Alyssa Patterson, “Self-Harm and Identity”

Self-Harm and Identity

Both “My Year of Meats” and “The Book of Salt” portray characters that use self-harm as a means to gain control over an otherwise repressive influence.  Akiko and Binh, respectively, live in environments where they are restrained.  For Akiko, this restraint comes in the form of her demanding husband and a society that believes that this is expected.   Similarly, Binh’s restraint is also society backed.  He is from French colonized Vietnam, and is trying to make a living in Paris.  As a colonized person, Binh is viewed as a tool and a worker to most Parisians, an idea that mimics the larger view colonizers have towards whatever land they are colonizing. Binh, although now in a more egalitarian environment of Gertrude Stein’s apartment, is used to working odd cooking jobs in France and being treated like “the help.”  The same way Akiko’s husband distills her entire being into just a wife, French society strips Binh of any of his cultural background and labels him as simply a cook.  Both Akiko and Binh struggle to express themselves under the strain of their environments, and both fall into the destructive behavior of self-harm to accomplish this.

Akiko is a Japanese housewife who is unable to meet either her husband’s or society’s prescribed standards for a woman and wife. Her husband, John, becomes an especially integral part in the downturn of her mental and physical health.  The very conception of Akiko and John’s relationship is a harbinger for Akiko’s self-destructive behavior to come.  Their bosses brought them together in a manner that assumed that Akiko, being twenty-nine, should be desperate enough to accept any marriage proposal.  From the beginning, we see the connection between John’s presence and Akiko’s inability to eat.  At the dinner their bosses arranged, Akiko says that “her throat had constricted and she could barely swallow” (pg. 96).  When Akiko finds out that John wants a second date, she comments again about her throat “constricting” (pg. 97).  There are various ways stress shows itself in the human body, and for Akiko it is an inability to eat.  This anxious behavior, characterized by restricting food consumption when in high stress environments, leads to Akiko’s self-induced vomiting. Although self-induced vomiting is often associated with bulimia, this is not the case for Akiko. Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and purging through self-induced vomiting.  Although Akiko forces herself to vomit after eating, her reasons are wholly different than what bulimia would suggest.  She uses vomiting to experience a semblance of calm.  Vomiting’s intended function is to rid the body of something toxic and often the one that vomits experiences a rush of relief after the incident.  Akiko revels in that mimicked feeling.  A passage earlier in the novel lends an explanation for why Akiko would want to feel “empty.” Jane, one of the Americans working on the television show, “My American Wife,” says that the show works off of the premise that filming the abundance of American grocery stores would “induce in our Japanese wives a state of want (as in both senses, ‘lack’ and ‘desire’)” (pg.35).  This assumes, correctly in Akiko’s case, that many Japanese housewives are unfulfilled.  When reflecting on how she became involved with John, Akiko realizes that, “at the time, when the prospect of a good marriage was offered to her, she’d never considered the possibility of an alternate desire. She had simply been grateful. But now, after more than three years of marriage, she realized she might have had plenty of desires, but she gave them all up before she even knew what they were” (pg.97).  Similar to how people with eating disorders say, upon recovery, that they were subconsciously trying to create a body that matched the sickness of their minds, Akiko keeps her stomach empty to match her hollowness.  Before marrying John, Akiko was happily employed writing Mangas.  Her new married life, however, is characterized by both physical and verbal abuse.  Like those predisposed to self-harming behavior, Akiko’s first instinct after dealing with John is to hurt herself.

A defining aspect of Akiko’s self-harm is that she specifically vomits meat.  Her aversion to meat comes from John’s involvement in “My American Wife” and his subsequent requirement that Akiko cook and eat each meat dish featured on the show.  John’s insistence that she eat meat blends together with his insistence that they have a child.  She says that, “She could not keep any life down inside her” (pg.38).  Soon Akiko associates meat consumption with her inability to conceive because both are “alive” entities that John forces upon her.  He chides and insults her for her inability to have a child, attacking her validity as a wife and as a woman, while simultaneously only allowing her to identify with either.  This leaves Akiko with nothing.  John traps her in the housewife position, and the only power she holds over him is having children.  In her household, John controls everything, but conception is the one thing that Akiko has complete power over. She not only defies him by throwing up the meat dishes, but by keeping her body weight low enough that she cannot conceive.  Subconsciously, Akiko’s self-harm is the means by which she enacts her influence.

In “The Book of Salt,” Binh uses self-harm as a way to remember his past and claim an identity.  In an encapsulated incident, the reader is told the story of Binh cutting his finger while looking up at his mother.  The cut itself is described as “threading silver into [his] fingertips” (pg.72).  His mother immediately rushes to comfort him.  This episode in Binh’s life becomes the precursor for his self-harm because of the intense sense of being loved he felt in that moment.  The phrase “threading silver” may seek to express the addition of value.  Silver is a precious metal, and in that moment Binh was incredibly precious to his mother.  This would then serve as a contrast to Binh’s current situation and suggest that self-harm is Binh’s only way to feel that he is appreciated.  Due to France’s colonization of Vietnam, the Vietnamese were forced into French society as second-class citizens.  In Paris, Binh can only access low-level jobs. He notes that, “most Messieurs and Mesdames do not want to think about it.  They would prefer to believe that their cooks have no bodily needs, secretions, not to mention excrement, but we all do” (pg.64).  He is aware of how little he means to many of the people he serves and turns to self-harm to bring back those feelings of value he felt in his mother’s kitchen.  He says, “the extreme cold or the unusual bouts of loneliness will trigger it” (pg. 65).   He mentions twice that self-harm makes him aware of his consciousness.  He says cutting himself, “gives me proof I am alive, and sometimes that is enough” (pg.65) and deems it a “habit” that, again, “gives me proof that I am alive” (pg. 70).  For Binh, his self-harm allows him to feel a sense of belonging that he hasn’t felt since cooking with his mother.  He jokes that all chefs leave traces of themselves in their cooking, and by shedding blood into his, he forces the people he cooks for to acknowledge him, even if they do not realize it themselves.  He makes them connect with him.  He says, “I have shared nothing but the details of the many small deaths that I have inflicted, of how many of them are still required for a truly good meal” (pg. 70).  These “small deaths” are the pieces of his personality and identity that he has had to compromise to survive Paris.  Binh’s self harm serves as an outlet for his stifled individuality and harkens him back to a time when he felt fully himself.

