Monique Truong Has Always Admired Jo from Little Women
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. When I was a kid I was a revolutionary war nut. I grew up right outside Boston, and so was surrounded by the landscape of the first skirmishes in the War for Independence. The revolution was everywhere and it was like it happened just yesterday. Our school would take us on almost yearly walks on the Freedom Trail to see Old Faneuil Hall Market, where the Patriots gathered on the eve of the revolution, and the Old South Meeting House, where the Boston Tea Party began.
And I had friends who lived in Concord and in Lexington, where the shot heard round the world was fired. I also read every book I could lay my hands on that covered this period. History, sure, but also novels: like Johnny Tremaine by Esther Forbes and April Morning by Howard Fast, both written from the point of view of young men fighting against the British. As I grew up, I continued to read whatever I could. So I thought I really understood that conflict. But then, when I was almost thirty, I came across a book that rocked my world. It was called Redcoats and Rebels and it was the story of the American Revolution—through British eyes. Same war, same facts, different perspective. It didn’t so much change my view as expand it. And recently, I got to talking about seeing a familiar story from different perspectives with today’s guest.
Monique Truong: I’m Monique Truong. I’m a novelist, essayist and librettist.
WS: Monique is the author of The Book of Salt, Bitter in the Mouth, and The Sweetest Fruits, which comes out this month.
MT: I was born in Saigon in 1968. And I came to the U.S. in 1975 as a refugee from the Vietnam War and I grew up in North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, in towns with fabulous names like Boiling Springs, Centerville, and Alief. When we came to Boiling Springs it was right out of the relocation camps and we lived in a trailer home.
WS: While she had siblings, age and location separated her from them.
MT: I thought I was an only child, but in fact I had a half sister who is seven years older than I am from my father’s first marriage. And she was growing up in Switzerland and it took a while before we met. And then I have a younger sister who was born in Kettering, Ohio—an 11 year difference between us.
WS: Monique and her mother left Vietnam first and would spend time in a relocation camp. Her father followed later. The transition from Vietnam to America was extremely difficult.
MT: I was painfully shy. I rarely spoke, and this was when I was in Boiling Springs, not when I was in Vietnam. When I was in Vietnam, I was told that I was a terror; just an absolutely spoiled rotten child. I was very lucky to have grown up in a family that was wealthy. And so I had a chauffeur. I had a nanny. There were maids within the household. All of that disappeared in a flash. So by the time we were in Boiling Springs and living in the trailer home, there was nothing that was recognizable to me, including the language.
WS: Monique would turn to books to keep her company.
MT: Reading became my way of making friends, but with imaginary friends, clearly. But I do remember looking at this, you know, shelf of books for children and seeing that it was finite and it terrified me. I was panicked. I thought, I’m going to finish all the stories. These books could just really take me to another place. I could not imagine having survived my childhood without books.
WS: She found connection through reading that she lacked at school and at home.
MT: I didn’t really know my father in Vietnam. He was never present because his focus was on work and it was a very sort of hierarchical household. In terms of my mother, I think for her reading was maybe too tied with school. I’m gonna say this and I know it’s gonna sound pathetic, but—and I forgive both my parents for this—they really did not have a sense that I was present, you know, and I understand. And because I was quiet, and pretty much out of the way, that was enough.
WS: Monique liked to read books about young women—and families who were forced to fend for themselves and who survived intact.
MT: Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. I really devoured all of them except for Farmer Boy. Just the self sufficiency of that, of the kitchen and women’s labor and how it allowed for a kind of graciousness even when they’re living in sort of genteel poverty.
WS: Eventually she would discover a book with all of her favorite themes that spoke to her in a way no other book had.
MT: I went to the library and found a copy of the book Little Women. And I don’t know if I came to it with any sort of context. I don’t think I would have known who Alcott was. It just seemed like, okay, well it’s not Little Men.
WS: Little Women is a novel by Louisa May Alcott that follows the lives of the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—as they come of age.
MT: The moment that Alcott started to write about Jo, I was hooked. I had never had a concept of a young girl who had a desire to write. And I just to this day, when I think of Jo, I think of her in that attic where she has a crate or like a basket of apples and she is writing, ink is all over her and she is as happy as, as you know. I could feel the bliss of that character. I thought, “Oh, I want to spend time with apples and ink.”
WS: Jo gave Monique the permission to envision a life she’d never even imagined.
MT: It showed me that it was possible. I don’t know if I was able, at that point in life, to say, “A-ha!” It wasn’t so clear like that, but it did communicate to me, as I was saying, the bliss of it, and the alone—but not lonely—aspect of writing. I wanted to be Jo, clearly. It was never that I thought, “What a cool or what an interesting young woman.” I just thought: there’s an example, there is like someone who’s happy and is not caring about this whole business of having lovers or dances or all these sort of social conventions. That she was her own person, and that seemed so brave and wonderful to me.
WS: Still, Monique found the edition that she read kept her from identifying fully with the characters.
MT: I think I remember feeling disappointed at the illustrations because, of course, I didn’t look like Jo; Jo didn’t look like me. And Laurie, I had this, I don’t know what I had in mind for this beautiful, or handsome, rich neighbor. But it wasn’t that. And Professor Bhaer with a beard—the horror—for a nine year old girl to think about a man with a beard as being a love interest; it was terrible.
WS: When we come back from the break, Monique revisits Little Women and tries to fashion for herself a life inspired by Jo.
WS: Monique headed off to college, where she studied literature—which at Yale meant theory.
MT: Even though I had this early sort of vision of a young woman, a writer in Jo, I did not actually understand the logistics of the modern day. How does a Jo become a published writer in 1990, when I graduated from college?
WS: Before she could answer this question for herself, she went down a different path.
MT: I went to law school because I was afraid and I believe that fear came from my parents. And at that point when I was younger, I didn’t understand that it was fear.
WS: But a different kind of fear would catch up to her soon enough.
MT: I was working as a lawyer in a law firm that I now often will forget, I think willfully, the name of. But I do remember it’s joke name, and may I tell you what the joke name is? Huge cupboard of greed, which is apropos. So I was working as a litigator in this firm and I was developing facial tics and twitches and my shoulder had risen up and frozen in place because of stress and I was crying every day.
WS: Monique found solace—once more—in reading.
MT: I heard that there was a poetry reading at the Asian American writers workshop, and I heard a poet who’s a Vietnamese American woman. Her name was Barbara Tran and she was exactly my age. She had gone to Columbia and gotten her MFA. As she was reading, I’m crying. I am so moved by everything that she, that is being presented, and I introduced myself to her afterwards and I said, ”I’m a writer,” which is, I mean that was delusional because I hadn’t written since college, you know, law school first year of practice, no writing—creative writing. And we began to work together on an anthology of Vietnamese American poetry and prose for the workshop. And it was something that was eventually published.
WS: That collection was called Watermark.
MT: What I wanted to do was I wanted to contribute a piece to the anthology but I didn’t have anything new, so I started a short story. I took sick days off. That’s right, huge cupboard of greed, I took sick days and I wrote a short story. It was based on a character that I had read in the Alice B. Toklas cookbook when I was in college and yet this cook in their household had always, I suppose, been the back of my head since then. And I sat down, I wrote the short story and then it wouldn’t, you know, the story wasn’t over, right?
WS: That short story would be the beginning of her first novel, The Book of Salt.
MT: I thought, “Okay, now I have the short story. What can I do with the short story? I will apply for fellowships, I will apply for residences,” and then it became more of the texts start to appear. Then I found a literary agent. And again, it just became a way and a focus out of this life that I had created for myself, which was not allowing me to truly live.
WS: The Book of Salt would become a national bestseller, and won awards that included the Bard Fiction Prize. It is a book with food at its center. And the sense of taste is at the heart of her second novel. Monique has always loved cookbooks, and when she discovered Lafcadio Hearn’s Creole cookbook, the first of its kind, it helped inspire her most recent novel.
MT: That was actually the very first work that I read by him, which should be no surprise to anyone who knows me, because I have a very large collection of cookbooks and the more obscure focus, the better. When I read that cookbook, some things became very clear to me. One, he was very much a man of his era. He claimed that men were better cooks. Why? Because they were more reasonable, rational beings who had a head for science. And he also was very authoritative. Of course a cookbook author, he should be authentic, authoritative. But about everything—about garnishing foods to when to put meat into the broth. And I thought, “Well, how did this man, how did he know so much?”
WS: The more she read about Lafcadio Hearn, the more she started to see parallels with her own life.
MT: Hearn had moments in his life early on where he was very poor, and he was very hungry. And once I had that piece of information about him, it made me look at his project of writing about food differently and it made me more empathetic. I identify with him in the sense that we are living, we both have lived very far from where we were born and we are both travelers. And the traveling is not necessarily pleasure tourism kind of travel. It is, I think for both of us, it’s about searching for that sense of home, which is very different from home itself.
WS: She eventually came to see him and his life’s work in a different light.
MT: What he really wanted to find was a family because he did not grow up with his father or his mother. And that really shaped his feeling of loneliness in the world and why he, I think, gravitated to people who lived at the margins of society. I think I, too, am still searching and still always drawn to those places in society as well. You know, the voices that are not heard. And the women in Hearn’s life I think are very much that. They are present in the biographies about him, certainly. That’s how I came to them. But they were present in a very diminished way was my sense. And so the project of The Sweetest Fruits was really to imagine in the spaces in between the facts that I had about them.
WS: She realized how important it was to present these other versions of Lafcadio Hearn’s story and to give these women—and other voices—their due.
MT: I think you need more than one Alcott. You need more than one Little Women. Right. You need . . . maybe, maybe if I had a book back then they had a little Vietnamese girl that would have also helped me to feel a little bit more at home in the world.
WS: Monique revisits Little Women every year.
MT: When I reread Little Women, it really has to do with when I am feeling the lowest. Every single time I read that book, I come away at the end with this sense of goodness will prevail. And that is such a rare, rare feeling. I think it must be the same thing that people who really enjoy mysteries can get from a book in that in the end there will be as a solution, there will be a resolution. And for me that’s how Little Women feels. That these women, these girls rather, in the beginning they have different paths in life. They find happiness in different ways. But, ultimately it is found.
WS: Each time she is reminded of the lessons that the March sisters taught her.
MT: I think it’s incredibly important that boys, girls, children who are defining themselves, not in a binary way, read this novel, because it is, again, back to this idea of goodness and there are so many examples of that: of good work, of charity, of family.
WS: Monique holds the image of Jo, surrounded by apples and ink, close.
MT: I still adore Jo. No question about that. I am certainly like Jo in the sense that I live in genteel poverty. I’m doing what I love. I have found the partner in life that supports my writing. So yes, I’m on the way to Jo.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Monique Truong and Paul Slovak. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com.