Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.
I’m Australian. I really could have picked any book that deals with a non-Australian culture. I could have picked an English boarding school book or an American finishing school book. They’re both foreign cultures to me.
But the first and only book I thought about was Memoirs of a Geisha.
Memoirs was the first book I read after finishing my Honours degree. I was burnt out with reading, and hadn’t picked up a book for five months. I only read it because I was on holiday visiting my partner in England for five weeks and he insisted I read SOMETHING and I’d really enjoy it.
And I did.
Golden did a lot of research writing this book. He reported in the foreword that he’s still approached by people today asking if Sayuri is still alive and doing well, so realistic was the portrayal of Geisha life in Kyoto, Japan, before and after World War II, and the writing style of Sayuri’s flashbacks.
Not only is it extraordinary that Golden writes so perfectly from a woman’s perspective, but to write of a completely different culture so well is also phenomenal. I was completely immersed in the world and I lapped up every detail.
Memoirs is a special book because geishas are not meant to share the secrets of the trade. It’s supposed to be mysterious and there’s an actual code of silence they must follow. A retired geisha called Mineko Iwasaki, who herself was the most famous and popular of the geisha of her time, was interviewed by Golden as part of his research, and after he revealed her as a source, she was harassed for breaking the code, even though she retired in 1978 when she was 29 years old.
While yes, it is true that Golden has twisted the truth of the culture and made up some customs entirely not recognised by the geisha community, the parts that are accurate are a real insight into this mysterious culture. Memoirs was written to entertain, not educate – not really. It’s fiction, and should be taken with a grain of salt. Similarly the film adaptation concentrates more on Golden’s version of the world as fiction, not portraying the absolute truth.
Honestly, if you want to be educated, go and read Iwasaki’s autobiography Geisha of Gion, or read non-fiction books and watch documentaries. Memoirs is fiction. Some people forget this and criticise it for not being realistic enough.
This is my favourite book dealing with a foreign culture.