Book Review — Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Rating — A tentative 3/5

Oh boy…

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden tells the story of Sayuri, a young Geisha formerly known as Chiyo, living in depression-era Japan. It is a bildungsroman (or ‘coming of age’ story) that tracks her life from a young girl living in a rural fishing village to an affluent young woman finding love in Kyoto…

I have one of those cool posters that lists a collection of classic books that you scratch off once you’ve read them. You can get them for movies, tv shows, life skills, camping… you name it, there’s probably a scratch off poster for it.

I’m starting an English Literature degree at the end of the year, so I have been eying up that poster a little more than I did before. I was scanning the list, wondering which one I would scratch off next. I was in the mood for something straightforward and accessible (in that moment I had a bit of a headache). So my eyes were avoiding works like Ulysses and Les Miserables. Then, gleaming in the centre, was Memoirs of a Geisha.

I stared at that little square for a while. I knew that the book was popular but controversial when it was published, and has since not aged well. I’ll admit, I feel a bit of trepidation writing this review as a white westerner. But a white westerner had the gall to write it, so I should have the gall to critique it.

I went into reading this novel knowing that it wasn’t written by an American man, I also knew that this book sparked a defamation lawsuit between the author and Mineko Iwasaki, a famous Geisha who was interviewed by Golden during his research. I was aware that it re-affirmed the stereotype that Geisha were sex-workers, which I knew (from a night of binge-watching of Geisha documentaries) was as true as saying that an emcee was a sex worker.

So, I felt as though I was prepared to read this, and that I wouldn’t get sucked in too much. I guess I wasn’t expecting Arthur Golden to be such a good writer, and I got utterly enamoured with the first few chapters.

In retrospect, this makes sense to me. This book was written for a western audience. It tapped into all the stereotypes of the mystical orient that I am now trying to unlearn since reading this book. The protagonist even had blue eyes, which somehow made her prettier and more valuable. I doubt this characteristic would have shown up if it wasn’t written through a western-gaze.

Let's set the dodgy plot aside for a minute. This novel is very well written, particularly in the opening chapters. It struck a good balance between keeping a good pace and taking time to explore little moments with some powerful (sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrid) imagery. The characters are fleshed out fairly well, there are alliances, betrayals, jealousy, all that fun stuff. There are sweet moments and sad moments; all the makings of a good novel.

Sayuri and her sister had essentially been trafficked out of their hometown into the city of Kyoto. Sayuri was sold to a Geisha house, and her sister was sold to a brothel. I kept dipping in and out of the internet just to fact check. Traditionally (as in, at least a century ago) Geishas were trained from a very young age. Some were the daughters of Geisha, others were sold to Geisha houses.

Indentured servitude is also a bit of a trope in the bildungsroman. The prime example is Oliver Twist, who was sold into an apprenticeship with an undertaker. Though it was horrible, Sayuri’s origin story made some sense to me.

It was in the second half of the novel that I started to get miffed.

In case you’re unaware, a Geisha is an Artisan, not Courtesan. They make their money by entertaining. This can include: dancing, singing, playing traditional Japanese instruments like the shamisen, and maintaining a relaxed party atmosphere. They’re also known to practice calligraphy, poetry, and floral design. In essence, they are very talented and disciplined artists. Memoirs of A Geisha sort of explains this, but the dance lessons, shamisen practice, and witty conversations are mostly filler. The focus is on Mizuagi, which is the root of all this controversy.

Mizuagi means ‘hoisting from water’, and the traditions around it are quite complex. For both Geisha and Oiran (or high-ranking courtesans) it was the coming of age period that marked the end of their apprenticeship. For a young Oiran, it included the selling of her virginity. For a Maiko (apprentice Geisha), it centred around ceremonies and celebrations as the Maiko graduated into geisha-hood. On rare occasions, a Maiko’s virginity was also sold, but this was in no way the norm.

A huge chunk of Sayuri’s arc is centred around her Mizuagi, which controversially focuses on the auctioning of her virginity. This novel is set during The Depression, and I think that if it was presented a little differently, Sayuri undergoing this horrible ceremony could have been a sad but powerful part of the story.

I wished that there was more resistance to this plan. I wished that there was at least one character openly objecting to putting Sayuri’s virginity up for sale because she is a Geisha, not an Oiran. Then the focus is less so on the commodified sexual mystery of Sayuri, and more so on the horrible decisions that female artists and businesswomen had to make to survive in a patriarchal society undergoing economic hardship. But no, instead they fetishize sexual purity and present the virginity auction as just another tradition. Gross.

After Sayuri has her virginity auctioned off, Golden basically writes her as if she’s a courtesan that can play a mean shamisen. I have no issue with a novel about a sex worker, but the title is Memoirs of a Geisha, and as previously mentioned, Geishas aren’t sex workers. It implies that it is expected that geisha sleep with their patrons, and a Geisha’s job was purely to stupefy and titillate men. When in reality, a Geisha isn’t expected to do any more than a bit of friendly flirting.

I’m not going to ruin the ending in case you still plan on reading it but let me warn you that it made me want to deface the book. Sadly, it was a library loan so I had to make do with petulantly chucking it on the returns rack.

Now I’m not saying that all historical fiction must be 100% historically accurate, that would be boring. But I think if your story is set in a country and culture different from your own, you need to be a bit more careful about the way you present it. For Memoirs of a Geisha, the inaccuracies are all in aid of pushing the steamy romance. This would have been fine if it was about an Oiran, it would have made perfect sense. But it’s about a Geisha, and it’s probably about a Geisha because western audiences are more familiar with the word ‘Geisha’ than they are with Oirans.

I’m planning on reading Mineko Iwasaki’s memoirs Geisha of Gion as soon as I can, and if you want to read a book about Geisha and actually learn something about the Geisha world, go and read that. If you still want to read Memoirs of a Geisha, then go ahead, no judgement. I don’t think that novels should be avoided because they are controversial.

Just don’t read it passively; engage with it and question it. Ask yourself why this type of culturally voyeuristic storytelling is so popular in the west, and what can be done to stop it from being so icky.

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