After first reading Memoirs of A Geisha, I thought I enjoyed it. If you had forced yourself through four hundred pages in a day in a half, you would be trying to convince yourself that you hadn’t just sacrificed a handful decent hours of sleep for a book you didn’t really enjoy. But then, when we started talking in class about Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of A Geisha, and I realized why I struggled to like the book. The main character possesses no character, and someone with all of the experiences this character faces–being sold into sex trafficking, losing her sister, discovering her sister became a prostitute, being beaten for disobedience–I wanted to see how she felt about each moment along the way. This life unique to a geisha is vastly different from my own culture, and hearing the details of kimono’s is interesting, but I struggled to connect with a character who was so passive. Now, the culture would demand her external passivity, but not the internal one.
The believability of Chiyo’s story as a geisha, each of the mishaps and the resulting consequences seemed more than realistic. Grappling with the realism of children being sold into the life of glamorized call girls isn’t too difficult a task, horrifying yes, but not incomprehensible. But our protagonist Chiyo wasn’t pro anything. Her terror, her confusion, her hurt should have been so blatant that I felt it through the pages. Chiyo maintained little agency, even in her own feelings, and that resulted in my disconnect with the book as a whole. The words and descriptions of the culture and lifestyle of a gesiha were lost in the lack of depth, the lack of feeling Chiyo conveyed. The book ended up feeling rather “touristy,” an apt term someone came up with during class. And we all grabbed onto that as being exactly the way we felt. Memoirs of A Geisha tried to sell the “life of a geisha” experience, and we all seemed to struggle with this distance, this show we were being sold.
However, Mako Yoshikawa’s One Hundred and One Ways compelled me so differently. The central character Kiki worked through her depression through the novel, and I saw a person here, wanting a connection with her culture, rather than Chiyo who was a shell, with the images of a culture, but not the dynamics of one. One Hundred and One Ways described the life of a woman connecting with her Japanese heritage, while simultaneously hating for being seen as nothing more than her culture. Kiki’s desire to be seen as more than just a face is so human that I could imagine Kiki as being a person in front of me, rather than a vessel for cultural content. The daughter of two Japanese American immigrants, Kiki constantly wants advice from the grandmother she never met, a retired geisha who surely knows plenty about love, and could provide the much needed wisdom Kiki desires in muddling through her own loss. Yoshikawa’s One Hundred and One Ways is a charming read, but not a light one, detailing the life of a person struggling with the depression of loosing a loved one, as she simultaneously grapples with her own culture and her placement in it.
Moreover, I find that books should provide a different lens for viewing the world, where the reader can live a different life from their own, even if it only lasts for a few hundred pages. An level of understanding of cultural dynamics and sensibilities can still be garnered in that amount of wordage. Now, the author in the process of writing, in developing a character and story should enter into a clearer connection with the culture they choose to inhabit for the duration of a book. Arthur Golden dismissed the entire culture he just finished detailing for the reader. The geisha culture is all about discretion and secrecy, and the geisha whom Golden interviewed for this book agreed to the interview under the assumption that her identity would be kept confidential. He revealed her name in the acknowledgements page. Golden committed the ultimate crime in the writing business, revealing your anonymous source. In that regard, I have no respect for Golden as a writer, but he also failed to truly comprehend the culture he wanted to unveil, dismissing one of the primary pillars of that lifestyle.
However, Mineko Iwasaki, the geisha whom Golden interviewed, has written her own book, Geisha, A Life, which has landed a priority placement on my list of books to read. So, if you want, you can read Memoirs of A Geisha, but bear in mind the author’s mishaps and my cautionary words.