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The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong
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The Sweetest Fruits

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The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong
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Jun 30, 2020 | ISBN 9780735221024

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    Jun 30, 2020 | ISBN 9780735221024

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  • Sep 03, 2019 | ISBN 9780593148693

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Praise for The Sweetest Fruits:

A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice

Winner of the Binghamton Center for Writers’ John Gardner Fiction Prize

“A marvelous mixture of fact and imagination . . . Truong’s lush style is on gorgeous display in these pages, her imagery evoking hidden emotional depths . . . While the lives, loves and adventures of Lafcadio Hearn hold center stage in this novel, these are set off by a rich brocade of social critiques — of slavery, colonization and the repression of women. With great generosity and compassion, Truong explores the difference between writing and telling stories, with the question of who gets to speak and who remains silent.” —Diana Abu-Jaber, The Washington Post 

“A delicate, impressionistic tale . . . Truong is exploring personal memory in all its creative and contradictory subjectivity . . . [The Sweetest Fruits] is propelled not by action but by the retrospective piecing together that happens once a relationship is over. Spurred by nostalgia, regret, longing and anger, each woman examines her memories . . . As Setsu observes, ‘to tell another’s story is to bring him to life,’ but here it’s the women who achieve that feat rather than the man who connected them.” —Priya Parmar, The New York Times Book Review

“I’ve been addicted to Truong’s writing ever since her debut, The Book of Salt, a work of historical fiction incorporating real people that felt—unlike much of that genre—lush, invigorating, and real. Her third novel fictionalizes Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn but through the eyes of only his mother and his two wives—one a freed American slave, the other his Japanese translator.” —Boris Kachka, New York Magazine

“Monique Truong’s nomadic tale is a look at the storied life of 19th century writer and expeditionist Lafcadio Hearn through the eyes of the women who knew him best. Sweeping in scope and written in tight, precise language, it’s a read-into-the-night pick.” Marie Claire

“Truong transforms author Lafcadio Hearn’s biography into a revelatory mystery by giving voice to three women who shaped him.” —Jane Ciabattari, BBC

“Mesmerizing . . . Truong focuses on the mostly neglected women in Hearn’s life, imagining the struggles and sorrows of his mother, and, looking at him through the eyes of his two wives, imparts searing counterpoints to the iconic Hearn . . .  In going beyond the knowable and guiding us through the imaginable, Truong takes the measure of the man through his women in coruscating prose.” —Jeff Kingston, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Monique Truong brings to life brave, spirited women left out of a history that privileges what Toni Morrison called ‘the master narrative.’ In doing so, she humanizes rather than diminishes Hearn. Through disparate, often contradictory narratives, she invites further investigation: keep telling it slant, whatever it takes, to reveal, as Dickinson writes, ‘truth’s superb surprise’—that sweetest of all fruits. A worthy endeavor at any time, it’s an especially urgent one today.” World Literature Today

“A captivating work of historical fiction that flung me into three very different places in time around the world . . . [I was] so impressed with Truong’s ability to write in such disparate voices and bring together a really original novel.” —Cathy Erway, HuffPost

“An absolutely brilliant intersection of fiction and history, politics and culture, love and loss.” —Hyphen Magazine

“Truong’s innovative narration gives us the stories of three incredible women right at the moments those stories are being repurposed or lost. Even more importantly, it shows us those erasures in process. . . . Truong’s genius for finding joy and life amidst trauma and dislocation ensures that the novel she germinated from the traces left by Patrick Lafcadio Hearn is filled with plenty and sweetness, too. In The Sweetest Fruits, even fragmented and forgotten stories offer sustenance. And in nourishing them it nourishes us.” Believer

“Truong is among the most talented literary fiction writers working in the United States . . . [The Sweetest Fruits is] an exciting new development in her writing career . . . For anyone whose life feels overshadowed by a more powerful figure, or even just not centered at any point in life for reasons beyond one’s control, reading [this] novel can be a vindicating experience.” —Rei Magosaki, Los Angeles Review of Books

