Excerpted from Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Copyright © 1997 by Arthur Golden. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: What sparked your interest in the subject of geisha?
A: I studied Japanese language and culture in college and graduate school, and afterward went to work in Tokyo, where I met a young man whose father was a famous businessman and whose mother was a geisha. He and I never discussed his parentage, which was an open secret, but it fascinated me. After returning to the U.S., I began work on a novel in which I tried to imagine this young man's childhood. Gradually I found myself more interested in the life of the mother than the son and made up my mind to write a novel about a geisha.
I read everything I could find on the subject, in English and in Japanese, and ended up writing an 800 page first draft focusing on five years in the life of a Kyoto geisha shortly after World War II. Then as I prepared to revise the manuscript, a longtime Japanese friend of my grandmother's offered to introduce me to a Kyoto geisha named Mineko--retired already at the age of 42 and evidently willing to talk to me. I flew to Japan to meet with her, not at all certain what to expect. I worried she might spend an afternoon chatting with me about the sights and then wish me best of luck. But instead she answered every question I asked, always with great candor, and took me on an insider's tour of the geisha district of Gion in Kyoto, even arranging for me to observe and photograph the daily ritual of a geisha being helped into her kimono by a professional dresser. She took my understanding of a geisha's daily existence and stood it on its head. I had to throw out my entire 800 page draft and start from scratch.
Q: Why was she willing to open up to you? You state in the beginning of your novel that geisha don't generally talk about their experiences.
A: She had a number of reasons, I believe. For one thing, she knew I wasn't approaching her as a journalist, but as a fiction writer. I didn't want salacious details about her customers; I never asked for names, or even about experiences she'd had, but only about the rituals and routines of a geisha's life. I found Mineko to be a very kind woman with a generous spirit; we became and remain friends. Actually, I can think of another reason why she helped me: during her years as a geisha, Mineko had at one time or other met many of Japan's great living writers and artists. With her considerable respect for cultural traditions, probably she felt some concern for a struggling young writer.
Q: You mention that Mineko had retired already in her early forties. Is this common among geisha?
A: Most geisha never have the option of retiring, but Mineko was enormously successful and made a great deal of money. I don't think she enjoyed being a geisha. She wanted to run a little bar in the Gion district rather than continuing to wear herself out going from teahouse to teahouse entertaining customers. In fact, I think she'd just opened a bar at the time she met her husband, who is an artist. She retired from the Gion district when they decided to marry.
Q: Is Mineko the model for your protagonist, Sayuri?
A: No, I wouldn't say that. Though it's true that after meeting Mineko, my understanding of geisha changed fundamentally, and of course, my idea of Sayuri changed along with it. I had imagined that geisha probably sprinkled their conversations with high-handed references to art and poetry, but in fact, Mineko was too naturally clever to resort to anything so artificial. For example, when she and her family came to visit us in Boston, I took her to Harvard Yard to see the place; it happened to be an hour or so after commencement ceremonies had ended. We sat together on a bench while I explained the meaning of the different colored gowns--black for undergraduates, blue for master's degrees, and red for PhDs--when an older man stumbled by, clearly a bit drunk. Mineko turned to me and said, "I guess that man's nose just got a PhD." That comment strikes me as so characteristic of Mineko. She became such an exceptionally successful geisha partly because of her cleverness--though her great beauty had a good deal to do with it as well.
In establishing Sayuri's voice in the novel, I considered it essential to find some quality of cleverness that would help her rise out of the mire in which most geisha have no choice but to spend their lives. So in this sense, I did draw on my knowledge of Mineko to create Sayuri. However, the story of Sayuri's life in no way relates to Mineko's. In fact, I've never asked Mineko anything beyond the most superficial questions about her history. I didn't want to limit the possibilities that might suggest themselves to me as I tried to imagine Sayuri's struggle.
Q: Did you feel any reluctance, as a man, to try writing a novel from the point of view of a woman?
