This year marks the 169th birthday of writer Lafcadio Hearn, an intriguing figure whose works included a collection of Japanese ghost stories, a cookbook of New Orleans Creole recipes, and a travelogue of Martinique. Born on the island Lefkada to an Irish man and an Ionian woman, Hearn moved with his family to Dublin before he was abandoned by both parents and raised by his great aunt. At the age of nineteen, Hearn was sent to Cincinnati, where he found work as a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, writing sensationalist stories of the city’s underbelly before following his wanderlust and moving to New Orleans and then the Caribbean and finally Japan, where he would die at the age of 54.
It was this peculiar biography that caught the attention of Monique Truong when she was working on her second novel Bitter in the Mouth. While perusing a Southern Foodways Encyclopedia, she stumbled upon Hearn’s “unusual, geographically difficult-to-pinpoint name” and biography: “Little of it made sense to me, the sentences harboring a random collection of facts and locales,” says Truong. That curiosity led to her third novel, The Sweetest Fruits, an ambitious historical biographical novel as wide-spanning and epic as Hearn’s life.
What makes this biographical novel different? Hearn gets none of the words. Instead, Truong chose to tell the history of Hearn through the women in his life.
It starts with Rosa Antonia Cassimati, Hearn’s mother. When we meet her, she is on a ship sailing away from Ireland and her son, born Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, a name with an “ugly clipped ending, a branch that had suddenly snapped.” (Instead, she calls him Patricio). Through Elesa, a servant, she dictates a letter to her son to explain her life and her absence. “He will want to know who brought him into this world,” she tells Elesa, “and who took him from his island of birth” with a hope that “he will come and find me” after learning her story.
Second is Alethea Foley, a formerly enslaved woman who Hearn meets at a boarding house in Cincinnati, where she works as a cook. It is 1906 at the start of her narration; Hearn has been dead for two years, and she has come out publicly as his wife, laying claim to what is rightfully hers. She tells her story to a reporter. Hers is a tale of initial intrigue, romance, and eventual betrayal when Hearn abandons her for New Orleans, Martinique, and eventually Japan.
In Japan, Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of a former local samurai, takes on the job of Hearn’s housekeeper and eventually becomes his wife. She addresses her part of the story to Hearn himself, known to her as Yakumo. Her story details Hearn’s last years as well as the love and tension of a relationship of two people often at cross-cultural odds.
In between these tellings of Hearn’s life are passages from Elizabeth Bisland’s The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, which tries to give an objective history of Hearn—her book would have an immense influence on how Hearn, and the women in his life, would come to be viewed—though, of course, it’s also a certain type of myth-making.
Combined, the narratives of these four women give readers a nuanced portrait of a fascinating, multifaceted man. We come to understand his struggles and he becomes more human than myth. Elizabeth Bisland casts Hearn’s childhood as one filled with loneliness and distress. Early on, he is blinded in one eye, causing a disfigurement that he imagined made others think him “disgusting and repugnant in consequence of the film that clouded the iris.” We also come to understand him as a person who yearns for roots, despite or because of his continual travel. “The Island of his birth had disappeared from the maps of the world,” says Alethea, touching on the Union of Lefkada and the rest of the Ionian Islands with Greece. “He was only two when he left its shores with his mother. How could he ever go back now?”
Hearn comes to symbolize a kind of every writer and every migrant. Truong depicts him as a writer always on the lookout for a story and man who moves because he is looking for better opportunities, like so many immigrants today and throughout history. But reading his story inside the stories of women who did not get to move as much or as far, we come to realize what a privilege it is to migrate freely. Rosa is forced out of Lefkada. Althea is a Black woman in a time where enslavement was still a very recent memory. And Setsu underscores all of these women’s struggles when she says: “There are even fewer ways to live a life, given the circumstances that we cannot change.”
Despite the challenges they faced, these women, Truong points out, were powerful in their own ways. In Truong’s hands, Rosa is not a “young, foolish, illiterate and mentally unstable,” but cunning and a keen observer of the world around her. Alethea was a woman actively fighting against a narrative society had placed on her before they even knew her story (she is interrupted multiple times by her white interviewer and often has to push back). And Setsu as Hearn’s translator in Japan carries her own power.
All of this is told in voices that Truong skillfully inhabits with a kind of conversational stream of consciousness that is both realistic and artful in a novel that’s akin to a concerto in its three main parts. And Truong’s prose is like music, displaying the same careful consideration and love for words for which she is already known.
By giving readers a concert of voices, at last singing louder than Hearn’s biography and mythology, Truong asks us to ponder the ways those who are often ignored and marginalized might have their own rich, epic stories worth telling. In that sense, The Sweetest Fruits is a type of justice.
The Sweetest Fruits
by Monique Truong
Eric Nguyen is the Book Reviews Editor for diaCRITICS.