Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha shares the journey of how Chiyo-Chan, the young girl from the Seashores of Yoriodo, born in the year of the monkey, with so much water in her personality became Nita Sayuri the renowned Geisha of Gion in Japan. The Fisherman’s daughter from the little dump village of Yoriodo which had no glamorous spot, will as a child, with her father’s consent and Mr. Tanaka’s support, be bundled with her elder sister Satsu, away from their little tipsy home by the cliff, into a new place where they knew no one.

IMG_20171019_101436
Nine years old Chiyo is astonished at her first glimpse of city light, and right under the puddles of yellow glow in the city of Kyoto, she is forcefully separated from Satsu. Unlike her sister, Chiyo’s translucent gray eyes got the fascination of everyone and defined her destiny; Satsu was taken to Miyagawa-cho, a home for prostitutes, while Chiyo ends in the Nitta Okiya, a place where Geishas are nurtured.
An earlier visit to Mr. Tanaka’s home in Senzuru had unknowingly given Chiyo a peep into her future, but little did she know that the beautiful woman in pink kimono with an obi tied around her middle, entertaining men in the teahouse in Senzuru, was nothing compared to the sight of the exquisitely beautiful woman that will welcome her in the Nitta Okiya. Meeting more elegantly dressed women like Mother and Granny, and then a little girl of her age Pumpkin further puzzled Chiyo to seek knowledge on where she found herself.

‘May I ask, ma’am…what is this place?’
‘It’s an Okiya…It’s where Geisha live. If you work very hard, you’ll grow up to be a Geisha yourself.’

In the Nitta Okiya, Chiyo became the most junior of cocoons. She was exposed to store house of Kimonos so expensive they could buy the whole village of Senzuru and Yoriodo where she came from. But such exposure to wealth, beauty and glamour like she had never seen before did not take her heart away from home. Being sent out into the world isn’t necessarily the same as leaving your home behind you. Daily, she thought of her sick and dying mother, of Satsu who she misses, and her father who sold them for money. The hatred of Hatsumomo and everything that made her life more difficult strengthened her determination to run away.
Though at this time, Chiyo had commenced her schooling to become a Geisha with Pumpkin, a brief reunion with Satsu (who now worked as a prostitute) led to their hatching an escape plan. Daily Chiyo planned how she would escape through the roof in the Okiya to reach the Minamiza theatre where Satsu was waiting as planned. A broken arm from her roof fall spoiled it all, Chiyo was brought back to the Okiya and made to understand that her burden of debt just increased.

 

‘Do you know how much I paid for you?’ Mother said
‘No, ma’am… But you’re going to tell me you paid more than I am worth.’
‘You are right about that!…Half a Yen might have been more than you’re worth….I paid seventy-five yen for you, that’s what I paid. Then you went and ruined a kimono, and stole a brooch, and now you’ve broken your arm, so I’ll be adding medical expenses to your debts as well. Plus you have your meals and lessons, and just this morning I heard from the mistress of the Tatsuyo, over in Miyagawa-cho, that your older sister has run away. The Mistress there still hasn’t paid me what she owes. Now she tells me she’s not going to do it! I’ll add that to your debt as well, but what difference will it make? You already owe me more than you’ll ever repay… I’ll suppose you could repay it after ten or fifteen years as a Geisha,…if you happened to be a success. But who would invest another sen in a girl who runs away?’ Mother said.

‘Throughout my months in Gion, I’d certainly imagined that money must have changed hands before Satsu and I were taken from our home. I often thought of the conversation I’d overhead between Mr. Tanaka and my father, and of what Mrs Fidget had said about Satsu and me being “suitable.” I’d wondered with horror whether Mr. Tanaka had made money by helping to sell us, and how much we had cost. But I’d never imagined that I myself would have to repay it.’

 

Hence, she wallowed in an overwhelming feeling of despondency. In Aunty’s words,
‘You’ll never be a Geisha now!… I warned you not to make a mistake like this! And now there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to help you.’ 9yrs old Chiyo was hereafter condemned to the drudgery of a maid for trying to run; ‘I was living only half in Gion but the other half of me lived in my dreams of going home.’ A letter from Mr. Tanaka changed her horizon forever.

‘Dear Chiyo,
…Six weeks after you left for your new life in Kyoto, the suffering of your honored mother came to its end, and only a few weeks afterward your honored father departed this world as well…Your sister, Satsu, came through Yoriodo late this past fall, but ran away again at once with the son of Mr. Sugi…’

 

To learn in a single moment that both her mother and father had died and left her, and her sister too lost to her forever, made her mind feel like a broken vase that would not stand. In the years to come, her life was like a big bee in a jar, circling and circling with nowhere to go. It wasn’t worth it thinking of a sister she lost, a mother whom she hoped was at peace in paradise and a father who’d been so willing to sell them and live out the end of his life alone. Chiyo had no choice but to begin negotiating her past and future.

