Monique Truong: Peak Desperation

S3 E07

Monique Truong:
Peak Desperation

Writer Monique Truong describes her love of showering when it’s raining outside.

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Monique Truong is the Vietnamese American author of the bestselling, award-winning novels, The Book of SaltBitter in the Mouth, and The Sweetest Fruits. She’s also a former refugee, essayist, avid eater, lyricist/librettist, and intellectual property attorney (more or less in this order).

NEIL: I’m so happy, Monique Truong, to have you on SHE’S A TALKER. Thank you for joining. You mentioned that you were teaching up until now. I actually don’t know where you teach.

MONIQUE: Oh, well, it was the first time that I was teaching at Columbia at the School of the Arts? Yes. School of Arts. I don’t know if there’s an article.

NEIL: It doesn’t matter. It feels very important.

MONIQUE: Yes.

NEIL: Which would you prefer it to be?

MONIQUE: The.

NEIL: Yes. Exactly.

MONIQUE: That sounds even more important.

NEIL: Yeah. Yeah.

MONIQUE: Yeah. I was teaching a fiction workshop. I had taught undergraduate fiction writing classes before, but never to graduate students and so that was interesting.

NEIL: Interesting can contain so much.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: Would you care to unpack interesting for us?

MONIQUE: Well, okay. Let’s begin here. I had heard from my friends who are women of color, who teach at the graduate level, that respect and authority was often an issue. Specifically, the lack thereof. Their suggestions to me was that really, even though the others professors would say to the students, “Please, call me Neil,” that for me, it probably won’t work out very well if I did that. I know you teach Neil and so you can imagine it’s a small workshop. It ended up being nine students.

NEIL: Okay.

MONIQUE: Yeah. Yeah. It was really great in that way, and so I said, “Look, I’m going to ask you to call me Professor Truong as opposed to Monique. As soon as this workshop is over, we can see each other on the street and please feel free to call me Monique. For the rest of the semester, it’s going to be a professor.” They were really, I think, frankly horrified. I do think that it’s a mistake to actually encourage your graduate school students to call you by your first name, because it assumes a non-hierarchical relationship.

MONIQUE: That’s actually a disservice to the students because if the lines are blurry and then let’s say we, professor, act in some way inappropriately, it’s the student, I feel, who will have the most to pay, will be at the disadvantage.

Monique’s most recent novel, The Sweetest Fruits

NEIL: It reminds me of … Maybe it’s different, but those therapists who talk a lot about themselves or who do a lot of the talking versus those therapists who withhold that and in a way that can feel to some people ungenerous or something. To me, it actually feels like a form of caretaking maybe for the very reasons that you’re talking about. It’s establishing a type of care relationship. Not that I feel very, very strongly that as a teacher you’re not a therapist, but in terms of certain boundaries setting, I do feel like some of the same ground rules apply.

NEIL: I mean, the race and gender dynamic of it has got to be so powerful. It’s interesting. I do say, “Call me Neil.” In fact, one of my cards says when students call me professor, feels like when a kindergartner calls the teacher, mommy.” I feel like that’s contingent on a certain type of benefit of the doubt that attaches to gender privilege, white privilege and I think it’s actually true on the other end. There are certain students that are only comfortable using professor.

NEIL: For a while I was not insisting, but you know, feeding back to them like that, “You can call me Neil.” Now, I just say once at the beginning of class, “You can call me Neil.” If they call me professor from that point on, I don’t correct them because that actually feels like a form of that doesn’t feel fair to them in a certain way, or that feels like assertion of a type of casualness that may not serve them. A question I like to ask everybody is, if you’re meeting a stranger, how do you succinctly describe what it is you do?

MONIQUE: Novelist.

NEIL: Period.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: I like that. I don’t know what the mortality situation is in your life, but are your parents still alive?

MONIQUE: My mom is.

NEIL: How does she describe what it is you do to let’s say her friends?

MONIQUE: Oh, I’m not sure. I’m not sure because I don’t know if she would begin by saying that I was a lawyer. You know?

NEIL: Right. Brace yourself, or just bear in mind.

MONIQUE: That I was once respectable and had a way to make a living. I don’t … Yeah. Maybe she would just call me a writer. My mother is retired now, but when she was working, she was a registered nurse and she was an ICU nurse actually.

NEIL: Low stress. Low stress job.

MONIQUE: Right. The nurses and the doctors who worked with her, some of them were great avid readers of fiction. They would tell her that they’ve read one of my novels. I think that was always very surprising to her. You know?

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: Every time another feedback in that way would come to her, it would solidify the fact that I indeed wrote books.

NEIL: That makes total sense.

