Wednesday, 29 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 12 - Banana Yoshimoto

We're back on Wednesday with the final J-Lit Giants induction for this January, and it may well be the most controversial so far.  While one definition of 'giant' might be a writer whose work shines out from among that of other writers, another might be that of a writer whose personality and work somehow hits a chord with a generation of readers, both at home and overseas - which brings me to today's addition...

Banana Yoshimoto was born with the less fruity name of Mahoko Yoshimoto in 1964.  She grew up in a rather liberal family, where she enjoyed an unusual (for a Japanese woman) amount of freedom.  She later studied literature, deciding to choose her new name (while the pseudonym itself is unusual, the idea of taking one is a long-standing Japanese tradition).

She worked on her writing while she was working as a waitress, and her first story, Moonlight Shadow, was a big hit.  This was followed by Kitchen, a book which led to instant success at home, which was then mirrored overseas.  Yoshimoto was to become a J-Lit star, a Japanese export suited to a cutesy image people in the west were developing of the country; in fact, she was perhaps second only to you-know-who in her branding in the west.
She has since written several more books, with around eight of her works currently available in English.  The majority of her stories centre on familiar themes, such as the loss of a loved one, the difficulty of settling down into adult life and - of course - the supernatural...

While Yoshimoto is a big name in J-Lit, reviews of her work have not always been positive, and many see her work as light and superficial.  Her response?
"A lot of my critics like to point out the fun, escapist side of my writing. Some even say that it is superficial and specially catered for popular consumption. Sometimes, I feel guilty since I write my stories for fun, not for therapy. But I am not deterred from my ultimate dream of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature."
Well, that's confidence for you ;)  I have to admit that this quote comes from a blog which may or may not be hers (click here to see it).  However,while the quote is no longer on her English-language Wikipedia page (it used to be), much of the rest of the blog post still is.  True or not, it's all part of the image that is Banana Yoshimoto :)

I've now read most of Yoshimoto's work available in English, and I'm still not convinced.  However, while I struggle with some aspects of her writing, there's always something there that makes me come back for another try.  But where should the new reader begin?

1) Kitchen - The English version of Kitchen actually contains the title story, a two-part novella and the short story 'Moonlight Shadow'.  Both deal with the theme of grieving for loved ones and finding a way to move on with your life, and the stories are perfect examples of Yoshimoto's style and ideas.  If you don't like these, then it's probably best to just keep moving...

2) Amrita - This is one of Yoshimoto's longest books in English, probably her only full-length novel.  A stressed-out woman, on the verge of entering her thirties, has her life turned upside down by a simple slip on some stairs.  What follows is a story which has as its moral the importance of seizing the day - with some added ghosts, of course ;)

3) The Lake - Yoshimoto's most recent novel in English was longlisted for The Man Asian Prize, and it's a more nuanced work than some of her earlier efforts (even if the metaphor of the fog, which dominates parts of the novel, is a touch heavy-handed for some).  This is another tale of a struggling relationship, but one with a slightly more tangible root to its problems...

I've had my say - now it's over to you!  Are you a big fan of Ms. Banana, or is she a writer you love to hate?  Which of her books do you love (or loathe)?  Let me know in the usual place ;)