Saturday, May 16, 2020

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto saved my life (Book Review)

A woman in a white dress stands in front of a picture of a large bowl turned upside down
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto - 8/10

This was hardly the book where I expected to come in contact with the story of a transgender woman. Written in the 1980s, set in Japan, I picked "Kitchen" up because I heard Banana Yoshimoto was a great author and I try to read as many books by women as I can, and I am trying to broaden the number of Japanese authors I read as well. I had absolutely no idea what the book was about.

"Kitchen" tells the story of Mikage, a young woman whose parents passed away when she was young and who grew up in the care of her grandmother who passes away just as the book opens, leaving her without family or connections or money. Mikage is just a normal young adult, working a job, who is now alone. She will face a choice, a silly little moment one night, where either choice she makes is equally fine, but each choice will lead down a very different path for her and another person. That she recognizes this moment for its significance is the beauty of this novel and the ultimate takeaway for our own lives.

At the book's start, Mikage must mourn her grandmother, pack up her things, and move out of the house. A young man who worked at the florist her grandmother visited and who knew her grandmother quite well, well enough to even help out at the funeral, stops by with a question: move in with him and his mother. And with nowhere else to go, with no living relatives, with no real connections to anyone, Mikage needs this surrogate family in her time of loss.

She moves in and is struck by the young man's, Yuichi's, mother, Eriko. Eriko takes Mikage in and they form a close bond. It is from this point that the story reveals itself as a powerful mediation between the forces of grief and choice and love and opportunity. I say mediation, because it really looks at how those forces always co-exist and influence each other. (ps, I do mean mediation and not meditation - although the sublime nature of the writing does feel like a meditation as well). Both Mikage and Yuichi will suffer and where they go from that suffering brings this story through its arc.

And it is a powerfully moving arc. In many ways, I read this book at the perfect moment in my own life. Mikage and Yuichi's lowest low came just as I was experiencing my lowest low in my own 40 yeras. And as (overly)dramatic as this sounds, it was reading how Mikage pulled herself and Yuichi out of that low point that pulled me out as well. It quite literally saved my life. I won't get into the details and I'm quite safe and okay now, but I very well might not be here had I not been reading this book at that exact moment in my own life. That is how powerful both the story and the writing are. Of course, your mileage might vary (and hopefully you never get as low as I did), but I still suspect given the book's renown, that I'm not the only one moved by it.

So it's emotionally powerful and honest, the characters are interesting and real and flawed, and the writing is superb, even in translation. Superb writing and translation with the exception of one thing, how it talks about transgender women. Because it isn't long after Eriko is introduced that Yuichi reveals that his mother is a transgender woman. She is one of his birth parents, and she transitioned after his other mother's death.

I'm being careful with gender descriptors here, but the book isn't. At least, it isn't by today's standards. However, written 30 years ago, and who knows how accurate the translation is (done in 1993) it uses a lot of outdated terms and both Yuichi and Mikage misgender Eriko in a variety of ways at times, while being respectful of her - and very much in love with her - at others.

For example, Yuichi indicates to Mikage that "[Eriko]'s a man." However, today, someone who is transgender would never be okay with their son saying something like that so bluntly, and more to the point, many (if not most) transgender people today would say they never were their assigned gender to begin with, that they were always their true gender, just that a doctor got it wrong. So it was jarring to hear her son make clear that he still thought of her as a man, or did at least to some degree. 

I thought long and hard about whether Eriko might be a cross dresser instead of transgender, but again and again she refers to herself as a woman and his mother, and more often than not, Yuichi and Mikage do to. She is never presented as a man who is cross dressing, but as a transgender woman even if that term isn't used. It's just that there are times where both the children feel it is okay to joke about her being a man or being his dad in a way that feels hurtful to read, and maybe hurtful to Eriko if she were to overhear it. Again, maybe that was just the way it was in 1993.

Also, the term transgender is never used, instead, the book refers to her as a transvestite, which has a long history of both being used affirmatively and pejoratively and also meaning different things in different periods. Susan Stryker in her book "Transgender History" nicely lays out how its meaning has shifted again and again over time. So it's hard for me, reading only the English translation, to know what the term in Japanese was and what it meant at the time.

But even by 1993 in English, transvestite was not probably the best word choice. Transsexual would have been less cutting, even though I don't use the term for myself personally. But would it have been accurate? Was transvestite used in translation because Mikage and Yuichi were indicating some level of negativity towards Eriko's gender or gender presentation? I doubt it, they loved her too much. So I wonder if transsexual would also have been more accurate a translation? I don't know, I don't have the original text, and I don't speak Japanese, so I wonder if someone could help me out with this in the comments. But whatever the historical accuracy of using the term transvestite, it was disconcerting to me as a modern reader to encounter it.

And yet, despite the outdated term and the misgendering, the rest of the way that Eriko and her employee Chika (another transgender woman) were presented was strikingly sympathetic. Eriko, her strength, wisdom, love, and general "being" were portrayed so lovingly in the book. Something involving Eriko (that I won't spoil) forms the fulcrum for the story and emotional change in Mikage and Yuichi. Eriko is a very positive character in the book and is much loved. That being said, she is not immune from the prejudice, hatred, and dangers of being an out transgender woman in a conservative society 30 years ago. That complexity plays a pivotal role, but I want to avoid any spoilers.

To wrap up and summarize, this is the story of a young woman who loses her family, and starts to build a new family, new connections. She is profoundly moved by her time with these two people and yet, there is more sorrow and loss and grief in store for all of them. From there, the story comes to a head with a single moment, a single decision that Mikage must make. Go one way and life will unfold in one direction, go the other (an equally acceptable choice) and life will unfold a different way. That Mikage has this choice to make, recognizes in the moment that it is a choice at all, is the point we are to take away from this book. That there are simple moments that we will never get back and whose outcomes will shape everything despite their mundanity is a crucial lesson. That neither decision is good or bad, but only that two equally different and acceptable paths lead from every moment of choice. What will you make of yours when you recognize it?

"Kitchen" is beautifully written, and other than some issues with how transgender people are spoken about (and the translation may have affected this), the translation itself is beautiful as well. It is a book I can imagine reading and rereading and responding to it differently at different points in my life. But it also was so clear-eyed in its depiction of a real human moment (oh, how I wish I could spoil it for you, but I won't, but it's so simple and seemingly insignificant yet it caries such weight - ahhh what great writing) that it is writing that is sure to age well. "Kitchen" gets an 8/10 and my everlasting gratitude.

Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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