The inner and outer landscapes that shape identity

Monique Truong, author of the novel, Bitter in the Mouth explores being a member of a minority in two realms.

Interview by Patricia Lynne Duffy   

Author Monique Truong

It was fascinating to do a Q&A with author Monique Truong on her novel Bitter in the Mouth. The novel’s unforgettable character, Linda/Linh-Dao Hammerick experiences minority status in two realms: as an Asian- American, she is a member of a racial minority in her all-white southern town, and as a neuro-atypical, she has a minority form of perception, which she copes with mostly internally and reveals to only a very few.

As far as I know this is the first time the above topic has been explored in a novel and the first time a word-taste synesthete is a main character.

    Ms Truong shares reflections in this Q&A:

Q: In reading Bitter in the Mouth, I was struck by how the character Linda/Linh-Dao copes with minority status in two realms: as an Asian- American, she is a member of a racial minority in her all-white southern town, and as a neuro-atypical, she has a minority form of perception among her fellow human beings in general. Was one of the reasons for creating a synesthete-character in this context—the opportunity it afforded to explore two ways of experiencing minority status: one that is visible and apparent to others and one that is internal and known only to oneself? 

A: By imagining Linda as Asian American and as neuro-atypical, I was able to explore a theme that has long intrigued me: the interplay between the internal/invisible differences that define us and the external/visible differences that others define us by. The word “difference” here is interchangeable with “traits.” In short, I don’t imbue “difference” with a negative connotation. To be different is to be unlike the majority of those around you, and in the case of synesthetes it also means to be one of a kind.

As the first-person narrator of her own story, Linda is able to introduce herself to the readers on her own terms and in a way that wouldn’t be possible if she were to meet them in real life. On the page, she’s able to reveal only the parts of her identity and story that she wants the readers to know, while keeping the rest to herself. The former is her synesthesia, and the latter is her race. 

As you know—unfortunately it’s almost impossible to discuss this aspect of the novel without giving away the key plot twist—it’s not until the middle of the novel that Linda allows the readers to know her full name, which includes her Vietnamese given name, is forthcoming about how she became a part of the Hammerick family as an adoptee. The structure of the novel is meant to extend to Linda a privilege that she and all of us who are externally/visibly different don’t have. When we walk into a room, we’re immediately seen and defined, often by stereotypes and assumptions. In other words, it’s our external/visible differences that over-define us, eclipsing the rest of who we are.

Q: How did you come to know about synesthesia? 

A: In 2002 or 2003, I saw a television show about synesthesia, which included interviews with synesthetes. In my novel, that’s also how the main character Linda Hammerick learns that her condition has a name and that there are other folks who experience a mixing of the senses. 

Q: What made you decide to create a synesthete-character with word-flavor synesthesia, in particular? 

A: I’ve been food obsessed since I was a child and an insulin-dependent diabetic since my early 20s. Food is a source of deep pleasure and immediate danger for me. I test my blood sugars before and after every meal, so I can see in real time the effects, often adverse, that my food intake is having on my body.

So, when I learned that there were folks who didn’t need to eat to experience flavors, I thought of their word-flavor synesthesia as something akin to a superpower. Of course, I was only thinking of experiencing flavors that were delicious and tantalizing. After seeing an interview with a word-flavor synesthete though, I realized this wasn’t the case. The man’s facial expressions and speech pattern suggested that he was experiencing a full range of flavors, including those that he found distasteful or downright disgusting. He, for instance, said certain words very quickly, as if he were curtailing or limiting their flavors, while lingering on others. He was in a sensorial reality unique to him, and his speech pattern was the only telltale sign. 

I quickly understood that a novel centered on word-flavor synesthesia—back in early 2000s when I began my research, the term that I often saw was “auditory-gustatory” synesthesia—would allow me to write about food and flavors again but from a very different angle than in my first novel, which was about a live-in cook in the Paris home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and was replete with passages that luxuriated and celebrated what was in the kitchen and on the plate.

Q: Was the character Linda/Linh-Dao based on any real-life person? 

A: This novel is a refraction of my own childhood in the American South. I gave myself a different name and a different family, but Linda’s Southern hometown is one that I know well. When my parents and I came to the U.S. in 1975 as refugees from South Vietnam, the first place we called home was Boiling Springs, North Carolina, which is where this novel is set.

Though I’m not a word-flavor synesthete, I do have an excellent memory for flavors. I’m an avid cook and an even more avid eater. I can recall flavors in a way similar perhaps to how a musician or singer can recall a note or rather a sequence of notes because flavors at their best are never one note. If you said to me cumin, honey, and lemon juice, I can “taste” what these individual flavors and also taste them in combination with one another. Most passionate home cooks or professional chefs can do this, I think. The skill comes with understanding the component parts of the flavors—cumin’s toasted depth, its earthiness, and its faint citrus-like spritz, for instance.  

Q: As a neuro-atypical, one can become hyper-aware of one’s anomalous experience in relation to that of the larger “norm”. This produces a kind of meta-perception of observing oneself perceiving or observing oneself/others reacting to the anomalous perceptions. How does this hyper- awareness function in the case Linda/Linh-Dao? Does the hyper-awareness extend to other parts of her life as well? 

