an interview with Mako Yoshikawa      
photo of Mako Yoshikawa

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  B old Type: You spent time as a student of literature at Columbia and Oxford. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, when did you find the time to write One Hundred and One Ways?

Mako Yoshikawa: I wrote the novel mostly during vacations, and also during weekends and any spare corner that I could find in my schedule.

BT: How much do you know about your own great-grandmother who was a geisha? And how much did that idea influence the writing of your novel?

MY: My great-grandmother, Waka Inoue, was a famous beauty; a terror of a mother-in-law, bullying my grandmother very mercilessly; a geisha before she was married. She became the mistress of my great-grandfather when she was in her late teens. My grandfather, her first son, was born a bastard. When my grandfather was ten, his father divorced his first wife and married Waka--an incredible thing to do at the time, as divorce was almost unheard of; keeping a mistress was very common and perfectly acceptable. Other than these facts, I know very little about my great-grandmother, since she never spoke to her children about her past--about her parents, her hometown, or the circumstances that led to her becoming a geisha. She may have spoken about these matters to her husband, but if she did, she must have sworn him to secrecy because he, too, never spoke on the subject of her past. I don't know whether it was shame, embarrassment, or a desire to maintain what little social position she had that made my great-grandmother decided never to speak about her past. But I have always found the thought of this life-long silence unbearably poignant. She lived until she was about eighty, and I can't even really imagine what it must have been to keep silent, for that long, about the first fifteen years of her life. It was my desire to fill in those gaps about her past--to color in those silences--which made me decide to fold her life into my novel.

BT: What made you decide to keep it a contemporary narrative? Were you ever tempted to set the story in Japan, in the period in which your great-grandmother lived?

MY: I'm intrigued by the influence of the past--its lingering presence, the role that it plays in determining the future--even more than by the stories that it evokes. So I never wanted One Hundred and One Ways to be anything but a novel about a woman revisiting the stories of her mother and grandmother.

BT: When the main character, Kiki, becomes contemplative and reflects, the language and imagery become poetic. Sections devoted to two or more characters seem extremely straightforward in comparison. Was that switch intended to establish mood, or does the language itself dictate?

MY: The language took over, as did the characters, who really seemed to run the show.

BT: You spin the tale in three concentric circles, revolving around the relationships of three generations of women. All suffer loss and find resolutions. Do you view the concept of lost love and recovery as a universal theme, or do you specifically intend to empower and challenge the stereotype of the Japanese woman and the geisha, with your novel?

MY: The theme of transcending a lost love is, first and foremost, a universal one. But by casting this universal theme in an Asian context, I also did have it in the back of my mind that I would be challenging stereotypes--more specifically, the image of the abandoned-but-still-patiently-waiting- Asian-woman-who-ultimately-commits-suicide, popularized by such works as Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon.

BT: You grew up in the United States and spent time in Japan. Does the Japanese language influence your thought processes and resulting descriptions? Are you conscious of any cultural influences while writing? In the novel, you write, "I may have spent most of my life in New Jersey but the blood of a geisha courses through me yet." How much do you believe this statement applies to your own life, in addition to the life of Kiki, the main character?

MY: I spent two years in Japan from when I was seven to nine. I think that the knowledge that I have of the Japanese language did inform my novel, particularly in terms of the cadences of some of the lines of the text. Other cultural influences include Japanese ghost stories, which made a big impression on me when I lived in Tokyo. Myths about hungry ghosts and beautiful, seductive fox ghosts became embedded in my imagination and affected the way I portrayed Kiki's literal haunting by her dead lover, Phillip. Like Kiki, I've spent most of my life in New Jersey, and the blood of a geisha does run through my veins.

BT: How do you feel Arthur Golden treated the topic of a geisha's life in Memoirs of a Geisha? Do you have an opinion about non-Japanese authors writing books on the subject?

MY: I have no problems with non-Japanese authors writing books on Japan. I think Arthur Golden did a very fine job of researching his subject and of rendering it convincingly and vividly. I only wish that he had allowed a 1990s vantage point--a more feminist perspective, if you will--to creep into his narrative. What we have in Memoirs of a Geisha is a narrative about a woman who uses her beauty and her feminine wiles in order to win the wealthy, successful man that she loves. Her attainment of this goal is presented as an unequivocal triumph. What I would have liked to see is more of an awareness that this is the best a woman at this time, in her position, could do--a sense of regret, even, that she had to rely on her sexuality so much, that these were the only means by which she could get what she wanted.

BT: Will foreign rights sales include translation of One Hundred and One Ways into Japanese?

MY: The foreign rights to this novel have been sold in a number of countries, but Japan isn't one of them. I'm actually quite content with this state of affairs, as my 90-year-old grandmother, with whom I am very close, is feeling somewhat uneasy about a novel based on our family history, and I want to respect her point of view.

BT: What are you working on next?

MY: I'm working on my second novel, which is provisionally entitled The Light Well. I received an appointment as a Bunting Fellow at Harvard for this coming year, so I'll be writing this book in Boston. I also have to finish my dissertation, after which I'll be looking for a job as a literature professor.

BT: Your mother mentioned she was working on a book; does the knack for writing run in the family?

MY: My mother has written a fascinating novel about three generations of a Japanese family, which she should sell very soon. This is her first book in English, but she's already written five books in Japanese; my interest in writing is clearly inherited directly from her.

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    Photo credit © Marion Ettlinger