Friday, August 27, 2010

Synthesia: The Taste of Slightly Burned Toast

It’s always like Christmas coming early when Poets & Writers Magazine arrives in my mailbox. The September-October issue is no exception.

The first article I read (with relish) was Rachel Kadish’s “Facing the Fear.” Her words confirmed those written by Laurel Ingalls Wilder in an old episode of “Little House on the Prairie” that I was watching while working out on the elliptical the other day. (I read/watch a broad spectrum of work.) In the “Little House” episode, Laura went to the city to meet with editors about her first book-in-progress, and learned some hard lessons about holding onto herself in the face of big financial offers that were attached to corrupt editorial control. One of the editors took her to dinner one night, and as he proceeded to get drunk, Laura reprimanded him for not continuing to work on his own novel… for hiding his fear of failure in alcohol. (If you think “Little House” is tame, you haven’t been paying attention.)

So, I continued my feast with a listing of writing contests, submission deadlines, craft articles, and finally, I dove into the cover story, “The Taste of Memory: A Profile of Monique Truong,” by Renee H. Shea. I was fascinated on several levels.

First of all, the courage it took for Truong to face down her hurtful past and write her second novel, “Bitter in the Mouth,” which comes out August 31.

But what caught and held my attention most was Truong’s use of the condition known as “synthesia,” with which she afflicts (probably not the best word—synthesia can be a blessing) her main character, Linda Hammerick. No idea what this is? I didn’t, either, so of course I Googled it, especially looking for its place in literature:

“Synthesia is a neurological condition in which one or more sensory modalities become linked. However, for over a century, the term synesthesia has also been used to refer to artistic and poetic devices which attempt to express a linkage between the senses. To better understand the influence of synesthesia in popular culture and the way it is viewed by non-synesthetes, it is informative to examine books in which one of the main characters is portrayed as experiencing synesthesia. In addition to these fictional portrayals, the way in which synesthesia is presented in non-fiction books to non-specialist audiences is instructive.”

I’m also fascinated that Vladimir Nabokov used synthesia as a romantic ideal in his book, “The Gift,” and then that Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky used it to combine color, hearing, touch, and smell.

How does Truong use it in “Bitter in the Mouth”? She was excited to learn that people with synthesia often have heightened memory, and she also saw it as a way to write about “the things I love: food, memory, and differences.”

I won’t spoil the rest of the article for you (read it in Poets & Writers!) but I will leave you with a small part of the excerpt included in the P&W piece. I guess we’ll all have to read the book to get the whole story!

Excerpt: Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong

“The truth about my family was that we disappointed one another. When I heard the word, ‘disappoint,’ I tasted toast, slightly burned. But when I saw the word written, I thought of it first and foremost as the combining or the collapsing together of the words disappear and point, as in how something in us ceased to exist the moment someone let us down....

”What was gone was gone. We just could no longer remember how we ended up with so much less of our selves. Why we expected nothing, why we deserved so little, and why we brought strangers into our lives to fill the void."


I can taste that toast, can’t you?

2 comments:

Nate said...

In King's THE SHINING, which also involves synesthesia, Mr. Howleran (sp?) describes the way a certain kind of event can leave something behind, "like when someone burns toast."

I'm a little spooked right now, as a matter of fact, just remembering that!

Mimi said...

Wow. How interesting indeed. I'll have to head to the bookstore and find a copy of the magazine.