If you know me well enough, my love of Asian culture is no secret. Japanese culture, specifically. When I was in seventh grade, Memoirs of a Geisha was being adapted into a movie and I had to read the book and see it. I was like twelve or thirteen so, naturally, all the adults in my life were against me reading or seeing it. I’m don’t recall how I managed to convince my mom to buy me the book, but I do remember how impressed and surprised all my teachers were that I was reading and comprehending such a mature work of fiction. Just for a heads up, the book wasn’t filled with explicit or graphic occurrences as they all assumed.
A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel presents with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan’s most celebrated geisha. In Memoirs of a Geisha, we winter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as an illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction – at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful – and completely unforgettable.
I may have been young when I read this (and convinced my mom to let me not just watch the film, but own it), but it still holds a strong place in my heart. This novel opened up my mind to the way things functioned in twentieth century Japan, especially before the events of World War II. The culture is uniquely different compared to that of American culture during the same period. Following the life of Sayori, a poor girl who is eventually orphaned and left owing more debt than she can ever pay off. Years later, a prank forced upon her by the geisha of the house becomes an opportunity that allows her rise as the greatest geisha in Kyoto.
With cons, I didn’t have any when I first read this. I thought it was (and still is) great. It wasn’t until later that I learned this book and Golden suffered some serious criticism. As it turns out, he’s believed to have written geishas as objects to be sexualized exotcized, and romanticized. It also makes me sad to admit Memoirs of a Geisha contained orientalist tropes and heavy cultural misrepresentations. It isn’t an absolute deal breaker, bit if you feel strongly against what I’ve mentioned and/or prefer a way more accurate representation (as we all do and should), I completely understand if you shun this book. I did for a while, too.
Moving on to pros, I decided to not let the criticism get the best of me. While Golden could have done better with the writing of this culture, I did learn new things and hold a different view and idea of geisha than other do. A lot of my time discussing Memoirs of a Geisha is spent defending what and who geisha are. Too many believe they’re fancy or overpriced prostitutes. They’re in no way as such. These women were definitely hired for entertainment, but only in the forms of music, dance, and conversation. Despite having they’re virginity auctioned off, they were solely sought out for their intellect and company.
I see nothing wrong with being a sex worker, but I don’t and never will consider them sex workers. Golden didn’t write a perfect novel, but his work has left a positive impact on me. I know a bit more now about the culture and history of geisha and customs because this book came into my life. If at any point I find out the information is wrong, I’m more than willing to seek out the truth and educate myself because of this novel. While it may not be in the best circumstances, I know doing so is something any author can hope for.