“An absorbing dive into disparate places and societies, [The Sweetest Fruits] illustrates the critical roles women have played in the accomplishments of men. It also offers an intimate portrait of each region’s food culture, told through its characters.” Food & Wine

“An inspired look at one of the most original characters of the 19th century.” Mental Floss
“Truong deserves considerable praise for [this] beautiful, complex story . . . As a moving, poignant novel, [The Sweetest Fruits] is magnificent; as a recontextualization of malestream history, it is long overdue.” —PopMatters

“The globetrotting 19th-century writer Lafcadio Hearn may be at the heart of Truong’s entrancing novel, but it derives its power from the sequence of three women who loved him . . . Truong’s smart novel, told in evocative, lush language, raises important questions.” The National Book Review

“A glorious imaginative reclamation of the stories of those who loved and nurtured [Lafcadio] Hearn and his storytelling.” —Electric Literature 

“In The Sweetest Fruits, Monique Truong does what she does best, painting a vivid portrait of privilege, restlessness, and tenacity through the conflicting experiences of characters grappling with their senses of love, family, and home.” —Kevin Chau, Lit Hub, “Most Anticipated Books of 2019″ 

“In this globetrotting, luminous novel, the three narrators offer an honest, contradictory portrait of the man they knew that highlights the social expectations of their gender, race, and class for their time. Like [Truong’s] first novel, The Book of SaltThe Sweetest Fruits leads readers [into] a sweeping narrative that poses questions about belonging, existence, and storytelling.” —Kate Gavino, The Millions, “Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview” 

“[A] sparkling, imaginative historical novel.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“Without ever giving him a voice, this thoughtfully crafted, brilliantly researched novel is an intimate look into [Hearn’s] strange, storied life.” —Columbia Magazine

“[Truong’s] sweeping prose lifts up the unsung women behind Hearn, a man larger than life in part thanks to those whom history has failed to note.” —Observer, “The Must-Read New Books of Fall 2019”

“[A] remarkable novel about love, the power of memory, and betrayal . . . Truong is dazzling on the sentence level, and she inhabits each of these three women brilliantly. Truong’s command of voice and historical knowledge brings the stories of these remarkable women to life.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Extraordinary . . . by reclaiming these exemplary women’s voices, Truong enhances history with illuminating herstory too long overlooked.” —Terry Hong, Booklist (starred review)

“It isn’t only the fantastic Lafcadio Hearn who springs to new life in these pages. The women around him do as well, even as they mix the extraordinary and the ordinary in an exhilarating new way. The Sweetest Fruits is brilliant and heartbreaking–I was transfixed.” —Gish Jen, author of Typical American

“Monique Truong has composed a sublime, many-voiced novel of voyage and reinvention.  It will cross horizons, yet remain burrowed in your heart.”  —Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena 

“Intimate and sensuous yet majestic in scope, The Sweetest Fruits is a rapturous, glorious novel, extraordinarily alive to the world.” —Idra Novey, author of Those Who Knew
“Presented in four courses from the perspective of the women closest to him, The Sweetest Fruits is a feast you’ll want to devour for its arresting metaphors and its beautiful prose.” —Anita Lo, author of Solo: A Modern Cookbook for One

“[Truong] imagines the extraordinary lives of three women who loved an extraordinary man [and] creates distinct, engaging voices for these women . . . Bold [and] original.” Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Monique Truong:

“Impressive and ambitious . . . An irresistible, scrupulously engineered confection that weaves together history, art, and human nature . . . Displays the author’s supple imagination on every page.” —The Los Angeles Times on The Book of Salt

“A debut novel of pungent sensuousness and intricate, inspired imagination . . . A marvelous tale.”Elle on The Book of Salt

“A deeply compassionate and artfully crafted novel about being foreign and family at the same time by the writer whose debut, The Book of Salt, swept us away.” —O: The Oprah Magazine on Bitter in the Mouth

Author Q&A

Q&A with Monique Truong

The Sweetest Fruits follows the life of nineteenth-century writer Lafcadio Hearn. How did you decide to tell his story?

