“Soon after that she died, and the pineapple withered, too. I didn’t know how to care for plants and had overwatered it, you see. I stuck it out in a corner of the yard, and although I couldn’t have put it into words, I came to understand something. If I try to say what it is now, it’s very simple: I realized that the world did not exist for my benefit. It followed that the ratio of pleasant and unpleasant things around me would not change. It wasn’t up to me. It was clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman, and here I am.”
Why I read it
I once did a job where I was issued a little book – a field guide – that prepared you for any emergency situation you might find yourself in, whether it be having to kill a wild animal to survive, or needing to MacGyver a temporary airplane runway in the middle of nowhere. I never did have to consult it in an emergency, but since that job finished I have this recurring thought that one day such a situation will arise and I’ll be out there on the tundra watching a plane full of emergency supplies circling trying to work out where to land, and I’ll think of that field guide sitting comfortably on my study bookshelf and go, I wish you were here to help right now.
I had that moment with Kitchen two weeks ago. I was staying in Kyoto, and had traveled to a nearby town to visit my Japanese friend’s father and sister, who had invited us to their place for a big family lunch. It turned out to be delicious and lovely and we stretched the day on to include a get-together with family friends at an artists’ cafe and then a stroll around the local festival. We were really made to feel welcome and had a brilliant time.
Where Kitchen comes into it, though, is that unexpectedly (my friend hadn’t mentioned anything) his dad was transgender. There were a few minutes of confusion for me at the very start when an elegant woman in a beautiful floral blouse greeted us at the door with no introduction – I knew my friend’s mum was living elsewhere, so I didn’t know at first who this was – but once he (my friend referred to his dad as ‘he’, so I will too) made some references in conversation to his job I was able to identify him and work out what was going on. All good.
Afterwards, though, I was really curious about transgenderism in Japanese culture. Is it something that happens often? Does it have long acknowledged historical precedent? Are people generally accepting of it or uncomfortable by it? Is it open or covert? And so on. And the whole time, I was thinking about how I actually own a book by a Japanese author that has a Japanese transgender woman as a main character: Kitchen. And how maybe, if I’d brought it with me on holiday instead of Asleep, I might understand the broader context more than I did.
Now that I’m home, and am resting with a huge post-holiday cold, I decided to take the chance to re-read Kitchen and find out.
What it’s about
Kitchen isn’t about transgenderism. It doesn’t even, I found out, really shed much contextual light on it. No matter. Whether or not I got answers about this particular part of Japanese society, I was supremely glad to have been given motivation to reread the book after a huge gap.
In the story, Eriko is the transgender dad of the narrator’s friend Yuichi. The narrator, Mikage, moves in with them after her last family member passes away. Yuichi and Eriko provide precious companionship to Mikage as she grieves. Later, they will support each other.
Overall it’s a story about navigating deep grief. Each character is dealing with profound loss, but moreover they’re learning that the path of constructive acceptance may give them qualities that further alienate them from ‘normality’. Eriko, for example, learned after the death of her wife that life’s too short for pretence, and became a woman. Mikage sees the demure women in her cooking class and realises that because of the suffering she’s been through she’s no longer inhabiting their world. Yuichi too will have to find a way to cope with grief, and most importantly, he will have to work out how to do so without drowning Keats’ ‘wakeful anguish of the soul’.
The characters in Kitchen feel their losses so acutely that this book is precious to me, because I am someone who, while not having lost anyone close to me yet, also feels things hyperacutely. While there are no answers, there are shared moments of experience that feel as supportive as a quiet arm around your shoulder. The book maintains the same haiku-like purity of tone as Asleep but manages underneath to be grittier and more real. I think it’s become the one I’ll recommend to friends who want to read their first Banana Yoshimoto book. (It was, actually, Yoshimoto’s first book, too.)
There’s another story in the book, too: a 40-page short story at the end called Moonlight Shadow. I read them back-to-back, and when the first paragraph established this story, too, was about loss and grief I almost didn’t think I could handle more of the same. But the characters are so wonderful and engaging and vivid that I quickly got drawn in, and by the end, genuinely wasn’t sure which one I’d say was the best.
Another thing about Moonlight Shadow: it, like the stories in Asleep, features a strange occurrence that could possibly be supernatural. Usually I’d be the first to point to a plot kludge, or annoying pseudoscience, or whatever other party-pooper thing people like me tend to do. But Moonlight Shadow is exactly the place for this. When your sadness and grief are so acute you feel you will die, it’s the place for art and literature and imagination to come up with something that might help you process it. And they do, here, in this book, and I was in tears reading it.
Like my recurring thought about being stranded in the wilderness without my emergency manual, I feel that one terrible day I may face a situation of acute loss. But in that case knowing Kitchen is there waiting on my bookcase will be a salve and not a frustration, because I will know I will be able to re-open it later, when the time is right, and maybe Mikage will help me to heal, too.
Kitchen was mostly read in the bathroom