In her debut novella, Empress of Salt and Fortune, Vietnamese-American author Nghi Vo delivers an intricate, layered story that explores the interplay between ghosts and memories, gender and power, truth and history.
Spirits haunt the Anh Empire. Flesh-eating ghosts roam the land in search of prey, the heartbroken turn into animals out of grief, and mischievous fox spirits play tricks on the eyes. Yet some individuals seem more troubled over the untold tales of the dead. On their way to the capital for the new empress’s first Dragon Court, Cleric Chih and their tongue-in-cheek assistant, Almost Brilliant, a neixin with perfect recall and a store of memories passed down through the generations, learn about the declassification of the sites that the recently deceased Empress In-yo had put under imperial lock. Chih and Almost Brilliant happen to be near Lake Scarlet, the haunted site where In-yo held court during her time in exile. Eager to uncover its secrets, Chih decides to make a detour there, where they learn the compound’s other name, Thriving Fortune—a joke among In-yo’s female attendants, who resented her, but ironically appropriate because of its role in In-yo’s rise to power.
At Thriving Fortune, Chih meets another ghost of sorts: In-yo’s common-born handmaiden, Rabbit, so called for the size of her two front teeth. Her position made her privy to many of the empress’s secrets, some of which could undo In-yo’s lifework if revealed. But even after In-yo’s death, Rabbit continues to hide in the empress’s shadow. She offers few details about her own life and asks instead for a chance to “do proper honor to those who have died” (p. 90). Her request invites the question: what details will she choose to include? And which people will play a prominent role in her story? While Almost Brilliant commits Rabbit’s words to memory, Chih—and therefore the reader—must listen to Rabbit’s story with a discerning ear and determine the truth for themselves.
Memories of In-yo haunt the items that she left behind. As Chih catalogues the contents of Thriving Fortune for their abbey’s records, Rabbit interrupts Chih’s work to tell the stories behind In-yo’s possessions. These moments recall our world’s oral traditions, in which elders blend fact and fiction in the folktales and histories they pass down to the young. Chih plays the role of the grandchild as they listen and learn from Rabbit. Rabbit plays the role of the elder entertaining and educating the young. From Rabbit, Chih learns to pick out the crucial details in the elderly woman’s stories, for Rabbit, a teacher to the very end, dances around the truth, leaving it for Chih to infer. Yet, in telling In-yo’s story through her handmaiden, Nghi Vo subverts the authority of history makers, for Rabbit’s relationship with Empress In-yo calls into question her reliability as a narrator and, by extension, how much truth makes it into history.
Members of Chih’s generation know In-yo as the Empress of Salt and Fortune, who united the north and the south. They have romanticized her through dozens of plays and popularized her look in their hairstyles and accessories. History perceives In-yo as the breeding tool for their future emperor. Once she gives birth to a prince, the emperor banishes her from court. Rabbit knows In-yo as the heartbroken and lonely girl sent to fight alone in a foreign court. And she honors the woman who proved herself strong and clever, fierce and angry. On a more personal level, she remembers the woman who snored with satisfaction, ate spring radishes like a country girl, and did a great deal of business from her bed. Empress In-yo belonged to Anh, but the woman In-yo belongs to Rabbit.
Rabbit’s stories weave together the tapestry of In-yo’s rise to power, but also the history of the people whose lives In-yo influenced. Through these people’s stories, Rabbit demonstrates how the past impacts the present and how history belongs to all of us, not only those who lived it. As Rabbit later observes of Chih, “The cleric looks at Thriving Fortune and sees the history they own as a subject of the empire” (p. 82). The cleric who once sought to make a name as the first to unearth Thriving Fortune’s secrets has learned to appreciate its rich history and place themselves within its fabric. This tragic, haunted history testifies to the oppression and discrimination of a people who remain silenced and nameless. Though Rabbit does not identify herself as one of them, she belongs to this group of people, for she never shares her given name, nor does she provide facts about herself beyond the information pertinent to In-yo’s story. Chih, too, belongs to this group, for as a cleric they record everyone’s story but their own. The tale that Rabbit weaves belongs to them just as much as it belongs to In-yo and the named heroes of history.
After a lifetime spent keeping In-yo’s secrets, Rabbit has learned to speak in riddles and metaphors. Some truths she never expresses outright, though she hints at them. These truths depict an elderly woman reflecting on the events she has observed from In-yo’s shadow, and a loyal handmaiden coming to terms with her experiences as a pawn in her empress’s game of politics and power. Rabbit reveals the extent of her loss when she tells Almost Brilliant about a personal moment that holds little significance to In-yo’s rise to power, but which makes real the people who sacrificed themselves for In-yo’s gain. Rabbit recalls In-yo’s words to her: “I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught. I will not take more unless you tell me it’s all right. Do you understand?” (p. 102). Rabbit’s response (she did understand) invites the reader to ponder over what understanding lies between the two individuals, who came from opposite ends of the social spectrum. We may never learn the full history between In-yo and Rabbit, but what we do know reveals that they shared more commonalities as women than they had differences as master and servant.
Chih tells Rabbit, “Sometimes the things we see do not make sense until many years have gone by. Sometimes it takes generations” (p. 26). Only now that In-yo has passed away can Rabbit find the words to honor the dead. Even then, she worries that a lifetime of reflection has proved insufficient. She expresses her concerns when she says, “I know that there is only so much time left, and it will never be perfect” (p. 90). She can only trust future generations to glean the truth from her words. Readers will find themselves counted among this number, for Empress of Salt and Fortune acquires depth across multiple readings. With each reread, Rabbit’s carefully chosen words and phrases gain new meaning and disclose new truths about their object.
Poetical, lyrical, and haunting, Empress of Salt and Fortune gives a working girl’s perspective on wide-sweeping events. In the process, it presents the story of the woman behind the legend who united the north and the south. On a more personal level, it tells the story of two heartbroken and lonely women who gave up everything to fulfill their duty.