NOVEMBER 25, 2019
BEAUTY HAS COME to be expected of Monique Truong’s prose, words brimming and vibrant, her evocative expressions and thoughtful sequencing in storytelling remarkable. But there is also substance in Truong’s writing, a pursuit of recovering voices erased from history — stories that cannot be told and that are at times overwritten.
Some readers may recall Truong’s 2003 debut novel, The Book of Salt, about Gertrude Stein’s cook in Paris. The novel’s narrator, hired help at 27 Rue de Fleurus, had come from the haute kitchens of the French colonial outpost in Saigon. Despite the character’s working-class upbringing, the language is eloquent, naturally leading us to an important question: How is one to know if a refined sensibility resides in the mind of someone whose English (in this case) amounts to just a handful of words and phrases? The novel held up such a life, a migratory life caught beyond the barrier of language, capturing the way legacies of Western empires shaped colonized lives born into precarity and servitude.
The Sweetest Fruits moves away from Stein to revolve around another major writer, Lafcadio Hearn, the first to introduce classic folklore from Japan to the United States. Hearn was born to a Greek mother who brought him as a young child to Dublin to be with his Irish father’s family, and his world travel would precede that of the American côterie writing in Paris by decades. His was also a migratory life spanning far-flung places, as he moved from Ireland to France, England, the United States, and the Caribbean, before finally reaching Japan. Hearn arrived in the United States on the cusp of the 1870s, the historical setting of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence, in which the protagonist Newland Archer dreams of going to Japan (“away from everything […] Oh, I don’t know. India — or Japan”), a vague wish never to be realized. Hearn would actually land in Japan two decades later, establish a family life, and eventually naturalize to take on his Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo. Of course, Hearn was certainly not the first man from the West to travel and write about Japan, not even if we limit the time period after Japan’s opening of borders in 1854, and also not the first to be interested in Japanese folklore. Starting in mid-1880s, Kate James (Mrs. T. H. James) had translated and published at least 13 of Hasegawa Takejiro’s Japanese fairy tales into English. Still, unlike James and other Victorian writers whose stay in Japan was temporary, Hearn would live out his life in Japan, a country where reverence for him as a man of letters reigned supreme.
Undeniably a captivating transnational figure, Hearn’s writing on Japanese stories and culture continues to garner strong interest on both sides of the Pacific, and this legacy deserves (proportionate) distinction. In Japan, the interest in Hearn-related books had been continuous throughout the 20th century, including the 18-volume The Collected Works of Koizumi Yakumo (1926–’28). The Hearn section occupies an entire shelf of an old specialized bookstore in the Jimbocho rare books area in Tokyo today. This year, Kadokawa Press published Hearn’s 16 selected lectures on literature from his time teaching at Tokyo Imperial University (now University of Tokyo), billed as a publication for a brighter future for Japanese literature. Hearn’s archive is in the United States, housed in the Special Collections at the University of Virginia. In 2009, the Library of America published the voluminous Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings, and Hearn’s writing seems to have both the literary and trade markets covered this year with new anthologies published by Princeton University Press and Penguin Classics.
These newly established platforms for Hearn’s writing, while impressive, should not be confused with Monique Truong’s latest literary achievement. Truong is among the most talented literary fiction writers working in the United States, admittedly a crowded arena, with a set of readers for whom The Sweetest Fruits is a long-awaited third novel. The historical research and writing for this work, conducted over the course of eight years, was funded by a sizable host of residencies, grants, and fellowships of prestige including those from the United States, Japan, and Italy. The novel is a tribute to these institutions, for it is nothing less than an exciting new development in her writing career. The historically charged dimension of her writing had continued to grow in her second novel, Bitter in the Mouth (2010), a necessary reimagining of the American South with a twist, contributing to the brilliance of our variegated US cultural landscape.
The Sweetest Fruits writes into being three previously unexplored voices: Hearn’s Greek mother, Rosa Antonia Cassimati; his first wife, Alethea Foley, in the United States; and his wife in Japan, Koizumi Setsu. The novel is careful in providing context for these distinct voices, which never have had any real way of reaching us today except within the fictional space of this novel. Rosa was not literate, nor was she an English speaker, but it’s possible to evoke her existence as she dictates her story to a young traveler named Elesa aboard the same ship on the Irish Sea heading back to Greece; Alethea was formerly enslaved in Kentucky and would not have been taught to read or write, and this section is staged as her being interviewed by a journalist while fighting for the legitimacy of her marriage in the face of Ohio’s anti-miscegenation laws. Voices can be lost in other ways, as evident in the final section, which is imagined as an early draft of Setsu’s memoir translated by Paul Kiyoshi Hisada and Frederick Johnson as Reminiscences of Lafcadio Hearn (1918). Unfortunately, the beautifully refined prose of Setsu’s original was lost in the simplified and somewhat blunt English of this first translation. This loss was apparent to Setsu’s biographer Hasegawa Yoji, whose work Truong cites in the acknowledgment, as he offered another translation of Reminiscences in an effort to recapture Setsu’s sophisticated sensibility. Truong’s rendering of Setsu in The Sweetest Fruits adds much in restoring the gracefulness of Setsu’s voice, while also taking into account the way she must leave some things unsaid for the sake of preserving family honor, respectability, and Hearn’s literary legacy. In The Sweetest Fruits, Setsu refers to this first draft as being “weak with truths,” awaiting revision and redaction for its final draft.
Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909) might strike some readers as being structurally similar, also composed of three major sections that each feature a female character belonging to an underclass of women in social conditions beyond their control. In Stein’s work, the portrayals of servants and black figures in and of themselves might be the point, embodying as they do an emerging modernist aesthetic. While Three Lives appears as a set of decidedly independent stories, Truong’s figures are more like voices that gradually coalesce, as they all on one level address one person: Patricio, Pat, Yakumo are all referred to as “you.” Collectively, the stories merge to create a critical perspective to be shored up against nonfiction prose.
Key is Truong’s inclusion of selected excerpts from Elizabeth Bisland’s The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn (1906), the first biography of Hearn in English. The novel opens with a short paragraph from Bisland’s biography taking us to the Greek Island of Santa Maura, Hearn’s birthplace. After each major section of the novel, corresponding pages from the biography follow, becoming a thread weaving in and out of the three sections. Indeed, while Truong’s novel offers a corrective to the historical marginalization of previously ignored voices, of even further interest is how the novel actively engages with the way lives deemed unimportant can easily be airbrushed out of authoritative accounts. Nonfiction, after all, is also fictive, involved as it is in selection and redaction in the shaping of a narrative act. The Sweetest Fruits gives readers permission to read historical accounts against the grain, and teaches us how.
The Bisland excerpts appear informative at first, but as one reads on, the neutrality of her perspective starts to unravel in multiple ways to expose moments of willful blindness. For example, it is difficult not to look for Alethea’s name after reading her section in The Sweetest Fruits, but it is nowhere to be found in the Bisland section of Hearn’s life in Cincinnati. It is as though Hearn never married anyone. We are left with only a vague allusion to “the objects of [Hearn’s] affection” and “impossible experiments” which caused “resentment of his friends.” It is a sharp pang to see Bisland invoke a housekeeper faintly like Alethea only to dismiss any possibilities of interracial romance, noting that Hearn in New Orleans had “a friendly and confident relation […] between himself and the old negro woman who cared for his rooms,” followed by a broad generalization that “indeed all his life he was happiest with the young and the simple.” This pang is felt at least in three different ways — for Alethea, for possible longing Bisland herself held close to her chest, if not for her racism on multiple levels that cuts. At second glance, the first section on Hearn’s birthplace as “the place of Sappho’s self-destruction” starts to appear fatefully ironic. More generally, the novel exposes a surprisingly threadbare quality in Bisland’s otherwise descriptive prose, as Truong goes through the text to provide clarifications and missing information for minor, factually important omissions in square brackets. Bisland never cared to identify what genre an alluded to Hearn piece was experimenting with, though Hearn’s versatility in the wide range of genres is what makes his oeuvre fascinating.
The epigraph of The Sweetest Fruits is a single line from Emily Dickinson’s poem (#1263), “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—”, and the rest as we know is “Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise / As Lightening to the Children eased / With explanation kind / The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” That this latter part remains silent but present in the pregnant pause of the dash makes this epigraph significant. The truths, told in the novel circuitously through each woman’s life lost to history, may not involve the intoxicatingly decadent descriptions of food that a reader may (or may not have) devoured in The Book of Salt. More to the point, it refuses to participate in singularly protecting the mythical stature of Lafcadio Hearn. What happens when the frame is shifted, the central hero now an empty center? The answer might be disappointment, incomprehension, or premature dismissiveness. The novel is not meant for that reader. For anyone whose life feels overshadowed by a more powerful figure, or even just not centered at any point in life for reasons beyond one’s control, reading the novel can be a vindicating experience.
Speaking at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Asian American Literature Festival held this August, Truong took questions from the audience about her decision in choosing a life of writing over that of being a practicing lawyer. In the course of answering, she discussed the difficulty of writing. She then underscored an earlier point she had made about opening up the definition of “pleasure” to include knowing, and of being emotionally healthy. Sitting in the audience, I wonder about the difficulty of facing a truth that is hard to swallow, that of historical erasure widely speaking, and how truly new things are often so incredibly difficult to process, but listen: “Sometimes I’d like to stop writing. Sometimes you think no one’s listening. But [pause] it’s not about wanting to write but to having to — a compulsion, that is also pleasure.”
I agree with her that such an outlet is necessary for maintenance of sanity, as she said, in this moment, in this nation. At this historical time of shocks hardening some of us against heightened intolerance and xenophobia, weary now of steeling ourselves against troublesome headlines, it means so much that a novel like The Sweetest Fruits exists, hitting pause on lives seemingly fixed in our own time and place. This is not escape, however, and here is Truong on thoughts of her novels as ways of re-seeing the present:
The present is too near for us to see it; we are “in” the present, after all. To re-examine the past is to return to it; to create a greater distance between us and the present, and that is when we can often see the present more clearly. The historical novel is a kind of time traveling vehicle/vessel. We, the readers, are the time travelers, who have returned from 1909, and in that moment of return, with our fresh eyes, we see the present anew. We question it anew. We engage with it analytically anew. We respond to it emotionally anew.