MONIQUE: Right? Yeah.

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: Well, shall we move to some cards?

MONIQUE: Oh yes.

NEIL: Okay. First card. I occasionally identify with the food in the pressure cooker and feel bad for it.

MONIQUE: I would take out pressure cooker and for me, it’s the food that ends up on our airline food tray.

Read Monique’s story in Saveur Magazine of how her family, newly arrived in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, from Can Tho, South Vietnam, was introduced to Jell-O Salad.

NEIL: Aha.

MONIQUE: I mean, that is the most degraded thing to happen to a carrot. You know?

NEIL: Right.

MONIQUE: Or a piece of chicken. I mean, what? What? What?

NEIL: Yeah. Yeah.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: I might disagree with you on that. I mean, I think absolutely there’s all kinds of degradation, but it’s like what Andy Warhol said about how a can of Coke is 50 cents for everybody? I just like how everything gets leveled to, “Okay. There’s this part of the tray, there’s this on the …” It’s like the classic TV dinner thing. I find something reassuring about everything becoming compartmentalized, but you’re talking about, if I hear you correctly, are you talking about the preparation or the presentation?

MONIQUE: The preparation. Just what it becomes.

NEIL: Aha, right.

MONIQUE: Because I just can’t believe what happens to food after all the processing and after all the horrors that we put it through.

NEIL: See, but I think it goes to invisibility, this I think connects to factory farming. For me, when I’m cooking with the pressure cooker, I’m in proximity to it and I’m like, “Oh God, what must it be like in there?” Whereas with the airline food, it’s like often hidden. It’s often the institutional kitchen that thankfully we don’t have to see. I’m spared the indignity and just get that the end result. Actually, I think airline food usually looks better than anything that comes out of a pressure cooker. I think-

MONIQUE: Oh, well, okay. Well, this is the thing. I should admit that I have never cooked with a pressure cooker, so all of this is theoretical to me. Clearly I have not experienced the horror of this device.

NEIL: Well, I can feel it about the oven too, by the way.

MONIQUE: Really?

NEIL: Yeah. That could just be my Jewish heritage or something.

MONIQUE: Oh my God, Neil. Oh my God. Yes. It might be.

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: You don’t identify with the food that is enduring when you cook? I just have to believe you cook just given the way that you talk about food. Am I correct? I mean, if-

MONIQUE: Yes.

NEIL: Okay.

MONIQUE: Yes.

NEIL: Because there’s such intimacy. When you’re cooking, you’re not necessarily identifying with like, “Ah, okay. What this is going to have to go through.”

MONIQUE: Right. No. No.

NEIL: That’s probably for the better. I think that might be some primal animism that is left in me. I mean, I also feel that way about … Do you have a dishwasher?

MONIQUE: Yes.

NEIL: I love the dishwasher and I have approximately a million cards about the dishwasher, but I often think about, “Oh God.” Putting the dishes in there and thinking what they’re going to go through in there.

MONIQUE: Wow.

NEIL: Do you ever have that?

MONIQUE: No. No. I’m just so grateful for it.

NEIL: Me too. I mean, my relationship for the dishwasher is truly when someone says it’s a religious experience, I mean it literally. Just like redemption. Transformation. Can you imagine if you could have something metaphorically, that type of transformation on some, let’s say, I don’t know, psychological or spiritual level that’s in any way akin to what happens?

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: Also, the ratio of labor to bang for the buck.

MONIQUE: Yeah. Well, I think about that in terms of the shower. Indoor plumbing and the shower feels that way to me. I mean-

NEIL: Yeah. That’s true.

MONIQUE: It’s more bodily, but sometimes it’s definitely spiritual when you’re in there.

Monique Truong presenting The Sweetest Fruits at The Center for Fiction

NEIL: Yes.

MONIQUE: I have to say that I enjoy the shower the most when it’s raining outside.

NEIL: Is it because you feel an alignment like?

MONIQUE: Yeah. Also, like the absolute kind of … It’s, one’s a luxury, but also it’s almost like a way of saying, “It’s I control the water. I control …” You know?

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: It feels very powerful.

NEIL: I totally get that. I mean, it’s how I feel when I turn on the air conditioning and I think how my cat understands that. I mean, air conditioning is horrible and I don’t like the feeling of it, but I often wonder if it’s like, “Wait, not only can he make it be light or dark out, but he can also change the climate.” This connects to privilege, but I also love the feeling of simply being inside when it’s raining and seeing that thing of there’s the rain out there and I have this thing that makes it so that the rain isn’t landing on me.

MONIQUE: Then you can go into a room of your house and create a rain space.

