Thursday, November 15, 2018

Memoirs of a Geisha - #GreatAmericanRead

The results of the Great American Read are based on a survey in which 7,200 “demographically and statistically representative” people participated by naming their favorite novel. Number one is To Kill a Mockingbird.


One of the 100 novels I read at the time of its original publication (1997), Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, made the list at #45. Especially worthy of discussion today because of the ongoing controversy about cultural appropriation, Golden wrote from a female’s point of view, a Japanese woman’s life before and during her experience as a renowned geisha in Kyoto circa World War II. The story begins:

Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.”

Arthur Golden was born in 1956 in Tennessee. According to the Penguin Random House bio, Golden “was educated at Harvard College, where he received a degree in art history, specializing in Japanese art. In 1980 he earned an M.A. in Japanese history from Columbia University.” He also worked in Tokyo. The research for Memoirs of a Geisha included interviews with Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha, who later sued Golden for misrepresenting her experience.

When I read the bestselling novel in the late 90s, I loved the story and the characters. I remember thinking at the time that this male novelist had bravely taken on the challenge of telling a woman’s story from a time in history he had not experienced, from a country in which he’d spent only a brief amount of time, and about a culture he could never fully understand. Nevertheless, I knew it was fiction and, from the acknowledgements, was confident it was well-researched. At the time, nothing else mattered.

What a difference a couple of decades can make. Today, cultural appropriation restraints are placed on writers, actors, artists, and filmmakers as well as children in Halloween costumes and adult fashions. Are there rules that must be followed? Does anyone know?

In a 1999 interview for CNN Book News, Miles O’Brien asked Golden, “What's it like, sitting there at the computer keyboard, trying -- as a white male, trying to put yourself into that skin?”

Golden responded, “You know, I think that it's pretty much like writing anything else in fiction, in the sense that even if you sit down and try to imagine a story about somebody who lives on a street you've never seen, you really can't escape the hard work of just bridging this divide between you and an imagined other.”

Fast forward to 2017 when Keith Cronin writes In Which a White Guy Talks on Cultural Appropriation on the Writer Unboxed blog, Although focused mainly on the opinions others have expressed, Cronin seems to lean slightly toward the political correctness point of view. He seems apologetic about tackling topics outside his personal experience…but he does it anyway.

In Cultural Appropriation in Books for Young People, a 2016 post written for We Speak Japanese and English, a blog of an American mom in Japan, the author discusses her years of experience in the country and culture and whether she as a white woman can include Japanese characters in her books for children.

In another 2016 article, What Do Writers Have a Right to Write? for Publishers Weekly, Dan Blum dares to defend a writer’s right to experiment and exercise the full range of imagination. Blum says, “… a novel is an act of empathy. It requires getting into the minds and motivations, the joys and heartaches, of people outside of ourselves. If that empathy extends to another culture, shouldn’t this be admired and appreciated—even if the result is imperfect? Isn’t the ability to imagine what the world would look like from someone else’s perspective essential to being a writer?”

Each of the above articles mentions Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.

Cultural appropriation discussions will continue for some time, I’m sure. But if a white male author is only permitted to write novels from a white male’s point of view and from personal experience…what use is imagination? Authors might as well be restricted to writing memoir.



Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Colorado Sun/Colorado Humanities weekend SunLit feature.

15 comments :

  1. A book I read some time ago about Greece as a seafaring country emphasized it's utility in disseminating borrowed bits of culture throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is, by now, impossible to sort out what is uniquely of any particular culture. Umbrage should be reserved for intentional appropriation for purposes of ridicule.

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  2. I loved that book and thought it well done. As an author, if we are limited to our personal experiences, we wouldn't have much to write about. I certainly didn't live in Ancient Greece. JK Rowling had never been to Hogwarts. Is there a time when writers are highly disrespectful toward a specific group? Yes. I think it is important to avoid racial and gender stereotypes. However, I think cultural appropriation extremists go too far in saying others cannot celebrate a culture, era, or locale. You can't have diversity in stories if they are constrained by only characters the same as oneself. I also disagree with banning books that represented the viewpoints the characters had at the time, such as Little House on the Prairie. If we cannot bravely face down past mistakes, we cannot learn. Those stories reflected the times from specific characters' POVs The past, as written by the conquerors, was "WASP" and "male" washed. We can and should do a better job of representing the realities and viewpoints of the conquered and underrepresented. It is time for Herstory and minority stories and unpacking the rich history of the "others."

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    1. I agree, Diana, especially the point about rewriting or hiding history. Knowing our past is essential to improving our future.

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  3. The joy of writing, of sharing the fruits of our imaginations with eager readers, seems to be in jeopardy. Sounds like some of us may soon be "banned in Boston" as well as in a lot of other places. Where does the freedom of crafting a great story end and censorship begin?

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    1. Well, there's something to be said for getting banned. Sometimes the controversy will boost sales. :D

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    2. In the blog section of my website, I have addressed the hazards of relating real experiences without protecting the source of those experiences as well as any others involved. This is where reality meets the challenge of imagination and creativity. Check it out at LSLaneBooks.com

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  4. I read the book as part of a college class and really enjoyed it. I had no idea about the controversy—thanks for the post, Pat. Reading the article you linked to at the "Independent," I can definitely see both sides of the story. I have a Japanese friend and so can somewhat understand what Mineko must have felt when reading the book, but can also understand how Golden might have been blindsided by her reaction. I think you have to be doubly careful when writing another's story. Golden said it was fiction but I can see how in Mineko's world she would have suffered humiliation. Totally agree that authors should be able to write any character they like and also fear the age of radical political correctness, but at the same time if you're using another's story and actually naming that person, I think you have to add a layer of care to the final product that takes that person's life and well being into account.

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    1. Yes, Golden got in big trouble for not keeping Mineko's identify secret...and mixing fiction in with her truths which put her in a bad position in her own community. If we're going to write about a real person, I'd see keep the genre non-fiction and keep it real. (Of course, when some celebrities, keeping it real could get us in trouble too). :D

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  5. I liked it too. Not sure if I gave the author or the validity of his experience much thought at the time. It's worth pondering.

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    1. I think I liked it better when I didn't think about the author's and character's cultural identity. When I read fiction, I'd like to just read and enjoy.

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  6. Terrific post, Pat, and I loved your closing: But if a white male author is only permitted to write novels from a white male’s point of view and from personal experience…what use is imagination? Authors might as well be restricted to writing memoir.

    Some people do have a right to take umbrage with a way they are portrayed in fiction, but that is taken too far in this PC environment.

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    1. I agree, Maryann. There's a responsibility we bear, when we write about characters different from ourselves, to portray those characters without resorting to stereotypes and caricatures.

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  7. Maybe I'm the only person in the universe who hasn't read this book :-} but you hit the nail on the head with the bind that present-day writers find themselves in. We can research lives outside of our own experience and do what we can to portray them accurately in fiction, but in the end, we're still outside the window, looking in. Does that mean we shouldn't *try* to write about what we see?

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  8. Read with interest as someone about to publish a story from a young woman's POV. I like Golden's statement that “You know, I think that it's pretty much like writing anything else in fiction, in the sense that even if you sit down and try to imagine a story about somebody who lives on a street you've never seen, you really can't escape the hard work of just bridging this divide between you and an imagined other.”

    Nonetheless I had a couple of women beta read my draft to ensure there were no dreadful errors :-)

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