A: I certainly did. As an American man of the 1990s writing about a Japanese woman of the 1930s, I needed to cross three cultural divides--man to woman, American to Japanese, and present to past. Actually, I see a fourth divide as well, because geisha dwell in a sub-culture so peculiar that even a Japanese woman of the 1930s might have considered it a challenge to write about such a world. Before meeting Mineko, I'd written a draft in third person. Even after interviewing her I felt no temptation to try entering the head of my protagonist by writing in first person. Instead I wrote another 750 page draft in third person. While I was revising it for submission, a number of big name agents and editors in New York began calling me--very heady stuff for an unpublished writer. But when they saw the manuscript, they all lost interest. I know I'm a perfectly competent prose stylist; I didn't think the writing itself had scared them away. And the subject matter is so fascinating--or at least it was fascinating to me. The way I saw it, if I'd failed to bring the world of geisha compellingly to life, I'd done something dreadfully wrong. And in fact, as I came to understand, my mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator. So you see, I'd ended up writing a dry book precisely because of my concerns about crossing four cultural divides.
By this time I'd spent more than six years on the project; I certainly felt no temptation to give it up. During these years of work I'd come to know my protagonist and the sub-culture in which she dwelt so much better than I'd ever imagined possible; very quickly I began to ask myself why I shouldn't try crossing those cultural divides after all. As for seeing things from the point of view of a woman, well, I knew my wife quite well; I understood how she felt about things. I felt I could say the same about my mother, and my sister, and quite a number of women friends. If I could understand and sympathize with their points of view, perhaps I could do the same with Sayuri's.
Q: Why did you choose to begin the novel with a translator's preface. The book isn't really in any meaningful sense a translation, is it?
A: No, it isn't a translation; I wrote it in English. My Japanese is fine, but certainly not good enough for that! I did, however, always try to keep in mind how things would be expressed in Japanese, and to select words and phrases that I felt would convey the same tone. But the translator's preface serves quite a different purpose. In writing a novel from the perspective of a geisha, I faced a number of problems. To begin with, how would Americans understand what she was talking about? Even fundamental issues like the manner of wearing a kimono or makeup couldn't be taken for granted if the audience wasn't Japanese. When I'd written the novel in third person, the narrator had had the freedom to step away from the story for a moment to explain things whenever necessary. But it would never occur to Sayuri to explain things--that is, it wouldn't occur to her unless her audience was not Japanese. This is the role of the translator's preface, to establish that she has come to live in New York and will be telling her story for the benefit of an American audience. That's also the principle reason why the novel had to end with her coming to New York. It took me a number of tries to find a believable way of getting her there.
Q: Here's a question you've undoubtedly heard before: Are geisha prostitutes?
A: As a matter of fact, all through the years I worked on this novel, that was the first question people asked me. The answer isn't a simple yes or no. The so-called "hot springs geisha," who often entertain at resorts, are certainly prostitutes. But as Sayuri says in the novel, you have to look at how well they play the shamisen, and how much they know about tea ceremony, before you determine whether they ought properly to call themselves geisha. However, even in the geisha districts of Kyoto and Tokyo and other large cities, a certain amount of prostitution does exist. For example, all apprentice geisha go through something they call mizuage, which we might call, "deflowering." It amounts to the sale of their virginity to the highest bidder. Back in the '30s and '40s, girls went through it as young as thirteen or fourteen--certainly no later than eighteen. It's misleading not to call this prostitution, even child prostitution. So we can't say that geisha aren't prostitutes. On the other hand, after her mizuage, a first-class geisha won't make herself available to men on a nightly basis. She'll be a failure as a geisha, though, if she doesn't have a man who acts as her patron and pays her expenses. He'll keep her in an elegant style, and in exchange she'll make herself sexually available to him exclusively. Is this prostitution? Not in the exact sense we mean it in the West, where prostitutes turn "tricks" with "johns," and so on. To my mind, a first-class geisha is more analogous to a kept mistress in our culture than to a prostitute.
1. Many people in the West think of geisha simply as prostitutes. After reading Memoirs of a Geisha, do you see the geisha of Gion as prostitutes? What are the similarities, and what are the differences? What is the difference between being a prostitute and being a "kept woman," as Sayuri puts it [p. 291]?