NEIL: Exactly. I wonder if that’s the German word for shower, rain space. That’s rain space. Do you speak German?

MONIQUE: I don’t, but that’s so funny that you would ask that because I was just listening to a German radio today.

NEIL: Okay. Because one can. Is it like talking … It’s like the rain space of the audio space.

MONIQUE: I was doing it because … Okay, the most recent novel, The Sweetest Fruits, the German translation is out. It just came out in January. My books do oddly well in Germany and it was just recently named … Like among the literary critics, they have this monthly list of books, top 10 books that they wish that readers would discover and read. It’s not the bestselling, but it should be, that kind of idea. For the month of June, The Sweetest Fruits is number two, which is really-

NEIL: Cheers.

MONIQUE: Yay. Thank you.

NEIL: As it should be. You all in Germany, you don’t know what you’re in for. You are in for a real treat.

MONIQUE: There I was listening because they did a 15-minute long presentation with a host and two literary critics. I mean, I’m assuming this based on what I can gather from Google translate. Talking about the book. Yeah. I was listening to that, even though I don’t have any German, but it was still fun to hear Lafcadio Hearn and Rosa and the names of my characters mentioned.

NEIL: That sounds wonderful. Oh my God. Didn’t the Greeks, or maybe it was the Romans, would invite people from other … I’m sure inviting wasn’t the right word. In either classical Greece or Rome, they would have people who spoke other languages simply in public speaking and people would just listen to the sound of the speaking.

Monique’s novel, Bitter in the Mouth

MONIQUE: Wow.

NEIL: That could be an urban myth. We’ll see. I feel like some very enthusiastic classmate of mine in college told me that.

MONIQUE: An urban Greek myth.

NEIL: Exactly. Exactly

MONIQUE: I love that. I hope it’s true.

NEIL: Well, I’m going to get all my fact-checkers on it.

[NEW CARD] When homemade bread is just past its prime, how the memory of it in its prime shapes eating it in the present. Very relevant during COVID times. Also-

MONIQUE: Exactly.

NEIL: I mean, I was making bread before this, but yeah. What does that mean for you?

MONIQUE: Yeah. Well, right. I also made bread pre-COVID and bread, I have to tell you, is one of the very first things that I made as a kid in the kitchen. Does that even make sense?

NEIL: Yeah. Absolutely.

MONIQUE: Yeah?

NEIL: Kitchens, making bread.

MONIQUE: I know, but-

NEIL: Childhood. All the elements stand.

MONIQUE: Okay. We can get back to that, but I think it’s because so much of the pleasure of food for me has to do with memory.

NEIL: Aha. That makes sense.

MONIQUE: Right?

NEIL: Yeah. It’s certainly how it lives in your work.

MONIQUE: Yeah. Yeah. I think what I have realized over the years is that the memory is often so much better than trying to recreate the memory. Yeah. The simplest way of thinking about it is, should you wait until you get that beautiful sun-ripened tomato that you get in the middle of the summer? Not in New York, but maybe if you are lucky enough to go somewhere. Do you know what I mean?

Monique talked about food and cooking for Food and Wine Magazine.

NEIL: Yeah. I wonder if maybe the way that it doesn’t live up to that memory can be actually great in that it buttresses the original memory. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Well, this is nothing like that.”

MONIQUE: Right. Yeah.

NEIL: That’s interesting. That’s a more hopeful reading on the card than I have. For me, it’s a little bit about whenever I look at someone who is currently young and beautiful, I can’t help but mentally age them and think like, “Okay. Well, this is what they’re going to look like when they’re maybe still beautiful, but not young.” I would say the flip of this card really lives for me too.

NEIL: When I’m eating homemade bread that’s fresh, I will sometimes think like, “Okay. Well, this is fleeting. It’s not going to be this way. What is this going to taste like tomorrow?” I guess that does help me appreciate it in the moment, but it also just highlights the absolute ephemerality of that experience, and by extension, absolutely everything. It’s a real mortality moment somehow. The trajectory between fresh bread and our own death is so direct.

MONIQUE: Yes. Do you ever do the reverse, Neil? When you look at someone who is old, do you ever see them as their younger self or imagine?

NEIL: Yes. Yeah. Oh, I love that. That’s a delight.

MONIQUE: Yes.

NEIL: I mean, how can you not look at an old person and do that? I think maybe if I’m just real … old person, whatever that means. I think if I’m really committed to not liking someone, I may not do that process, but otherwise it’s one of the great options that’s available

MONIQUE: That’s what I miss about riding the subway. You know?

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: Because you have all that time to look at these strangers and imagine things about them. I remember once seeing an older man and a younger man sit back to back. You know?

