Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
Is that not the cutest author name and cover combo ever? Adorable. Too cute, maybe. And quirky. Like the stories therein. I used to have a roommate who was really into Banana Yoshimoto, so I’d heard good things.
This book has two stories in it. Both feature young women narrators who are dealing with the loss of someone they loved. Curiously, both also deal with transfeminine gender expression, in sometimes interesting but mostly insensitive ways.
In the title story, Kitchen, Mikage faces her grandmother’s death alone, as she has no other family members. Yuichi, a pushy young man who had worked for Mikage’s grandmother, persuades her to come live with him and his mother Eriko (which I thought was strange and kind of creepy, frankly). Mikage, who has a thing for kitchens and falls in love with Yuichi’s and Eriko’s, agrees to stay with them temporarily but settles into a long-lasting comfort and together they form a family. Tragedy strikes again, though, and transwoman Eriko is murdered at the nightclub where she works by a man who had been stalking her and claims that she had deceived him into believing that she was a woman when she was “really a man” and that her murder was therefore justified and understandable.
Short rant. Now, Yuichi and Mikage loved Eriko and admired her, but even they laughed a bit behind her back and used the wrong pronouns in reference to her, even after her murder, without ever considering that they were contributing to a culture in which violence against feminine persons and transwomen in particular is so pervasive and trivialized and all too often fatal. I mean, really: make the connection. It’s right in front of you. What the hell, guys? This really bothered me, and took away from a story that…well, that I wasn’t particularly enjoying in the first place, honestly. End rant.
Anyway, so in losing the tie that they felt bonded them as family, they start to redefine their loving bond while simultaneously dealing with death.
There were some nice descriptions in this story, but the characters were all over the place and I didn’t ever feel like I understood any of them, even on a superficial level, which made it hard to care what happened to them.
I liked the second story a lot better, but that’s not saying much. In “Moonlight Shadow,” Satsuki is struggling to endure the loss of her first and only boyfriend, Hitoshi. She meets a strange young woman around her age while out jogging on the bridge near the intersection where Hitoshi was killed in a car accident while driving home the girlfriend of his younger brother. The woman on the bridge takes an interest in her, and seems to have some kind of supernatural powers or something, so she holds our young narrator’s interest long after she jogs away. While she has taken up running, Hitoshi’s younger brother, also dealing with the death of his girlfriend, takes to wearing her skirts. Kids at school make fun of him, but he doesn’t care. Satsuki does though, which is annoying since she recognizes that his cross-dressing and her running allow them each to cope in the same way.
Short rant. Attention, everyone!: If you feel threatened by someone else’s gender presentation or cross-dressing, it’s your own problem! You have no stake in anyone else’s presentation. I might have read this more generously–like, that Satsuki was just worried that he wasn’t grieving properly or something–if it hadn’t been for my experience with the first story. As it was, it read like she was more concerned with the strength of his masculinity than his emotional health. Maybe she’s trying to make some kind of statement about gender roles and loss with these stories? If so, I didn’t get it and I don’t like the she played it out on individual bodies. End rant.
Eventually, the mysterious woman on the bridge offers Satsuki a once-every-hundred-years opportunity to witness something otherworldly, and Satsuki finds closure.
So, okay, I didn’t mind the second story so much. It was much more cogent than the first, at least. But these stories didn’t live up to my expectations. The writing is a bit sweet and her words seem to flit aimlessy, falling into sentences that don’t align properly. Cute, quirky, kind of forgettable. People really seem to like Yoshimoto, but I don’t get it. Did I just start with the wrong book? Does anyone have a different reading of these stories? I’d be curious to know.