“No woman in the three-hundred-year history of the karyukai has ever come forward in public to tell her story -- until now.”
Title: Geisha, A Life
Author: Mineko Iwasaki
Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Release Date: September 1, 2003
Rating: 3 Stars
"Many say I was the best geisha of my generation," writes Mineko Iwasaki. "And yet, it was a life that I found too constricting to continue. And one that I ultimately had to leave." Trained to become a geisha from the age of five, Iwasaki would live among the other "women of art" in Kyoto's Gion Kobu district and practice the ancient customs of Japanese entertainment. She was loved by kings, princes, military heroes, and wealthy statesmen alike. But even though she became one of the most prized geisha in Japan's history, Iwasaki wanted more: her own life. And by the time she retired at age twenty-nine, Iwasaki was finally on her way toward a new beginning.
Geisha, a Life is her story -- at times heartbreaking, always awe-inspiring, and completely true.
Whenever I tire of reading about straight, white female protagonists in pointless love triangles with supernatural douchewaffles, I turn to Historical literature. After having read, and somewhat enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha, I heard about how Mineko Iwasaki, the main source of inspiration for the novel, was upset with how Golden had portrayed life as a geisha, and had endeavored to write a memoir on her own experiences. I have to say, I can definitely see major differences between the two pieces of literature.
I should probably mention up front that Geisha, A Life reads more like an autobiography than a memoir. The writing is incredibly dry and lacks the emotion truly needed in order for me to successfully connect with the characters. The intricate world Iwasaki shows us is fascinating, and while my interest kept me reading on, I couldn't bring myself to really care about the people she describes, herself included.
That said, I could certainly see some similarities between this biography and Arthur Golden's novel -- if you asked me to grasp for straws... Memoirs of a Geisha is supposedly based on this woman's life. Very, very loosely, in my opinion. Most of the events in Golden's book seem to be highly embellished and what I like to dub "Hollywoodized" for Western consumption. Realistically, aside from a few major details, the two books have little in common.
One aspect I enjoyed was learning the intricacies of everyday life as a geisha in Gion Kobu. While some might find the lengthy descriptions of dance, tea ceremonies, and proper etiquette to be tedious, the part of me that loves immersing myself in other countries' cultures found it absolutely intriguing.
I also appreciated the time Iwasaki took to dispel the "high-paid prostitute" myth surrounding the geisha's work. Of course, it was not uncommon for a woman to engage in physical relationships with some of the clients they entertained, but only after years of continued patronage and loyalty from those men. It was seen as a sort of complicated dance between the two parties, and only ever if the woman was of age and willing to submit to a mutual relationship. Very much unlike the conditions sex workers would have faced in the "red light" district at that time.
One downside, however, was the massive amounts of unexplained information constantly being thrown at us. Because the text is originally written in Japanese, some words cannot be translated to English, given that they have no equivalent substitute. Therefore, I spent quite a bit of time looking up these words online and it made the flow of the book a bit too choppy for my tastes.
Overall, I found Geisha, A Life to be, if not emotionally fulfilling, than at least an intellectually poignant read. I truly feel like I have learned at least a little more about an incredibly important part of Japan's history, and I would strongly recommend this memoir to those who enjoy a bit of a culture shock every now and then.