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I got this book basically because it was a best-seller near the top of various LibraryThing lists and easily mooch-able. It is the story of Nitta Sayuri's apprenticeship and youth as a top geisha in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto, in the period before, during and after the second world war; and how she eventually acquired a powerful patron who allowed her to move to New York.

I wasn't really sure about the book at first. The writer is a white man trying to depict the world of an Asian woman living in a secretive sub-culture. We get a lot of interesting plot about Sakuri's relationships with the men and women in her life, but surprisingly little, I thought, about the music, literature and dance that the geisha were preserving and propagating. The potentially vivid background seemed to me a little out of focus.

I was dismayed on further research to discover that my suspicions were well-founded. Mineko Iwasaki, Golden's major research source, sued him for, as she saw it, misusing the confidential information about the geisha lifestyle that she had given him (eventually settling out of court). Part of this may have been the inevitable dismay people suffer when someone takes their story and fictionalises it - remember the howls from some of the Maguire Seven at the liberties taken with events in In The Name of the Father? But one crucial scene - the auctioning of Sayuri's virginity, a practice described by Golden as mizuage, which occupies a key narrative point in the very middle of the book - is according to Iwasaki completely fictional; she stresses that there is absolutely no element of prostitution at all to the geisha system, at least as she knew it in the 1950s.

This is a pretty serious matter, which undermines the credibility of the entire book. Iwasaki may be kidding herself, of course; but her assertions cast a dubious light on on Golden's reliability and motivation, and convert his writing from fictionalised documentary to an erotic Orientalist fantasy of cultural appropriation. I didn't actually enjoy it that much, but would have felt somewhat soiled if I had taken it on its own merits.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 15th, 2009 01:10 am (UTC)
It's a lot more complicated than that. One of the reasons for the lawsuit was that Golden credited Iwasaki as a source, instead of preserving her anonymity. Naming her meant that her clients could potentially be identified.

I've always been rather dubious about the book - essentially someone's edited self-serving account of their life retold through the lens of a westerner, and I'd agree with the orientalist label. I'm not sure that it's really cultural appropriation in the usual sense though.

Another interesting thing is the reaction to the film version - there were strong objections from both Chinese and Japanese critics. The main bone of contention on both sides was that Chinese actresses were used for the main roles. I think cultural appropriation was the last thing on their mind.
Apr. 15th, 2009 07:34 am (UTC)
Also see Liza Crihfield Dalby's Geisha (the experience of being a geisha recounted by an Amercan woman who became one as an anthropological project), where the whole prostitution issue is mentioned, and it is pointed out that it is not what a geisha is.
Apr. 15th, 2009 10:49 am (UTC)
On the other hand, Dalby does seem fairly sure that mizuage *was* the sale of a meiko's virginity. I suspect that the truth is actually somewhere between MoaG and GoG, and I can certainly see why the one emphasised it and the other downplayed it.

I love both books: MoaG is more of a readable romance, but GoG has more interesting background detail.

(I'm also slightly dubious about some of the things that GoG claims, tbh: I don't really think that her work schedule, for example, was viable.)
Apr. 15th, 2009 09:00 am (UTC)
Coming from a friends-of-friends page, so speaking as a complete stranger:

I had a near-identical reaction to the book when I read it, and just wanted to offer my agreement. I saw Memoirs as treading the line between historical fiction and cultural appropriation, a very Western and commercial take on a would-be Japanese story—from the exaggerated haiku-like images and sentence structure to the hot-topic sexualization of geisha.

If the book were less popular—and goodness knows hadn't become a film—I don't think it would have bothered me so much. But it worried me that Memoirs would be the introduction to geisha/that aspect of Japanese culture for a lot of its audience, and it's just not the right form or quality, or nearly accurate enough, to make a decent first (and for some people no doubt only) impression.

And it's just not an outstanding book, setting aside.

So in short: you're not the only one to have worries like these. The book bothered me an awful lot.
Apr. 15th, 2009 09:17 am (UTC)
I shared your reservations, yet found it compelling and couldn't put it down. Which is odd as I have less than no interest in the domestic and love stories.

At the time I had a lot of time on my hands and made the mistake of reading alt.gothic.fashion, on which forum there were a bunch of women going on about tea ceremony & making up kimonos and how awesome it would be to be a Geisha, whereas all I could think was "HAVE YOU MISSED THE SLAVERY ASPECT COMPLETELY THEN????".

Because that was the sum total of what I took away from the book - I could absolutely not get past that.
Apr. 15th, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
My introduction to geisha was John Ball's Miss One Thousand Spring Blossoms, which I remember very fondly and reread several times. Ball was/is much better known as the author of In the Heat of the Night (the Oscar winning film starred Sidney Poitier) and other thrillers and mysteries. This one is a tender love story of a US engineer who falls in love with the eponymous geisha, and ends up quite convinced of the superiority of Japanese technology and culture.
Apr. 19th, 2009 12:03 pm (UTC)
I read it some time ago and remember being struck by the fact that all the positive reviews cited on the cover etc were coming from Westerners.
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