In 2009, sugar and cornbread led me to Lafcadio Hearn. My second novel, Bitter in the Mouth, set in a small town in North Carolina where I grew up, was coming out the following year, and it would include this passage:

My great-grandfather Graven Hammerick, upon his return from New Haven, was said to have refused the cornbreads served to him by his mother because they weren’t sweet enough for his northern-influenced palate. Because she couldn’t stand the sight of him not eating, his mother always had a batch made just for him with heaping spoonfuls of sugar added to the batter, but she also made it a point to wrap . . . [them in] a black cloth before bringing them to the table. She wanted to remind her son that something inside of him had died.

As the author of a previous food-centric novel, as well as articles for Gourmet, Food &Wine, and The New York Times’s Dining section, I knew that a surprising number of my readers would have deep historical knowledge of regional cornbread recipes, and they would agitate and foment if my assertion, vis-à-vis the sugar distinction, were made in error. I needed to have a published citation from a trusted source. I needed cornbread corroboration.

In my small but overstocked kitchen in Brooklyn, I had culinary reference books of all kinds, and among them was The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 7: Foodways. As I flipped through its pages, I spied an unusual, geographically difficult-to-pinpoint name: “Hearn, Lafcadio (1850–1904),” identified as a “journalist, author, and illustrator.”

The entry began with his birth on the island of Santa Maura (now Lefkada, Greece); described a lonely childhood in Dublin, Ireland; then an emigration to Cincinnati; and a subsequent migration to New Orleans, where it revealed his contribution to the history of Southern food:

Opened the short-lived 5-Cent Restaurant and collected recipes of local dishes. Hearn published these recipes in 1885 as La Cuisine Créole, which became the earliest published collection of New Orleans and Louisiana recipes . . . [, which] continues to serve as an invaluable record of the history of Creole food, New Orleans, and Louisiana.

The entry then shared Hearn’s entirely unexpected second act:

Hearn moved to Japan, taught English, changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo, married a Japanese woman who was the daughter of a samurai . . . and continued his voluminous writing. . . . Hearn secured a place in history after publishing numerous volumes . . . particularly Japanese fairy tales.

I reread the apocryphal-seeming nub of a biography. Little of it made sense to me, the sentences harboring a random collection of facts and locales. I sensed that all the good bits—the crackling in the cornbread, if you will—were missing, and set out to discover more.
This is in large part a novel about the recovery of lost and forgotten voices—specifically the voices of women. Readers meet Hearn through the eyes of the women in his life and, through their stories, also discover a trio of tenacious, brave, and inspiring women largely left out of the historical record. Who are Rosa, Alethea, and Setsu? What can we learn from them?

The Sweetest Fruits is told from the perspective of the three women who knew Hearn best: Rosa Cassimati, Alethea Foley, and Koizumi Setsu. They are joined by a fourth, Elizabeth Bisland, Hearn’s first biographer, whose excerpted book serves as the historical framework and a counter narrative to the novel’s own. Refusing to be overlooked, dismissed, and forgotten, the trio steps forward, each with a singular purpose in mind:

Rosa, on a ship in the Irish Sea in 1854, is leaving Hearn, her four-year-old son, behind in Dublin. Heavy with guilt but guided by fate and faith, the two forces that have shaped her life, she wants him to know why she is no longer with him and dictates a letter in the hopes that he will one day read it.

Alethea, in Cincinnati in 1906, has just learned of Hearn’s passing, two years after the fact. Her husband, whom she met when she was a cook at his boardinghouse and he an aspiring journalist, left her nothing in his estate and a soon-to-be-published biography is intent on erasing her from his life. Speaking to a reporter, Alethea asserts her claims both to his property and his life story. Born an enslaved person in Kentucky, she reveals what attractions had brought them together and what youthful hubris had torn them apart.

