"[Truong] imagines the extraordinary lives of three women who loved an extraordinary man [and] creates distinct, engaging voices for these women" (Kirkus Reviews)
A Greek woman tells of how she willed herself out of her father's cloistered house, married an Irish officer in the British Army, and came to Ireland with her two-year-old son in 1852, only to be forced to leave without him soon after. An African American woman, born into slavery on a Kentucky plantation, makes her way to Cincinnati after the Civil War to work as a boarding house cook, where in 1872 she meets and marries an up-and-coming newspaper reporter. In Matsue, Japan, in 1891, a former samurai's daughter is introduced to a newly arrived English teacher, and becomes the mother of his four children and his unsung literary collaborator.
The lives of writers can often best be understood through the eyes of those who nurtured them and made their work possible. In The Sweetest Fruits, these three women tell the story of their time with Lafcadio Hearn, a globetrotting writer best known for his books about Meiji-era Japan. In their own unorthodox ways, these women are also intrepid travelers and explorers. Their accounts witness Hearn's remarkable life but also seek to witness their own existence and luminous will to live unbounded by gender, race, and the mores of their time. Each is a gifted storyteller with her own precise reason for sharing her story, and together their voices offer a revealing, often contradictory portrait of Hearn. With brilliant sensitivity and an unstinting eye, Truong illuminates the women's tenacity and their struggles in a novel that circumnavigates the globe in the search for love, family, home, and belonging.
|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
About the Author
Hometown:Brooklyn, New York
Date of Birth:May 13, 1968
Place of Birth:Saigon, South Vietnam
Education:B.A. in Literature, Yale University, 1990; J.D., Columbia University School of Law, 1995
Read an Excerpt
Patricio Lafcadio Hearn was born hungry. I could tell by the way that he suckled. From the first time that his mouth found the nipple, he was not wont to let it go, his eyes opened and unblinking, watching and daring me to tug myself from him.
All babies were born with an empty stomach, but not all of them were born with such need in their eyes.
His elder brother, Giorgio, my first blessed one, had to be coaxed and tricked. The tip of my little finger dipped in honey was what he took first into his rosebud mouth. Then, patiently, I would guide him to my breast, where honey and milk would mix. This soothed him, but it was not enough to keep him. Giorgio shared my milk with Patricio for less than two months.
I beg of you do not call them "George" and "Patrick." It is not their names. Their father's language is not mine.
Even before I was certain that there would be a blessed second, I suffered his appetite, which was growing in me swift and strong. Patricio demanded of me the small things from the sea. Whelks, which no one sold because the people on Santa Maura, same as on Cerigo, the island where I was born, would not buy something that they could gather like pebbles at the shore. In the mornings, I would leave my first with Old Iota, the only woman on our lane with no children of her own, in order to bend over the wet sand until I felt light-headed or until my basket was full. Patricio wanted the whelks boiled, their spiral of flesh removed one by one. He allowed me olive oil and lemon juice with them but never vinegar.
When there was no longer a doubt and whelks became too difficult for me to collect, Patricio insisted on cockles, of which there were sellers because cockles were found on the sandbars far from shore, where the tide came in like the hand of God.
To lose your life for mere cockles is a curse as old as the sea, and may you never hear it spoken.
Like his father, Patricio disliked garlic. He purged me of all foods, even the favored cockles, if they took on its flavor. I would whisper to him that these cloves were the pearls of the land, holding them close to my swollen belly so that he could become accustomed to their scent, but he was not to be convinced. He emptied and emptied me again until I was starving. I soon gave up on the hope of garlic and steamed the cockles open with a sliver of shallot instead. Patricio could not get enough of those briny creatures. It took buckets of them to fill us.
During the last months when we were one, Patricio confined us to sea urchins, their egg-yolk bodies scooped onto chunks of bread. Every day, to make sure that we had enough, Old Iota paid four boys to wade into the shallows at low tides, where these spiny orbs darkened the water like the shadows of gulls flying overhead. Fattened on this fare, day in and day out, I took on such weight that I could take only a few steps around the bed, an animal tied to a stake.
By then Charles-the father of Giorgio, Patricio, and soon, God willing, my blessed third-was already on another island, in waters so far away that I could not understand the distance between us. Before his ship set sail, Charles had told me the exact nautical miles between the islands of Santa Maura and Dominica, but a long string of numbers was as useless to me as the letters of an alphabet.
When I open my mouth, I can choose between two languages, Venetian and Romaic, but on paper I cannot decipher either one. When I was young, I had begged to join my elder brothers in their daily lessons, but my father refused. He said that if I ever left his house, I would enter into the House of God or the house of my husband. In either structure, there would be a man present to tell me what was written and what was important to know.
My father was not thinking about a man named Charles Bush Hearn from the island of Ireland when he told me my fate. My father was not a man of original thoughts. He repeated what came out of the mouths of other men, primarily those of nobility, minor like himself. He taught my two brothers to do the same. They all believed that this echoing made them wise and far wiser than me.
To be a daughter is another curse as old as the sea, and I was born hearing it.
