted," "limited," and "indiscriminate." In being labeled "Asian" or "Indochinese," the individual disappears and is replaced by a predetermined, generalized identity that is dictated by those in a position of power. Thus, the Orientalist mode of thought is a limiting structure that is crippling for both Westerners and non-Westerners alike. It denies the complexity of the Asian individual by refusing to recognize heterogeneity within race and erases endless possibilities. In this passage, Binh laments being forced into the role of a faceless entity, emptied of all meaning. As he puts it, "I am, to them, nothing but a series of destinations with no meaningful expanses in between" (Truong 18).
Said, Edward. "Introduction." Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978. 1-28.
Truong, Monique. The Book of Salt. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Last modified 7 January 2005