Friday, 12 October 2018

Review: 'Kitchen' by Banana Yoshimoto

"The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me. Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. White tile catching the light (ting! ting!)."

If you have known what it is to feel displaced or lonely, it's very likely that you'll also understand the significance of place as something that can ground you and offer comfort. Since I turned 16, I haven't lived in one place for more than two years. 14 years on, I am still adjusting to the sense of permanency that has accompanied my recent move to the US. For the first time since I was a teenager, my feet are firmly planted in one country. While, for many, this thought might be a reassuring one, I've found myself engulfed by a truly bone-clenching sadness. I had become used to the constant moving, the feeling of 'not my home' that would be at least temporarily resolved by another relocation. Since I was 16, I have split my life - and, in many sense, my identity - between the UK and the US. It's a lonely feeling and one to which not many can relate. What I've come to realise, however, is that the shadow of loneliness I'd previously felt only took on a fully-realised form once I'd chosen permanent displacement. There will be no more shifting back and forth between countries. And so I've left part of myself behind permanently, in a place that will remain eternally static in my mind.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto picks up on a number of these themes. It follows the first-person narrative of Mikage Sakurai, a young adult living in Japan. Following the death of her only living relative, her elderly grandmother, Mikage is displaced. Drifting through the world with a profound sense of her own disconnection from those around her. Fortunately, she is taken in by Yuichi Tanabe - a young man who worked in her grandmother's favourite flower shop - and Yucihi's transgender mother, Eriko. This short novella (the story itself stands at just 105 pages) follows Mikage as she attempts to find a place for herself in a world to which she is no longer tied in any concrete sense. 

"Usually, the first time I go to a house, face to face with people I barely know, I feel an immense loneliness. I saw myself reflected in the glass of the large terrace window while black gloom spread over the rain-hounded night panorama. I was tied by blood to no creature in this world. I could go anywhere, do anything. It was dizzying. Suddenly, to see that the world was so large, the cosmos so black. The unbounded fascination of it, the unbounded loneliness...For the first time, these days, I was touching it with these hands, these eyes. I've been looking at the world half-blind, I thought."

Kitchen is a truly disarming work. Banana Yoshimoto writes with a sincerity and simplicity that makes the depth of her insights all the more translatable into the world of the reader. Although this is a novel that centres around the experience of grief, one feels the weight of the story just as heavily in the uncertainty and fear that accompanies loss. I have yet to experience the type of grief that follows the loss of a loved one, yet the emotions brought into such vivid reality via the experiences of the characters in Kitchen are ones to which I can directly relate. The wrenching of my identity that I have experienced through the shifts of recent years, the sense of permanency as intrinsically tied to that soul-deep sadness, those are things that I understand. While there have been numerous criticisms made of the translation of Kitchen (the fact that some meaning has been lost is inevitable to the process of translating a pictographic language, such as kanji, into English), the simplicity and understated sensuality of Yoshimoto's writing is key to the reader's sense of being engaged in a universal experience. Were the prose over-saturated with imagery or metaphor, I can't help feeling that I would have had a much harder time reading my own experiences into the novella. And my experience of reading the book would have been one that moved me significantly less than it did.

Of course, the most fundamental anchoring point for the story is an appreciation for kitchens. The reader is introduced to this theme immediately and it is carried through the story as Mikage's primary means of grounding herself to the world. In one of the novella's most moving passages, it is the sound of people in a kitchen that brings Mikage back from the brink of despair and to a world replete with potential for a future full of happiness:

"Jammed between my own bags, stooped over, I sobbed. I had never cried this way in my life. As the hot tears poured out, I remembered that I had never had a proper cry over my grandmother's death. I had a feeling that I wasn't crying over one sad thing, but rather for many. Looking up, I saw white steam rising, in the dark, out of a brightly lit window overhead. I listened. From inside came the sound of happy voices at work, soup boiling, knives and pots and pans clanging. It was a kitchen. I was puzzled, smiling about how I had just gone from the darkest despair to feeling wonderful. I stood up, smoothed down my skirt, and started back for the Tanabes'. I implored the gods: Please, let me live."

I had the good fortune of discussing this book with my tiny book club, composed of myself and two friends from high school in Florida. We all come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and we are all living in different places, doing different things. Yet, each of us was able to relate to this feeling of connection to place in some way. For one friend, it resounded directly with her memories of her grandparents' house and their kitchen. For my other friend, she felt this connection through the kitchens and houses of others, as well as in coffee shops. For me, it's a well-broken in living room. Kitchens and dining areas are a site of grounding and 'home' for many people. They are perhaps most visibly imprinted with our use and habits -  a place of dirty dishes and crumbs on worktops (or is that just me?). When you walk into a kitchen, there is often an immediate sense of connection. It is a site of communal activity and togetherness, steeped in memories of chatter, cut fingers, and good food. The feeling of connection and comfort rendered by a place - even if that place is seemingly inconsequential to others - is priceless in a world where the experience of 'leaving things behind' and 'being left behind' is universal.

I didn't realise how desperately I needed this book until I read it. Kitchen is simultaneously heart-breaking and utterly reassuring. I was left feeling not only the profound gravity of the losses that I have experienced but also the incredible potential for further connection that a life - even one full of loss - holds. 2018 marks 30 years since Kitchen was first published. It is also the year of my 30th birthday, so it certainly feels as though fate or some kind of divine intervention was working in my favour. Finding out that the book was first published in 1988 astounded me for many reasons. The novella is impressively progressive for its time. Although it struggles in places with an apparent confusion (or perhaps simply a lack of adequate distinction) of transgender versus drag, it positions a transgender woman as perhaps its most enlightened and positive character. Eriko is a role-model to Mikage and an example of the possibilities for growth opened through loss. Kitchen has aged incredibly well. Nothing about the prose or the plot feels dated. The characters and their experiences retain their relatability to an astonishing degree and Yoshimoto's beautiful, nostalgic prose has, I think, got everything to do with the timelessness that her work has achieved.

"As I grow older, much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again. Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet. I will not be defeated. I won't let my spirit be destroyed."

It was incredibly appropriate that Kitchen wandered into my life when it did. Struggling with homesickness and disconnection, I have spent the past year and a half grieving for the part of myself that has been left behind. We will all encounter this feeling, one way or another. Where Kitchen exposes these emotions in all of their raw and earth-shattering reality, it also reassures us that something wonderful can grow in the space occupied by loss. Perhaps it is the embrace of one's true self, as embodied by Eriko, or maybe it's in the connections forged with those who have gone through similar trials. The key is in realising that no experience - however profoundly devastating - truly leaves us with nothing. Even if all we have left is memories, let them be the seed that spurs us on to making new ones.


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