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GOING GEISHA
Written by Noy Thrupkaew
Part 2 of 5

After even more maneuvering, Sayuri manages to sleep with a man that both she and Nobu find disgusting in the hopes that Nobu would break off contact with her; but instead of being discovered by Nobu, as Sayuri had planned, the Chairman stumbles in. Just as Sayuri thinks all her hopes are dashed, she, the Chairman, and the readers are saved by a Hollywood ending and everyone lives happily ever after. (A Japanese ending would have had the Chairman and Sayuri fall in love and be happy for three seconds. Then, agonized over the betrayal of Nobu, they would wander off to commit suicide together, and the cherry blossoms would fall upon their cold, dead, but indescribably beautiful faces.)

The Author
Noy Thrupkaew

Noy Thrupkaew is the former associate editor of Sojourner: The Women's Forum, a 25-year-old national feminist publication. She writes frequently on international women's human rights, welfare policy, prison issues, and Asian and Asian American literature and film.

In September 2001, she will participate in a fellowship at The American Prospect in Washington, DC.

That's it? Is this why this book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 50 weeks? Because we like our Western ideology and fairy tales all dolled up in ornately foreign frills? Because we like to use other people's cultures to indulge our own dirty little fantasies?

Exactly, says Jan Bardsley, says Jan Bardsley, associate professor of Japanese language and literature at University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill. "The books about Japan that do sell have lots of detail, which makes them seem so 'different.' But the values in Memoirs are so American-the rags to riches tale, complete with an evil stepsister and stepmother. It's a hybrid of these American values-you gotta have spunk, believe in your American dream with all its suggestions of upward mobility. But to put in these geisha robes [makes it] new."

According to Duke University cultural anthropology professor Anne Allison, who interviewed more than 80 Memoirs readers, and examined Amazon.com reader responses to the book for a paper entitled "Memoirs of the Orient," readers delighted in the details in Golden's book. All those factoids about hair, kimono, dance training, and how to show your sexy arm while pouring tea give readers not only a feeling of being "swept away" from their "everyday lives," but of being "transported" by this "110 percent accurate" depiction of "a universe foreign to Western civilization." Some even find this work of fiction enormously "educational" on the subject of Japan. In the words of one Amazon.com respondent, "Orientals have always been a mystery, but this book taught me a lot."

But what exactly are Americans learning about? Geisha, a dying breed that in no way represents the women or people of Japan; and about something else, too-how impossibly foreign and different (in other words, bad) things are "over there." As one middle-aged man reading Memoirs on the train told me, "It's all about slavery-how barbaric is that? We got rid of that centuries ago."

Alison Case These kinds of readings not only reassure Westerners about the proper place of our enlightened culture against that of unwashed others, but they let us pull the wool over our eyes when faced with some truly sexist politics that are dressed up as "Japanese." Most of the women in the novel are horrible to each other, and the ones who have economic agency or who actively seek to succeed for themselves as geisha are depicted as grasping ogres. "Women in charge [in Memoirs] are the bad women. The good women are looking for true love. There's a certain American ideological investment in that," says Alison Case, an English professor at Williams College.

As for the positive relationship between Mameha and Sayuri, it turns out that the Chairman had told Mameha to take the girl with the startling eyes under her wing. A relationship of mentoring and sisterhood is revealed as nothing but Pygmalion by proxy. After Sayuri learns of the Chairman's actions, she says, "When my gaze fell upon my hands in my lap, I saw them as hands the Chairman had made."

Worst of all is the way that Sayuri pines for the Chairman for years after her short encounter. All her actions are dedicated to being with him-she finds no joy in honing her formidable dance skills, except as a vehicle to express her sorrow that the Chairman is not her patron, or danna.

But this kind of all-for-your-man attitude is not really authentic, argues Case. "[In real-life geisha culture] there is a culture of women's economic agency, and inter-geisha ties that take priority over those between geisha and men. The effacement of those from Sayuri's consciousness is clearly not authentic. The effacement serves the larger cultural resistance to perceiving women as active meaning-makers. It makes it easier to align Sayuri with passive womanhood, and the transfer of this American story to a Japanese setting provides a kind of fig leaf for that passivity."

In effect, a "Japanese setting" makes people feel like they are learning about the culture first-hand, when really they are just seeing a made-in-the-U.S.A. Japan that doesn't challenge "American values" but upholds them, Case says. "All of the cultural detail makes you feel like you are confronting the other, but you are only confronting your own cultural stuff in different garb. What makes it easy and pleasurable is that you are touring this world in a skin that is pretty much culturally your own. It's like staying in a hotel, going with tourists to a twenty-minute 'tea ceremony.' You're not going to have to kneel for three hours," says Case.

To read Arthur Golden's book - Memoirs of a Geisha, CLICK HERE! Memoirs, which is enormously popular among women, provides a kind of slipknot for readers who "[don't] want to think they were just reading a Harlequin romance," according to Allison. Case concurs, saying, "That drugstore plot has appeared over and over again. Women are buying those novels. They're kind of guiltily addicted, but Memoirs relieves that guilt because it is 'culturally educational.' And then you can distance yourself from that plot-instead of declaring, 'I don't identify with that, I don't want to be that passive,' you can say, 'she's a geisha, that's what it's like in Japan,'" Case says.

Memoirs also offers women readers a chance to experiment with a different kind of sexual identity-that of the geisha who both performs and is the subject of her own erotic femininity. The concept of conceiving one's own sexual identity is an important one, but the way it has been attached to such a negative, orientalist image is deeply troubling.

Just as troubling is the way readers, most of whom have never been to Japan or spoken to a geisha, have marveled at Golden's ability to capture the voice of a geisha so "accurately." That Golden is a white man gains him even more applause-"I couldn't believe the author was a white man," is the gist of many Amazon.com reader comments-in much the same way that a straight actor gets extra points for "acting" like a lesbian, or a "normal" one for playing a mentally challenged person. "Some readers even told me they liked it more because Golden is a white man-why would it be interesting if it was written by a Japanese woman?" said Allison.


* Part 3 * Part 4 * Part 5 * Part 1 *

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