Setsu, in Tokyo in 1906, stands before Hearn’s photograph at the family altar. Upon his passing, he was a celebrated author, her husband, and the father of their four children. Tasked with writing a memoir of her life with this writer who considered himself more Japanese than the Japanese, she has unleashed what would never be published, the truth of how they embarked upon their union as husband and wife and as literary collaborators. The pages that Setsu shares with him, departed in body but still present in spirit, are the unredacted, unvarnished, and untold story of how Lafcadio Hearn became Koizumi Yakumo.

During the lifetimes of the women in The Sweetest Fruits, writing and publishing were the provinces of men, with rare exceptions such as Elizabeth Bisland and Koizumi Setsu. Oral storytelling, on the other hand, belongs to us all. Too often it was the only thing that belonged to women who, like Rosa and Alethea, were denied the written word by patriarchy and by slavery, respectively. Their efforts to bring their stories to the page, despite the limitations and the odds, are emblematic of their will and determination to create lives unbounded by their eras, gender, or race.

Even when access to the written word is within their grasp, the stories proffered by women, like Setsu and Elizabeth, are often in service of others and not themselves. The aims of their books, Reminiscences of Lafcadio Hearn (1918) and The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn (1906), respectively, were to document, burnish, and protect the legacy of the “great man” around which they were seen to orbit like pale moons. The Sweetest Fruits imagines their voices, prior to the interventions, the compromises, and the eradication of their truths, which in the end are the eponymous fruits.
You say that you began your research on Hearn by reading his cookbook, La Cuisine Créole. What did you learn from his early writing?

On the pages of La Cuisine Créole, I got to know a Lafcadio Hearn who was an exceptional man for his time, one who reveled in the heady, exuberant mixture of peoples and flavors that greeted him in New Orleans. I also met a Lafcadio Hearn who was a man of his time, limited by nineteenth-century biases and blinders, a man who in 1885—two decades after the Civil War—did not include one word about slavery nor the labor of enslaved people who had made it possible for a household recipe to begin with a directive such as “take 100 oysters.” I found a man who had no qualms profiting from the work products and creativity of others with little or no attribution; a man who appreciated the company of women, in particular the single ones or the servant ones—in other words, a man who was a complicated piece of work whom I wanted to grab by his starched white collar and shake some sense into.

Some cookbooks made me want to cook. Lafcadio Hearn’s made me want to get into a fight. Do you know how novelists fight? We write a novel about you.
Hearn, in a sense, did the reverse migration that you yourself did, coming from Vietnam to America. Can you speak to how themes of immigration and migration are featured in the book?

When my family came to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War in 1975, I was six years old, and the decision to leave all that we knew behind—our extended family, our first language, all of the physical and emotional assemblage of home—wasn’t mine to make. It was a journey that changed our lives and, as my father would have told you, a journey that allowed us to continue living. For him, it was a clear-cut, life-or-death decision. I’ve asked myself many times if I would have made the same choice. Would I have been so clearheaded, mentally tough, optimistic, and brave? To me, these are the necessary traits that all immigrants must possess in order to leave, and then to survive.

In writing The Sweetest Fruits, I wanted to know what had propelled Hearn, and whether he, after circumnavigating the globe, had found what he was looking for. My gut told me that Hearn was hungry: for love, family, a sense of belonging, a daily meal that fed body and soul. A cookbook author, same as a food writer, was always hungry; an immigrant one was even more so, I knew. We, who make it our business to know the minutiae of the kitchen and the table, often carry within us an obsession: the keen desire not for the next filling meal but for the next fulfilling meal. The difference, we know, is not dependent upon the recipes but upon the cooks. We, who have immigrated to other shores, find that the pivotal ingredients—caring, empathy, affinity, communion, and love—can be scarce and difficult to source in our new home. We often find ourselves ravenous in a land of plenty.

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