Truong, Monique. The Sweetest Fruits. Perth: Upswell Publishing, 2021. RRP: $29.99, 310pp, ISBN: 9780645076325.
Patricio Lafcadio Hearn was born hungry. I could tell by the way that he suckled. (7)
‘Sugar and cornbread led me to Lafcadio Hearn’, Monique Truong begins the afterword to her novel The Sweetest Fruits, released in Australia by Upswell Publishing (291). In researching geographic differences in cornbread recipes, Truong discovered a short biography of the writer in an encyclopedia of southern United States food culture. She describes how the ‘unusual and geographically hard to place’ name caught her eye, and how Hearn’s travels from the Greek island of his birth, to Ireland, to the US, to Japan struck her as contrary to her own travels, as the child of a refugee family from Vietnam.
In this moment of connection, over food and travel, the seed of Truong’s novelisation of Hearn’s life was planted. The novel explores Hearn, not through his own stories, but through those of the women in his life: his mother, his former wife and his widow. The different voices create a multilayered account of Hearn, but also of the people in the shadows at his side, and in the shadows of history. The novel becomes more than a story about a writer, traveller and foodie. It becomes a story about people who are overlooked and unnoticed; a reflection on hunger, on home and how we know and understand ourselves through both. The prose, capturing conversational narration by three women, is rich, haunting and affecting. The stories layer rumour, fiction, truth and aspiration seamlessly, and create a picture of the writer Hearn, and the women who tell his story, in their struggles, contradictions and injustices.
In her afterword, Truong says of Hearn’s work: ‘Lafcadio’s journalism and travel essays, at their best, had captured the lives of people and communities in plain sight but were rarely seen or duly noted’ (295). The novel, too, captures voices from these communities, and perhaps more significantly, allows them to speak for themselves. Hearn’s widow, Setsu, captures this most clearly in the last section of the book, set in Japan. Setsu narrates her story to Hearn himself, though she calls him by his Japanese name Yakumo, and recounts a conversation with their eldest son Kazuo:
Kazuo then wanted to know why I was nowhere else in your book. He asked this of me as if it were proof that I did not exist, that this body was not of bones, of flesh, and of his same blood. […] Kazuo at fifteen now demanded to know why Papa wrote that a jinrikisha man, not Mama, had been Papa’s travelling companion on that boat.
‘I was the jinrikisha man.’ (254)
Story by story, Kazuo asks his mother about the travelling companions his father left unnamed in his works, and one by one, Setsu confirms that each was her. She observes that minor characters in Hearn’s journeys were named, but not his Japanese wife. ‘Such courtesy would have pleased me too, Husband,’ she says in closing (255).
The power of the writer to shape the narrative to their own ends is alive through each page of Truong’s recreation. Hearn wrote about ghosts, and people who were forgotten or downtrodden, but carried the prejudices of his age in his words. Truong, too, chooses to give voice to people who were not recorded, recasting Hearn’s story in new light, and giving each character their name, their past and a future of their own.
Althea Foley, Hearn’s first wife, was born enslaved, presented as a wedding gift and sent to live away from her mother who she still searches for years after slavery ends. She works as a boarding house cook, and when Hearn publishes a book of creole recipes after they separate, she wonders aloud how he has captured the food that the ‘heart remembers’:
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. (162)
But Hearn was separated from the food and scents of the place of his birth when he was surely too young to remember it. And thus his story is also a search for home, whatever that may be, and the journeys of a man who strives to create a home, despite his lifelong sense of not belonging.
As a fictionalised life-story, The Sweetest Fruits is rich and evocative, and offers a fullness not just of Hearn’s character, but of the context and people he lived with. It shows his naivety, as well as his race, gender and class prejudices, in a way that other observers would not feel so keenly. It also celebrates those observers, and their contributions not only to Hearn’s story, but as bearers of stories, deeds and aspirations of their own.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction and short, creative non-fiction. Her writing has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and more. Her manuscript ‘In the Morning I Rise’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.