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: They did look like the younger man was the younger version of the older man and vice versa and I mean, really looked like before and after. Yeah. I mean, there were something so uncanny and wonderful and just fabulous about it. I miss that.

NEIL: Me too. The smell of food at the end of life. I thought about this because I had COVID and it was mild. It lasted for a long time, but it was mild. I didn’t have any of the scary respiratory symptoms.

MONIQUE: Oh my goodness.

NEIL: By the way, so many people reported losing their appetite. I super didn’t. I was hungry all the time. Anyhow, it was like a little preview of death, if I can be melodramatic. Just in that it’s like, “Wow.” One felt the effort that it took to simply stay alive. That sounds way more dramatic than what the experience was. I found myself thinking like, “How is food going to smell at that point at which you’re transitioning out of life?” For instance, when my father was dying, just to go right there, there was a lot of handholding and there was a certain point that he pushed my hand away and I believe the hospice nurse had said that that may happen.

NEIL: He died pretty soon after that. It felt like I could totally imagine that like, “Okay. Listen, I have to go die now and so I have to disconnect.” I think this card partially comes from that feeling that I was reflecting on during COVID of like, “Well, I wonder if that happens with food at a certain point.” It’s like, I have to disconnect from the process of nourishing myself and continuing to live.

MONIQUE: Right. Wow. The first thing that comes to mind is one of my pet peeves in life is once your meal is done and the dirty dishes are still on the table and the half-eaten food are still in their bowls or whatever, I can’t stand the smell of that. Yeah. Because the experience is over, right?

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: I think in that way, I would imagine that I may have the same feelings about the smell of food at the end of life, that the experience of the pleasure of food, the community of food, that food brings with it, all of that, that is coming to an end as you say. Yeah, and so let’s not linger, maybe. Yeah.

NEIL: Next card. The ugly look of people selling things. I find anyone in a sales context to me somehow looks ugly. Maybe it’s by virtue of their need, I guess maybe it’s my problem with neediness or something.

MONIQUE: Yeah. I think for me, I equate that with the desperation.

NEIL: Yeah. Yeah.

MONIQUE: Right?

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: I see … You know what? That’s also something I’ve been thinking about a lot because folks I know who are writers and performers all of our gigs have been canceled, right? All the book tours, all the readings and all that, so it’s all gone online on Zoom and so on. Talk about desperation. I mean, we are at the height, we are at peak desperation. I say this because the paperback edition of The Sweetest Fruits is coming out at the end of June. I’m going to be that desperate author.

The Book of Salt, Monique’s first novel

MONIQUE: I don’t know if I could do it, Neil. I really don’t. I mean, so what’s the alternative? You just sit at home and hope for the best with Amazon? I mean, that seems absurd, but again, I really don’t know if I could do it.

NEIL: I hear you. What keeps you going?

MONIQUE: I feel the pause is very long here on my part. I mean, this question takes on such weight now, right?

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: I think about this morning, waking up and not wanting to get out of bed, what got me up. Well, an answer certainly is knowing that we would have this conversation. Yeah.

NEIL: That makes me so happy.

MONIQUE: Yeah. I suppose it’s looking forward to the interactions that I will have with people that keeps me going. I mean, people that I choose to be with and to know. Yeah. I think that’s my response.

NEIL: I love it. I love it and it makes me happy to figure in your response. Then, the last question is, when social distancing is over, what are you looking forward to?

MONIQUE: Again, I think it would have to go back to something as lovely as sitting around a table with friends and having a dinner party.

NEIL: Decadent.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: Risky.

MONIQUE: Risky. Right. I have to say that I qualify that looking forward to a meal as being a dinner party, as opposed to going out for a meal with friends because I actually don’t miss restaurants at all the way that they’re configured now.

NEIL: Me neither.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: I mean, this is really telling me and I wonder how much is it going to shape behavior? I always had the inkling like, “Wait, I don’t feel about restaurants that other people seem to.” It’s just utterly confirmed during this time. I am not fucking missing restaurants.

NEIL: Are you talking though about you’re not looking forward to them given that they have that social distancing or just generally your feeling about restaurants?

MONIQUE: Generally. Generally, because New York is so full of places to sit down and have a grand meal, simple meal but it’s so rare that a place is truly hospitable. You know?

NEIL: Yes. Yes.

MONIQUE: Right?

NEIL: Yeah.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

NEIL: Totally. Well, on that note of hospitality, Monique Truong, thank you for that hospitableness of being on SHE’S A TALKER, even though I feel like, I guess I was hosting you, but in any case, I appreciate it so much.

MONIQUE: Thank you so much for having me on, Neil.

NEIL: Cheers.