Monique Truong in Singapore

diaCRITICS periodically posts blog entries from other places. This slightly revised review of Monique Truong‘s work and interview with the author is by Audrey Chin of oddznns; you can read the original here. Audrey’s first novel, Learning to Fly, was short-listed for the 2000 Singapore Literature Prize. She comments frequently on diaCRITICS and has contributed most generously to our fundraising efforts.

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If you’re a Vietnamese woman in Singapore then you must be a sex worker…

Actually you’re NOT. You’re Monique Truong, an award-winning writer, and you’re discovering how an American woman of Vietnamese descent might be perceived in this Little Red Dot you’re visiting for the first time.

In the first article in a series on Vietnamese artists in Singapore, I interview Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth. She was recently in town for the 2012 Singapore Writers Festival (SWF). 

The Book of Salt was nominated for the 2003 Lambda Literary Award and received the 2004 Young Lions Fiction Award, the 2003 Bard Fiction Prize and 2003 New York Times Notable Fiction Book award. Bitter in the Mouth received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named one of 2010’s 25 Best Fiction Books by Barnes and Noble, one of that year’s 10 Best Fiction Books by Hudson Booksellers, and the Adult Fiction Honour Book by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. For me, Truong’s books are wonderful explorations of identity and finding a home in oneself in a world where one is different.

Her public talks at SWF 2012 and our e-conversation brought up many of these issues. At her first panel discussion, “Diaspora and Dislocation,” Truong spoke about identity and how even when nothing about one has actually changed, relocation and dislocation can change how one is perceived and hence one’s self perception, totally altering one’s whole way of being.

At the panel, Truong said she is a Southern girl twice over, having been born in South Vietnam and lived in the American South. Leaving Vietnam in the aftermath of the war and settling in a town where she was seen to be strange, even ugly, have inflicted wounds. But, Truong shared, only one of these wounds is evident on her body and in her name.

I would go further than Truong to say that we are not just our looks and our names, we are products of where we have been, how we grew up and where we now are.

At the panel, Truong recalled the shock of starting school in Boiling Springs, a small town in North Carolina, when she was seven; how she was told that her skin was yellow and her hair was too black; how although nothing had changed in the mirror, she had suddenly turned into a freak.

I asked her in my e-interview how she felt in Singapore, where everyone pretty much looks like her.  Her answer raised again the theme of how one’s identity changes with location even when nothing else about one has changed…

It turned out that in Asia Truong felt acutely American in body. “Whenever I’ve traveled to an Asian country (China, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, for instance), I’m acutely aware of how American I am. I mean culturally American. I speak English with what is clearly an American accent. I carry my body like an American, shoulders pulled back, back straight, claiming my personal space as if it was my right. Some would call this posture arrogance.”

Truong also realized how great a stake she had in being an American citizen. She shared how outraged she was that the front desk clerk at her hotel listed her nationality as Vietnamese on the check-in form. “When I see the word nationality I equate it with citizenship. I am a citizen of the United States. I carry a U.S. passport. I vote in U.S. elections. I am in every way a U.S. citizen. Ironic, that I have to leave the U.S. in order to feel my connection to it, my desire to claim it.”

It’s so true. We need to get out of ourselves and our familiar environments to see who we are.

It’s also in an unfamiliar place that we discover we may have to fight other stereotypes than those we usually battle.

In Singapore, Truong didn’t have to confront assumptions that she is a boat-person or a war refugee or a typical over-achieving Asian-American. She explains, “I received a surprising and, I have to admit, disturbing e-mail from a young man who attended some of the panels… I do believe that he meant to be complimentary, but the content of his e-mail made me incredibly sad nonetheless. He wrote that it was great to see a Vietnamese woman in Singapore who was educated and successful as opposed to the Vietnamese women who were there only to sell their bodies… it was not in the forefront of my mind while I was in Singapore that this was how some Singaporeans could view me. That to be a Vietnamese woman in Singapore could mean (or, perhaps, most likely mean) that I’m a sex worker… I was at the Festival thinking I was more American than Vietnamese and Asian. While at the same time I was being viewed by a Singaporean as a laudable exception to the Vietnamese prostitutes who populated his country.”

It was sad for me to tell Truong that the young man was accurate; in Singapore, this might indeed be the most likely perception of a Vietnamese woman. Or, if not a sex-worker, then a catalogue bride. It’s a different Vietnamese diaspora over here.

Turning the mirror the other way, this is what Truong thought about Singapore:

“I did a lot of people watching while I was in Singapore. I enjoyed seeing the mix of Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian faces. I kept on thinking that this particular mix of races and ethnicities is the future, as in the future of the U.S., the future of the world. I felt like a time traveler. I’m surely not the first to say this: the dominance of the Western world is ebbing. The future belongs to Asia, Africa, and South America or rather the mixing of the peoples from these continents… I also did a lot of listening while I was in Singapore. I enjoyed the different cadences of English spoken there. I love to hear English, reinvented and reinvigorated or in some cases preserved. It keeps a language alive and lively.”

And if she were to write about us?

“It would be interesting to write a piece of speculative fiction set in Singapore. A short story that takes place in the near future, a future that mirrors in many ways the present day of Singapore but with an infusion of one or a few new communities, South Americans or Africans, for example. The introduction of the new group(s) to Singapore could serve to highlight the complexities and realities of forming and maintaining a multicultural nation-state. In essence, what has gone right and what has gone wrong. This is beginning to sound more like a novel… Actually, I’d rather read this novel than write it. I invite someone to take up this idea and run with it, please.”

In fact, this is what she’s working on:

“I’m working on a historical novel based on the life of the Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). He was a traveler and a consummate outsider. He eventually went to live in Japan, changing his name to Koizumi Yakumo. I’m going to let the women in his life tell his stories. Hearn also had an interesting relationship to food. While my previous two novels have been about food and flavors, I think this novel will be more about hunger.”

Thank you Monique Truong! We’re glad the Little Red Dot mirrored different parts of who you are and are not. 

As for what you might write about Singapore… Well, yours is a great insight. It’s precisely the introduction and assimilation of new migrants that we’re struggling with currently, as a people and a country. YOU GOT IT!

This must mean it’s an idea that’s calling to you.

For those who haven’t read Monique Truong’s two books, The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth, I highly recommend them. They are beautiful grapplings with identity and being at home in oneself despite being different.

Audrey Chin holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy Research from the RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, an M.Sc. in Research Methods and Public Policy from Oxford University, and an LL.B. from Manchester University. She is Executive Chairman, Vietnam Investing Associates – Financials Private Limited and Chairman of the Board, Keppel REIT Asia Management Limited. She is married to Minh and has three children.

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