‘The stale air had washed away, the past was gone. My mother and father were dead and I could do nothing to change it. But I suppose that for the past year, I’d been dead in a way too. And my Sister… yes, she was gone; but I wasn’t gone. I’m not sure this will make sense to you, but I felt as though I’d turned to look in a different direction, so that I no longer faced backward toward the past, but forward toward the future. And now the question confronting me was this: What would that future be?’

 

The gods will smile on her and she experienced the kindness of strangers like the Chairman, Nobu and Mameha, with the chairman playing a small-god designing the architecture of the rest of her life. Under Mameha’s nurturing, she resumed her lessons as an apprentice Geisha, learning that though some where born into the lineage of Geisha, others were forced into it:

‘We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice.’

 

Dance is the most revered of a Geisha’s art, Chiyo mastered it along with the tea ceremony, flower arrangement. She learnt to always look pretty and alert, to wear the Okobo as though it was her feet’s glove, mastered the shamisen and regalia of the apprentice geisha until it was no longer cumbersome, and elegantly displayed the momoware. On the day of her debut ceremony, like a caterpillar turns to a butterfly, little Chiyo died and a beautiful Geisha named Sayuri was born. As the seasons changed, she ruled over Hatsumomo as she became the adopted daughter of the Nitta Okiya. Sayuri Nitta became one of the twenty greatest Geisha of Gion’s past, for almost three decades, she mizuage set an unbeaten record in Gion.

While Sayuri’s story had somewhat of a happy ending as she remained drowned in beauty, but that is not the case for other Geisha’s like Hatsumomo. Unlucky Geisha’s end up as prostitutes or drink themselves to death. Such is a reality that makes being a Geisha not sustainable and more so continues to raise the question on whether beyond class and artistic skill, if there really is much moral difference between the Geisha that ties her Obi to the back and the prostitute that ties her Obi to the front? The two have a lot on in common; they become geisha or prostitute because they mostly lack choice, they become play things of men in power, their success and survival is dependent on their ability to entertain men and get paid or kept for it.

Looming over this fiction novel was the mood of the Nation during the Allied Occupation in Japan. Sayuri sprinkled stories of the second war until the impact of the war hit Gion and resulted in the closure of all Tea houses, rendering both the Geisha’s and Prostitutes to a life of helplessness. Kuraitani as they called the years of the great depression was a valley of darkness, a decade of crushed hopes. Through her narratives, we feel what happens to citizens when a country goes to war. War was indeed a leveler, it turned some Geishas to prostitutes and factory workers. It turned appliance manufacturers into builders of fighter airplanes, and more so Kimono makers into parachute makers. Left with Ghostly memories of Gion, Sayuri survived making parachutes. The reopening of Tea houses at the end of the war was marked with symbolisms; shoes of American Soldiers had replaced the usual rows of men’s shoes which the Geisha’s were used to. And once again the Geisha’s took their place as a National Treasure.

 
Authur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha hit so many notes on themes relevant to the International development sector. First is the narrative of Gender, projected by Income Inequality which reinforces the culture of Geisha. There was not a single story in this book about any woman who saved herself, or lived independent of men’s mercy. The theme of Poverty provoked by the war and more by the rural/urban dichotomy is noted. Next is the concept of Vulnerability expressed by the Geisha’s and in the character of Satsu and Chiyo, whom as vulnerable children were sold into a life of slavery. This singular act of selling the two sisters for cash by their father understood as Child-trafficking, and Satsu’s purchase by Sex Traffickers, likewise Chiyo’s purchase as a maid and then a Geisha who is enslaved to generate income for the Okiya, remains a foundation of core problems which many development institutions are positioned to solve. Reports on Trafficking in Persons show an increase over the years, specifically, trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world2017 Estimates referenced to the International Labor Organization, 24.9 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery and 4.8 million (19%) people  are trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.

In appreciating Arthur Golden’s contributions to relevant development discourse, I could not help imagining the many Chiyo’s and Satsu’s in different parts of the world, who continue to dream of freedom, on how they wish daily that time runs backward while dealing with the difficulty of running away. To these ones, I wish the kindness of strangers, and the experience of knowing that something besides cruelty can be found in this world. May the next turn of life’s wheel bring to them freedom.
~Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Say You’re One of Them.

Uninhibited, Despairing, Tragic, Frustrating, Bleak, Vivid, Provoking!  Talk of a book you will hate to Love… this is it. This Jesuit Priest cum writer Uwem Akpan has done for vulnerable African children what I think many writers, legion of documentaries and western mass Media have not. He travelled into the depth of these children’s darkness with a Candle light to reveal to the world how life has smeared their windshields.

Despite being a New York Times #bestseller, making the Caine Prize list and being notably selected by the Oprah Book Club, I was discouraged IMG_6751from reading this book severally by friends who found it a very difficult read. Now I know why. The author Uwem Akpan in this collection of short stories did not write to entertain, he wrote to inform. In capturing the detailed realities of children in modern Africa, the writer ought to write like a child. Writing in the voice of distressed children is no easy task, more so reading such stories. From the stories in this book, every reader will see in detail how a child’s giggle is muffled by violence and fear, how their spirited dance is paused because the earth on which they stand is soaked with blood.