Giorgio was six months in this world, and Patricio was five months in me, when Charles left us in Lefkada town, on Santa Maura Island, in the care of Old Iota. When I first met her, I could see that she was not really old. I recognized her as the woman who lived a few doorways down from mine. She and I had never traded words. If I were to be honest with God, I never traded words with any woman on that lane until my firstborn, Giorgio, had left it shrouded in myrtle leaves. After my saint of a boy, my shadow of a child departed before a full year of life, I wanted to blame God, to curse Him with all the profane words that I had heard my brothers use against Charles and me, but I did not. I needed Him to be there for Patricio.
Giorgio had been denied the Sacrament of Holy Baptism because of my sins. The Orthodox Church did not want his soul when he was born to me, and the Orthodox Church did not want his soul upon his leaving me. There could be no funeral service for Giorgio among the Icons, the censers, and the beeswax candles. No "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us" intoned three times. No "Blessed are those whose way is blameless," which so rightly described my blessed first. No "With the Saints give rest, O Christ, the soul of your servant where there is no pain, nor sorrow, nor suffering, but life everlasting."
The full weight of what I had done broke me on that morning of sunlight and rain when I could not wake Giorgio from his sleep. I wanted to throw my worthless shards onto the cobblestones and let passersby grind them into dust with the heels of their shoes, but I had to gather them up for Patricio. I could not fail two sons. I did not know then that there would be a blessed third who, God willing, will be another son.
At the graveside, I held on to Patricio's sleeping body so tightly that Old Iota had to pull my arms apart so that he could breathe. There were three of us that afternoon, taking in air. The farmer, who had dug the small basin of dirt among his quince trees for an indecent price because he knew that it was there or the sea, refused to be present, as if hiding in his house meant that God would not see his greed. As sunlight poured down upon us, I knew in my heart that it was not God who had rejected my son. It was men who had rejected him. Perhaps that thought was another of my sins. Perhaps I added to my tally by intoning three times "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us."
Old Iota sucked in her breath when she heard those words coming from my mouth. We both knew that at the graveside they belonged in the mouth of a priest. But what was I to do in the face of absence and silence? Giorgio was my child and a child of God. I knew both to be true. I listened to my heart that day, and it was a fist pounding with anger. My heart opened my mouth. My mouth pleaded, even if to no avail, for my blessed Giorgio.
Cradled in my arms, Patricio slept. He must have felt my body trembling when the farmer emerged at last from his house to shovel dirt, cleaner than himself, onto my blessed one. Patricio must have heard the summer soil crumbling as it hit the myrtle leaves and then the small wooden box beneath. It was the sound of a sudden downpour, and it made me look up at the sky. The date of Giorgio's passing, August 17, 1850, I have committed to memory, but it was this rain of dirt that marked when my blessed one was taken from me, when the distance separating his body from mine became eternal. Words and numbers could never do the same.
On our lane, the mothers-previously so close-lipped, their eyes hooded in judgment-felt pity toward me. They came to my front door, in twos and threes, with whole walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds. In Lefkada town, these were offered for the remission of the sins of the recently departed. The custom was familiar to me, but their choice of offerings was not. Every night, I threw the walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds away with the vegetable scraps. Every morning, Old Iota picked them out, wiped clean their hard shells, and stored them in a clean cloth sack. By the end of the first week, she had enough for months' worth of baking. She was practical in ways that I had yet to learn.
I asked Old Iota if she knew what these mothers-I did not say "mothers," I said "hags"-had said about her when she was not in the room.
Without looking up from the eggplant peelings and the tomato seeds that her hands were searching through, Old Iota asked whether I knew that the walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds were not for Giorgio's sins but for mine. "On Santa Maura Island," she said, "the hags bring sugared almonds when a baby passes."
The women had whispered to me-as if Old Iota did not know the details of her own life and might overhear them and learn something new-a story that began with a sixteen-year-old Iona, as she was called then, the only daughter of a widower who married her off to the eldest son of a farming family, a day's mule ride from Lefkada town.
Iona did not meet her husband until the day that they received the Sacrament of Marriage. In a house in the middle of a sea of olive trees, Iona then gave birth to five boys in six years, but none of them had a heart that would beat for more than a month, the last one not even a day.
How many dishes of sugared almonds did Iona discard before she understood that there would be another? The mothers on the nearby farms would continue to offer them, a custom of the Orthodox Church but with roots that were deeper, older, and more practical. These mothers with their work-worn hands were guiding Iona onto her back again, so that she could be one of them again. They told Iona to eat half of the sugared almonds, to let their sweetness spread over her tongue, and then feed the rest to her husband with her fingers. This made Iona blush. "Another baby will soon grace you," said these mothers. They said "grace" to cover up the animal acts that they wanted for her, and Iona did as she was told.
Iona's last born died within moments of opening his eyes and was not baptized before he took his last breath. Iona's husband left her and the body of this baby, who would always be lonely in Purgatory while his four elder brothers had one another's company in the Kingdom of Heaven, at the front door of her father's house. That was when Iona first met the quince farmer with the small graves hidden among his trees.
At the age of twenty-two, Iona had nothing. Upon her return to Lefkada town, her neighbors gave her a new name and a new age. Her cheeks caved. Her breasts sagged. Her hair streaked with white. The black dresses of widows became her habit, and Old Iota became her name.
When Charles hired Old Iota, she was twenty-eight, and I was twenty-six.
It was the sixteen-year-old Iona whom I thought of whenever I found myself staring at her. I searched her forehead, creased like a slept-in bedsheet, her hands knobbed and full of bones, and I wondered if she ever felt graced by her husband, whether sweetness ever spread from Iona's tongue down to the rest of her as well. Whenever I thought about the animal that she once was, I knew that I was missing Charles, not with my heart.
I could not write to my husband of my thoughts for him, so I saved them for Holy Confession at the Church of Santa Paraskevi, where the Reverend Father would listen to my words until he stifled a moan.
Elesa, you hesitated at "moan." Did your mother-may she rest in peace-never teach you this word in Venetian? You can write it down in English, if you need. Patricio will know what it means one day.
Afterward, I intoned the Prayer of Repentance. Its last line, "Teach me both to desire and to do only what pleases You," was an honest plea. Then I closed my eyes and waited. In the darkness, the body I saw was not Charles's and certainly not the Reverend Father's, whose long beard was a bib for rusk crumbs and droplets of red wine. I saw the Son of God, His limbs gilded, His hair long and woman-like, His wounds displayed and unashamed. I had worshipped at His nailed feet since I was a young girl, and it was His body that I saw first among men. Without the image of the Crucifixion, how would I have known of a man's muscled thighs, his taut abdomen, and the mystery behind the cloth?
Of course you must write that down, Elesa. Patricio will read it and not blush. Nor will God. Do you think that He will deny me the Kingdom of Heaven? You have heard only the beginning of my story. God has other reasons to deny me, my dear.
Pick up the pen, Elesa. Did you make certain to bring enough nibs and bottles of ink, as I had asked? May I remind you that an arrangement is an arrangement. We are too far on the Irish Sea for you to change your mind now.
I will speak slower. You look out of breath already. It is important that you write down every word. Patricio, I know, will want to find me one day, and I want him to know where to begin.
Reading Group Guide
1. What similarities and differences do you perceive between Rosa, Alethea, and Setsu? How do their individual identities, intersected by race, class, geographic location, religion, and cultural context, factor into their stories and the ways they choose to tell them?
2. The Sweetest Fruits reconstructs and reimagines the lives and voices of the women in Lafcadio Hearn’s life who were previously lost to history. When Setsu asks their eldest son, Kazuo, to explain the difference between the English words reminiscences and memories, Kazuo declares, “Poets have reminiscences. Mothers have memories.” Discuss the gendered nature of stories and storytelling. Do you think that the stories of women—especially women who aren’t allowed or able to become literate and thus must rely solely on the spoken word—are relegated to a separate canon than the authors who are deemed worthy of print publication? How does this affect how the public receives women’s stories, both historically and in the present?
3. What role does food and cooking play in the novel? How do you think we use food to communicate with one another? Discuss some of the novel’s notable cooks—from Kanella (described by Rosa as “a very good cook but [an] even better broker of my father’s consent”) to Alethea and Pat’s relationship to her hot water cornbread. Recall Alethea’s opinion of Lafcadio’s Creole cookbook: “What I want to know is whether these were the dishes that they cooked in their own kitchens or in the kitchens of others. The two aren’t the same. The first is what they hunger for, and the second is what their hunger will make them do. . . . I can make [pork neck bones] in my sleep, not because my hands remember it but because my heart remembers it. I ask you how could a white man, Pat or Lafcadio, know how to cook something like that?” How is cooking an expression of identity, and how does it differ from other forms of self-expression?
4. Discuss the themes of travel and migration in the novel, both literal and metaphorical. Of Old Iota, a woman in Lefkada town whose “grief is her twin wherever she goes,” Rosa says, “She is, in this way, never alone. Born of grief, loss, tragedy or shame, such companions often follow the bodies of women. Men shrug theirs off by traveling afar, strangling them in foreign fields or drowning them in deeper waters.” Historically, men have been able to travel independently, to journey, to embark on expeditions, whereas women (like Rosa, for example, who must bask in the paltry freedom of walking from her father’s house to church alone), have typically been confined to highly regulated domestic spaces, until they accompany the men in their lives on journeys, not necessarily of the women’s own choosing. What compels us to wander? Is it because, as it was with young Setsu, we have “lost a home and [are] in search of another”? Is wandering thus essential to self-discovery and identity formation? Conversely, how do you think one’s identity influences one’s travel experiences?
5. Like many white Europeans before him, Hearn fashioned himself as an intrepid explorer and discoverer of different cultures, and he profited from sharing their stories, recipes, and more under his own name. What do you make of the relatively quiet but enduring public fascination with his work? What is your opinion of his complicated legacy?