Sunday, January 20, 2019

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

As a reader of bodice-rippers and books that are a part of the Luxury Suite Trash Experience™, I'm prepared to discuss how and when some of my favorite reads can be problematic. I don't feel bad about enjoying them but I do think it's important to have dialogues about why others might not, and why this is 100% okay for others to feel this way without having their opinions lambasted by stans. I, for example, refuse to buy or read anything by Orson Scott Card for personal reasons and once had an Angry White Man™ call me names for being unable to separate my personal feelings about what Card has said about the LGBT+ from my feelings about his books. We all have those lines that can't and mustn't be crossed, so I totally understand why others choose to get political with their wallets.

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA came under fire for multiple reasons, parts of which had to do with the book, and parts of which had to do with the film. The book has obvious surface issues, like cultural white-washing (giving the heroine blue-grey eyes, downplaying the tragedy of Hiroshima by portraying all American soldiers as fun-loving rascals who are definitely not rapey (seriously)), as well as presenting Chiyo's rise to geisha as a glorified Cinderella story shrouded in Orientalism (and some of the blurbs in this book really underscore that view with coded language, such as the Chicago Tribune's describing the book as "[a]n exotic fable" (emphasis mine) and Vogue's "a startling act of literary impersonation, a feat of cross-cultural masquerade" (emphasis mine). I'm not sure what "cross-cultural masquerade" means but it sounds unfortunately like, "literary yellow-face."

The deeper issue came with one of Arthur Holden's sources, an actual real life geisha named Mineko Iwasaki, who took umbrage with the way the details of her life were mangled in the telling of this novel. I had always been aware of the controversy, and knew it had prompted her to write a memoir detailing her life with more accuracy called, GEISHA: A LIFE, but only found out today while researching the background for this book that she apparently sued both the author and the publisher on the grounds that he had allegedly promised to keep her identity secret, and yet her name features prominently in the "acknowledgements" section of the book.

The movie was controversial because Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) were cast to play the roles of the Japanese women in the book. The response to this was the typical "white people who are of X descent play characters of Y descent all the time, and no one bats an eyelash," but the problem with that line of reasoning is that it assumes that actors of color have the same opportunities and varieties of roles open to them that white actors do, which isn't the case. Actors of color have far fewer opportunities, and when opportunities do turn up, they are usually type-cast. Memoirs of a Geisha was a beautifully filmed movie and I felt very grown-up when my mom took me to see it with her after I'd read the book for my high school book club, and it will always have a place in my heart, and I still admit that it smacks of cultural appropriation.

Getting to the book, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is one of those rare books that I have reread several times, and I consider it the entre to my love of epic stories and bodice-rippers. There is something so exciting about following a character from childhood and seeing them evolve and grow over the course of a novel, following them as they navigate new and exciting life changes and forge new relationships. Chiyo/Sayuri was a very readable protagonist and her goal - become a successful geisha  - is a very clear one to follow, and root for, because the Cinderella story is so universal.

Upon this subsequent reread, I did notice things that somehow escaped my notice before. Chiyo's detachment from her family, and her under-reaction by the news of their deaths was very strange. I was also bothered by the fact that she never met her sister, Satsu, again, as it kind of felt like the author had left the door open for that reunion, seeing as how Chiyo/Sayuri experienced so many other reunions in her life. I also remember feeling sorrier and more sympathetic for Nobu the first time around, but now, as an educated and wise woman, I see that he is one of those "nice guys" who puts women on pedestals and cannot forgive them for toppling or getting dusty. Even when Chiyo/Sayuri was in his good graces, he was so mean to her, and it was kind of hard to read about that this time.

There were also some wtf moments, like the mizuage scene (or the virginity auction), which I guess was one of the portrayals that Iwasaki was much more upset about. Then the man who buys Sayuri's mizuage takes the blood stained towel her maidenhead dripped on and puts it in a briefcase holding his virginity collection, or vials containing blood-stained fabrics from all the geisha he has despoiled. What a creep! I couldn't believe I'd forgotten the virginity briefcase. It reminded me of a scene from a historical bodice ripper I read about this Norman invader who had a necklace made of the pubes from all the women he'd raped. You can't make this stuff up, guys. Romance novels are the wild, wild west.

To the author's credit, he wrote a somewhat convincing woman, especially with regard to sex and her views of her body and her relationships with other women. While reading this book, I couldn't help but compare this to Jason Matthews's RED SPARROW, in which the heroine didn't resemble an actual human being so much as an emotionless sex robot. Sayuri had hopes and dreams, and Golden doesn't kid himself that pretty young women dream about banging geeky older men for their personalities or their pasty looks; Sayuri does what she does to survive, but she prefers men she's attracted to on her own terms and isn't truly happy until she settles down with someone who can give her what she really wants. It's such a simple thing, but so many dudes either choose not to understand this or don't want to understand this in their writing of women and man, it shows. So, kudos.

I enjoyed this book, problematic content and all. I'm sorry it caused pain, and controversy, but I am reviewing this from my own biased, privileged perspective as a white lady, so take my opinion with several grains of salt. It helps to read this as a trashy bodice-ripper and not as 'historical' fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

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