From the story of Maisha in An Ex-Mas Feast (which I am saving for a later review), I continued to the disturbing novella sized Fattening for Gabon which reveals the footprints of slavery as Kotchipka (Pascal) and his sister Yewa (Mary) are trafficked by their uncle Fofo after their parents bow their lives to AIDS in their home town Brafe.  Indeed selling a nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids. Though the chains tying their hands are invisible, either way, they are sold like chicken in an open market.

What Language is that? Adults ask this question when we try to crack the code of our children’s language. The story reflects on the relationship of Selam and her best friend as their parents inject into them the language of hatred triggered by their misunderstanding of faith difference. Like in a typical scenario as it happened to most of us, Mummy pats a space between her and daddy for the child to sit. Then these words that desecrate a child’s innocence follow. ‘Honey, we don’t want you to play with that girl anymore; the Muslim girl’ mummy said. These girls mock their parents’ response to faith difference by improvising a new language that can only be decoded by those who still love as children do.

Religious imageries litter many corners of this book; Luxurious Hearses captures the impact of religious conflict on children. Two brothers Yusuf and Jubril inherit the underserving struggle of choosing whether to identify with the Christian or Muslim faith years after their parents’ marriage end. Jubril and his brother Yusuf were born out of a relationship that was ethno-religiously conflicting, hence becoming a community concern. His parents Aisha and Bartholomew‘s union certainly unnerved the people of UKhemehi. These two brothers gave their life to fighting for a faith identity as Yusuf is stoned to death for apostasy.

The Author Uwem Akpan

The Author Uwem Akpan

Jubril’s journey from the north to the south of Nigeria is symbolic. Like all the children in this book, he was on the path of finding an answer to a torn identity and forced to say ‘I be one of you’.  The danger of having a dual ethnic identity could not be better captured than in the experience of Monique and her toddler brother Jean in My Parent’s Bedroom. This will serve as a torturous ending, perhaps the most tragic short story I ever read.

You have to learn to take care of Jean, Monique’. Her mother Maman says as she prepares her daughter for a life without her in war torn Rwanda where neither god nor marriage was strong enough to dilute any tribe’s blood.

Thinking of how the United Nations may have helped save the Rwandan genocide is hopeless as was also captured by Monique’s parents.

‘I think we should run to those UN soldiers by the street corner…the soldiers are our only hope’ her father said.

They?  Hopeless!’ Maman responded.

Their home once full of love now smells like an abattoir, their ceiling creaking and sagging in the middle; it’s full of Tutsi’s hidden by her parents. Even Maman goes to hide in the ceiling every night with a lie that she sleeps out.

Nobody is telling me the truth today. Tomorrow I must remind them that lying is a sin’ Monique said.

When tomorrow finally came, Monique’s only inheritance was her little brother, a broken crucifix and a gruesome memory of witnessing her father unavoidably machete her mother’s head in an ethnic cleansing ritual right in their bedroom.

‘There is blood everywhere…it flows into Maman’s eyes, she looks at us through the blood-the blood overflows her eyelids and Maman is weeping red tears. My bladder softens and pee flows down my legs towards the blood. The blood overpowers it, bathing my feet. Papa opens his eyes… he bends down and closes Maman’s eyes with trembling hands…Papa covers Maman with a white bedspread and goes off with the mob without looking at me or Jean… Jean is startled by my shout. He stamps around in the blood as if he were playing in mud.

Little Jean yanks the cloth off Manan and tries to wake her. He straightens her finger,but it bends back slowly, as if she were teasing him. He tries to bring together the two halves of Maman’s head, without success. He sticks his fingers into Maman’s hair and kneads it, the block thick like red shampoo. As the ceiling people weep, he wipes his hands on her clothes and walks outside giggling.

Her mother’s words remained a legacy that will ensure she and her brother survives with an identity torn between the Hutus and the Tutsis.

When they ask you,’ Maman says sternly without looking at Monique, ‘say you’re one of them, Ok?’

‘Who?’ Monique asked

‘Anybody’ Maman responded.

With two novellas and three short stories in one book the writer projects many international development issues such as child trafficking, IMG_6745prostitution, and ethno-religious conflicts as it affects children in Ethiopia, Benin, Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda. This writer shows that he is a man acquainted with grief as he portrays nuanced stories of Africa’s abused and battered children in a way that cuts close to the bone. Children in these stories lived struggling like ants whose holes have been blocked.  Their glory and resilience shines forth as their innocent spirits collides with unpleasant realities of culture, religion and social systems.

One other reason this may be a hard read especially for Non-Africans is the use of hybrid English and local terms which it adopts to give the dialogues a local flavour. However I recommend that everyone disobeys those that discouraged me and read this book. You will be confronted, challenged and bothered to your core. Finally, as the writer intended, it will leave you unsettled. But to experience all of this, you must exercise the patience of a still water; these stories are not fast paced, they unfolded slowly.

I am not sure how to fully express gratitude for this book. Uwem Akpan once said and I quote ‘I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet’. I agree with him; I would rather not meet Monique, Maisha, Jubril , Yusuf ,Jean and others because if I do, I cannot say I am one of them.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye