The theme of sexuality in The Book of Salt serves as an important connection with other themes, such as diaspora and Orientalism. The character Binh is part of a queer diaspora. In reaction to his homosexual relationship with Chef Blériot, his father, the Old Man, rejects him stating that, "I've always only had three [sons]. You are your mother's" (Truong 164). Binh is denied by his father and forced out of his childhood home because of his sexual preference. Throughout the novel, the figure of the Old Man returns as a living memory which persistently reminds Binh of his displacement. Binh declares this saying, "Every day, I hear the Old Man's voice shouting at me from beneath the earth, where, I tell myself, he now lies" (Truong 193). This voice, which represents Binh's internal conflict, constantly admonishes him for his homosexuality. Binh will mentally hear his voice reproaching, "It sickens me to think about what you do, shaming my name" (Truong 193). Binh is also aware of his displacement from his loving mother. He recalls her story of the scholar prince, and reacts by stating, "My dear mother would have stopped the stories if she had known in whom I found solace and in whom I found love" (Truong 81). Whether his assumption is correct or incorrect, significance lies within Binh's expression of his mother's rejection of his homosexuality. Both the Old Man's voice and the memory of his mother's story are representative of the Binh's struggle with his sexuality, one that he cannot deny, but is denied by his family.
Sexuality in The Book of Salt also reflects the Orientalist "idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison . . . [to] all the non-European peoples and cultures" (Said 7). This notion is readily apparent when comparing Binh's intimate relationships with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas's relationship. From the novel's start, we see that Binh's sexuality is problematic and because of it, his family disowns him -- and his sexuality becomes a continual source of inner conflict. On the other hand, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas's (The Steins) homosexual relationship is described as "unusual" but is neither a constant source of conflict nor a cause for rejection by the community (Truong 20). This difference in the perception of the "Oriental" and Western characters' sexuality is significant because it reflects Western and non-Western levels of empowerment. The ease in which The Steins, as outsiders themselves, are able to flaunt their sexual identity, as opposed to the "Oriental" character's difficulty, reflects how society is more accepting towards Western queer diasporic subjects. This is not to say that Western sexuality is necessarily more liberated. Truong's juxtaposition of Asian and Western sexualities simply magnifies the Orientalist view of the oppressed Asian sexuality within the Western context.
In addition, Binh is placed in a position of inferiority within his intimate relationship with the character Sweet Sunday Man. Their relationship reflects Said's commentary on the Orientalist technique that places "the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand" (Said 7). The love affair was instigated by Sweet Sunday Man through a job interview. This act alone already placed Binh's American lover in a superior position, as Binh's potential employer. Binh realizes this when he asserts, "Interview . . . The word was a sharp reminder that I was servant who thought himself a man" (Truong 40). The relationship is also imbalanced since its terms are set by Sweet Sunday Man. Instead of using Binh's name, he renames Binh, giving him the name Bee, since it is easier for him to pronounce (Truong 111). A name reflects a person's identity and place in language. Sweet Sunday Man rejects and replaces Binh's assumed identity with one he constructs. By renaming Binh, Sweet Sunday Man, as the dominant figure, is essentially using his "upper hand" to exert control over Binh's identity. Through Binh's sexuality and intimate relationships, Monique Truong is able to demonstrate the effect of Orientalism on an individual. She shows how Orientalism oppresses Eastern identity into the "Oriental," the Western construction of what is "Other."
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