Both Akiko and Binh use self-harm as a means to the greater end of recapturing control and influence in their lives.  Both are removed from a previous healthy environment, and are now suffering from the change.  In Akiko’s case, she uses self-induced vomiting to stop herself from conceiving to destroy John’s chance at having a family. This is the only thing she has over him. Similarly, Binh feeds unknowing customers food tainted with his own blood as a reminder to them that he is a person, not just a tool.  Though self-harm is destructive, those who engage in it often indicate that by hurting themselves physically, they hope to gain mental solace.  For oppressed characters like Akiko and Binh, self-harm is the only way they can force their oppressors to view them outside the frame they have created for them.  Akiko forces John to view her as a person because she doesn’t fulfill the qualities, he believes, of a wife, while Binh seeks to individualize his otherwise conformation driven position of a server.

4 Responses to Alyssa Patterson, “Self-Harm and Identity”

  1. Edward Columbia says:

    Great examination of these two instances of purposeful self-harm. I am wondering about a couple of things in the conclusion. The conclusion, in a slight deviation from the paragraphs on Akiko seems to suggest that her vomiting is intended only to wound her husband, as it is ‘the only thing she has over him.’ But, I would say that the motivation could be phrased differently, in a more Akiko-centric fashion, and you have already brought this up: she vomits to calm and protect herself. To say that she does so to destroy John’s dream risks stripping Akiko of distinct will, for that defines her only as against her husband, rather than for herself.

    My other question is, why the use of the word ‘tainted’ to describe the dishes into which Binh bleeds? ‘Tainted’ suggests a pollution, a corruption. Is that what you are going for? I feel that Binh’s bleeding is tantamount to a sacred rite. Perhaps those consuming the food, were they aware of the secret ingredient, would consider it ‘tainted,’ but to Binh these drops are an anointment.

  2. Erin Krebs says:

    Hi Alyssa,
    I was totally floored when you first introduced this topic, because I thought it was was one of the most original concepts I’d heard of. I really liked your discussion of Akiko. I think the reference to bulimia helps, but the distinction is clear and efficient. I really was impressed by the two-fold nature of the discussion of “throwing up.” I liked that you symbolically paid Akiko some respect in that you didn’t jump to attribute her actions to spite against him. You painted her throwing up as a kind of personal display or protest, and you allowed it to have the double-nature. I think the discussion of Binh shifted quite abruptly from a depiction of a transcendent type of cutting to a very intentional injection of himself. The line of intention is thin, but could be explored more in this paper. I loved this excerpt “He makes them connect with him. He says, “I have shared nothing but the details of the many small deaths that I have inflicted, of how many of them are still required for a truly good meal” (pg. 70). These “small deaths” are the pieces of his personality and identity that he has had to compromise to survive Paris. Binh’s self harm serves as an outlet for his stifled individuality and harkens him back to a time when he felt fully himself.” I wonder if there is something to be explored regarding how necessary these characters feel their self-harm is to their lives. Binh feels it is necessary for a good meal, and says it outright. Does Akiko ever say that she needs vomiting in the way Binh connects to it?

    Thank you for a great read!

  3. Jamie Nguyen says:

    Hi Alyssa,

    I enjoyed your portrayal of rebellion and protest by Binh and Akiko. I found your prose to be interesting and admire the insight into the lives and motivations of these characters. I feel as if, however, that your argument could be better flushed out with more commentary that adds to enhancing a singular argument instead of creating slight deviations from your main point. Overall, I believe your examination of these two characters effectively helped to convey people’s need for control.

    Peace,

    Jamie

  4. Emily Xiao says:

    Hey Alyssa,

    This is a really cool examination of self-harm in relation to both individual and systemic oppression, one that furthered my own understanding of these novels. Your consideration of both levels of oppression, for instance, helped me situate Akiko’s inability to eat during her first date with John less in terms of John himself, at least at that point, than in terms of the societal norms that make that date happen in the first place –– after all, as you point out, it’s considered strange that Akiko is still unmarried at 29. Later on in the essay, I especially loved this point: “[John] chides and insults her for her inability to have a child, attacking her validity as a wife and as a woman, while simultaneously only allowing her to identify with either.”

    Something I do continue to wonder about, though, is how deliberate/conscious Akiko’s eating disorder is. While, as you discuss thoroughly, Binh’s cutting is quite intentional, does Akiko actively see value in her self-harm the way that Binh does? Even if she doesn’t, does that make her act any less influential? Something else that would have been nice to develop more fully is how “successful” Akiko and Binh are –– i.e., do they actually manage to change their oppressors’ understanding of them, as you claim in the final paragraph? I think, as Edward mentioned, that it’s more productive to center these discussions on Akiko and Binh themselves, rather than those they are interacting with.

    Another thing that you mention in the conclusion is that self-harm is indeed physically destructive, but these characters find mental solace in it. I still find it deeply sad, though, that self-expression is so intertwined with self-destruction in these novels –– which perhaps speaks to the unique traumatic potential of oppression, through which being oneself can often be at odds with being healthy/fulfilled. Are there any constructive alternatives? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thanks for sharing!!

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