A: This is an excellent question as it’s tapping into an inherent overlap between Linda’s race and her synesthesia. Absolutely, hyper-awareness is a consequence of both. When she does share with the readers that she’s Asian, it’s clear that in the first half of the novel much of her childhood experiences were defined by the external difference of her body as well as her synesthesia. Both differences are not discussed within her family, and both are, therefore, “mysteries” to her that she attempts to understand and navigate. Linda at one point in her youth begins to share her synesthesia with her adoptive mother, whose immediate response was to shut her daughter up by suggesting that she was exhibiting mental illness. Woven into the adoptive mother’s accusation is that she’s already had to put up with a lot with Linda, a vague statement that later in the novel the readers understand is a reference to Linda’s adoption as well as her racial difference. 

Part of this hyper-awareness is knowing that there are parts of ourselves that are discomforting or disturbing to the majority and that, to survive, we have to hide away or minimize them. That’s a brutal lesson to learn at any age in life but particularly so when we are children, like Linda who had no caretakers to provide her with context or guidance. 

Q: I wonder how you conceived of the character’s synesthesia as you were conceiving of/writing the book? Did the concept change while writing the novel? 

A: When I first began writing this novel, I thought I would incorporate a lot of the scientific research and data that I’d come across while researching synesthesia. As I began to further develop and consider Linda’s personality however, I began to think that a child, even one as intelligent as Linda, wouldn’t necessarily need to know the science of her condition. I remembered what it felt like to grow up in Boiling Springs as the only Asian child in my elementary school. I remembered that every day was about surviving the bullying, the verbal abuse, and the profound loneliness. From the age of seven to nine, I wasn’t seeking out the reasons why I was different but rather trying to live with what that difference was bringing my way. Even after moving away from Boiling Springs, this learned behavior, this survival mode remained a part of my personality. 

Once I tapped into my own childhood experience, though, it wasn’t an exact match with Linda’s, it opened up the narrative. I imagined how she experienced her synesthesia as opposed to why. The why or the science of synesthesia—circa the early 2000s—was, of course, extremely important to me as the writer of her story  informed the way that she experienced and manipulated her synesthesia. 

Q: -I love the last part of the book where the character discovers that her synesthetic perception—is not just a “condition” peculiar to herself –but part of a known phenomenon with a rich history, especially in the worlds of art, literature, and music. The character says, “I looked to the history of synesthesia as to an alternative family tree.” Later, we have these lines: “we all need a story of where we came from and how we got here. Otherwise, how could we ever put down our tender roots and stay.” Can you say more about our collective need for an “origin story”? 

A: Even as an adult, after seeing the t.v. show about synesthetes, Linda doesn’t plunge into the science of synesthesia but attempts to connect with these synesthetes instead and to learn more about the artists and writers who had the conditions. It’s the human connection—the alternative family tree—that interests her more. Given that Linda, at that moment in the novel, still had no knowledge of her birth parents or how she came to be a part of the Hammerick family—it made perfect sense to me that she would connect these two “mysteries” of her life, attempting to find emotional connections versus scientific knowledge among this “family” she never knew she had. 

I firmly believe that without an origin story we are, like Linda, untethered and lost. History, with a capital H, is an origin story, and so is our own family lore. Both are important to defining and shaping who we are or who we think we are. When Linda is growing up without a family history or, more accurately, one that includes her, she reaches instead for the stories available to her—fairytales, Greek myths, celebrities like Dolly Parton, and NC history—to help her understand herself and her world. In her retelling of them, readers can get a sense of what about these narratives were important to Linda and what life lessons she took from them. 

Q: -What do you identify as one of the most important themes of Bitter in the Mouth? Is there anything else you’d like to say about the story or the main character? 

A: I’m continuously amazed by the limitations of language. What we say or write is rarely understood fully, because of our own imprecision or because of the carelessness and inattentiveness on the receiving end. Also, though we may not have as unique a relationship to words as Linda has, we each still bring to the words in our vocabulary an individualized, subjective set of meanings. Yet, we all continue to trade words with one another anyway in the hope and in the belief that we’re being understood. I find that doggedness and optimism in the face of the built-in potentials for failure to be incredibly human, a unifying condition as it were.

To learn more about author Monique Truong, please visit

author website: https://monique-truong.com/

or if you want to be more targeted, the Bitter page on the site is: https://monique-truong.com/books/bitter-in-the-mouth/

Twitter: @Monique_Truong

https://twitter.com/Monique_Truong

Instagram: moniquetruongwriter

https://www.instagram.com/moniquetruongwriter/

FB author page: MoniqueTruongWriter

https://www.facebook.com/MoniqueTruongWriter

Patricia Lynne Duffy is the author of the now classic, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their worlds, the first book by a synesthete about synesthesia.. An audio version of the book with research updates, music by synesthete-composers, and an “Afterword”. Available from Audible  

She also contributed a chapter, “Synesthesia and Literature” to the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.                                                    

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