2. "The afternoon when I met Mr. Tanaka Ichiro," says Sayuri, "really was the best and the worst of my life" [p. 7]. Is Mr. Tanaka purely motivated by the money he will make from selling Chiyo to Mrs. Nitta, or is he also thinking of Chiyo's future? Is he, as he implies in his letter, her friend?
3. In his letter to Chiyo, Mr. Tanaka says "The training of a geisha is an arduous path. However, this humble person is filled with admiration for those who are able to recast their suffering and become great artists" [p. 103]. The word "geisha" in fact derives from the Japanese word for art. In what does the geisha's art consist? How many different types of art does she practice?
4. Does Sayuri have a better life as a geisha than one assumes she would have had in her village? How does one define a "better" life? Pumpkin, when offered the opportunity to run away, declines [p. 53]; she feels she will be safer in Gion. Is her decision wise?
5. How does Sayuri's status at the Nitta okiya resemble, or differ from, that of a slave? Is she in fact a slave?
6. Are Mother and Granny cruel by nature, or has the relentless life of Gion made them what they are? If so, why is Auntie somewhat more human? Does Auntie feel real affection for Sayuri and Pumpkin, or does she see them simply as chattel?
7. "We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them" [p. 127]. How does this attitude differ from the Western notion of seizing control of one's destiny? Which is the more valid? What are Sayuri's feelings and beliefs about "free will"?
8. Do you see Sayuri as victimized by Nobu's attentions, or do you feel pity for Nobu in his hopeless passion for Sayuri? Do you feel that, in finally showing her physical scorn for Nobu, Sayuri betrayed a friend, or that real friendship is impossible between a man and a woman of their respective stations?
9. How do Japanese ideas about eroticism and sexuality differ from Western ones? Does the Japanese ideal of femininity differ from ours? Which parts of the female body are fetishized in Japan, which in the West? The geisha's ritual of preparing herself for the teahouse is a very elaborate affair; how essentially does it differ from a Western women's preparation for a date?
10. Does the way in which the Kyoto men view geisha differ from the way they might view other women, women whom they might marry? What are the differences? How, in turn, do geisha view men? Is the geisha's view of men significantly different from that of ordinary women?
11. Do you find that the relationship between a geisha and her danna is very different from that between a Western man and his mistress? What has led Sayuri to think that "a geisha who expects understanding from her danna is like a mouse expecting sympathy from a snake" [p. 394]?
12. As the older Sayuri narrates her story, it almost seems as though she presents Chiyo and Sayuri as two different people. In what ways are Chiyo and Sayuri different? In what ways are they recognizably the same person?
13. Pumpkin believes that Sayuri betrayed her when she, rather than Pumpkin, was adopted by the Nitta okiya. Do you believe that Sayuri was entirely blameless in this incident? Might she have helped to make Pumpkin's life easier while they were in the okiya together? Or has Pumpkin's character simply been corrupted by her years with Hatsumomo and the entire cruel system that has exploited her?
14. Sayuri senses that she shares an en, a lifelong karmic bond, with Nobu [p. 295]. How might a Western woman express this same idea?
15. During Sayuri's life, Japan goes through a series of traumas and unprecedented cultural change: the Great Depression, the War, the American Occupation. How do the inhabitants of Gion view political events in the outside world? How much effect do such events have upon their lives? How aware are they of mainstream Japanese culture and life?
16. What personal qualities do Sayuri and Mameha have that make them able to survive and even prosper in spite of the many cruelties they have suffered? Why is Hatsumomo, for example, ultimately unable to survive in Gion?
17. Is Sayuri the victim of a cruel and repressive system, a woman who can only survive by submitting to men? Or is she a tough, resourceful person who has not only survived but built a good life for herself with independence and even a certain amount of power?
18. Why might Golden have chosen to begin his narrative with a "Translator's Note"? What does this device accomplish for him?
19. In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden has done a very daring thing: he, an American man, has written in the voice of a Japanese woman. How successfully does he disguise his own voice? While reading the novel, did you feel that you were hearing the genuine voice of a woman?