Reading Asian Women Writers: Chorus of Mushrooms

by | October 23, 2013
filed under Books, Can-Con, Feminism

cover of Hiromi Goto's book Chorus of Mushroomsby Emily Yakashiro

The inspiration for this series came from a perfect storm of realizations. First, I spent my summer obsessing over Anaïs Nin (I read 8 of her diaries in this time). In these diaries, Nin writes at length about the various female writers she admires. Curious, I looked all these women up and wound up reading a lot of their work, too. As fantastic as all these books are, I could feel a dissonance that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I realized, of course, that none of these works were by women of colour. I could hear Chimamanda Adichie’s voice from her 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” in my mind reminding me, well, of the danger that can come of only ever engaging with stories written by people representing the status quo.

Then I spied the necessary, informative article by Roxanne Gay on The Nation, which pointed out that we need, “broader, better literary conversations.” In 2011, Gay, “did a rough count of how many books by writers of color were reviewed in The New York Times in 2011. The numbers were grim but unsurprising. White writers wrote nearly 90% of the books covered by the paper of record.” From all this, it seemed my mission was clear: I need to be reading books written by women whose identity is similar to my own, and then start talking about them. I need another story to contemplate, because these voices and experiences are important, just like my own. Join me for a new review every time I finish a new book by an Asian woman about Asian women right here on Gender Focus.

Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms

Calgary fans and citizens rejoice, because this one’s for you: Crowchild and Macleod Trail are only a couple of the many places mentioned in [Insert series name here]’s first stop, Chorus of Mushrooms.

Entirely based in this prairie metropolis, Chorus of Mushrooms, author Hiromi Goto’s very first novel, is pretty great, having won the feminist-friendly James Tiptree Jr. award in 2001 (amongst other honours). The snow-laden and windblown landscapes so familiar to the Northwest and Southeast alike serve as the merciless background to where we find our lustful protagonists making their way–suffice to say that the weather can’t stop them.

A theme from this novel that I would like to focus on for this first review is the poignant discussion of sexuality, which happens with a frankness Hannah Horvath would certainly appreciate.

Indeed, Goto’s book, though 20 years old, is not at all out of place in the current Girls-landscape of no-holds-barred approach to discussion on a relatively taboo topic. Except, of course, with Goto’s writing, she is discussing the sexuality of women of colour, specifically Japanese-Canadian women of three different generations.

Those hoping for sex scenes written with the elegance and grace of a haiku are sure to be disappointed: there is a passage where Naoe describes herself as being, “eighty-five years old and horny as a musk-drenched cat [...] most unseemly, to be this age and horny, but it is funny after all.” Naoe contemplates masturbating, but then of course is walked in on by her daughter, Keiko. Keiko dismisses Naoe’s wandering hands to fears that her mother has become or is becoming incontinent: it’s a funny episode that perfectly illustrates our culture’s blind eye to seniors’ sexuality. Goto’s portrait is especially compelling now as it interrupts a landscape that is otherwise fascinated (and humored by) the sexuality of older white women as we have seen in recent years with movies like Hope Springs, Meet the Fockers, Something’s Gotta Give, etc.

In fact, Goto infuses her novel with references to Japanese literature and folklore throughout Chorus of Mushrooms that make the aforementioned characters, played Diane Keaton and the ubiquitous Meryl Streep, pale in comparison to Naoe’s adventures. Those are likened to those of Genji from the eponymous Tale of Genji, an 11th-century novel written by Murasaki Shikibu.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Genji (written by a woman no less), it’s pretty damn raunchy – I can distinctly remember a couple pages that go on and on about the various sex toys (and I mean nothing but sex toys and other such items) that are “required” to make a journey at one point. Bottom line, paralleling Naoe to the famous Genji does have certain connotations that make you realize that even in her twilight years, Naoe is a force of nature. The second part of novel sees Naoe taking off in an epic adventure on her own, where at one point it is implied that she has sex in a bathtub with a younger truck driver in a motel. For real.

Murasaki/Muriel, Naoe’s granddaughter and the youngest of the three women discussed, also approaches life without poetry, but with swear words and cusses that would make Samantha Jones turn her head. At one point Murasaki recalls an episode from junior high school where her then-boyfriend asks her if she wants to have “Oriental sex.” Murasaki is, of course, puzzled, and when she asks him what he means and he explains (or mansplains), “you know. The Oriental kinky stuff. Like on ‘Shōgun’.”

Murasaki goes for it, only to have to deal with some major slut-shaming from her friends. As she recalls, “I was, of course, snubbed by everyone for two weeks. Even Julie, even Patricia, couldn’t forgive me,” which she shrugs off. Dismissing these small-town conceptions of sex and desire, Murasaki practically rolls her eyes saying, “meanwhile, my Oriental hormones were running rampant, so to speak. Hard to grow up in agricultural hell, in cowboy purgatory.”

It’s interesting to see how Murasaki is the Other, punished not for being somehow “foreign” and naive in her approach to sexuality, but for having such a cosmopolitan, mature take on it all. Stereotypical portrayals of Asian female sexuality certainly aren’t empowering, nor do they suggest the woman in question is informed about the choices she is making. Murasaki, on the other hand, is aware of the exoticness she represents, but feels little pressure to live up to the stereotypes her peers see on TV. She experiments as she sees fit, then moves on if the experience proves unsatisfying, saying of the Oriental sex episode that, “I never went out with another Nanton boy ever again. I messed around with a couple of out of town boys from high River and Vulcan. But not for keeps.”

Murasaki – and Naoe of course – is no submissive, docile “China Doll” that our culture assumes and prizes, she’s proactive and unimpressed by those who don’t share her progressive views. Who knew such a sex-positive discussion from a novel innocuously named of Chorus of Mushrooms could exist? My applause goes to Goto – go read the book for yourself, because it’s not too good to be true.


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