Standing in Banana Yoshimoto's KITCHEN
I keep scrolling through the Instagram feed of a friend who passed away this week, reading and rereading her words. She was an avid reader, whipping through novels and posting them almost daily.
Whenever I write the Japanese captions of my own Instagram posts, I picture her reading them. Then, and still. She used to always leave comments - “Yuki-san, I can’t wait for this book to be translated into Japanese. Will you let me know when that happens?” She wanted to read Tara Westover’s Educated. (The translation didn’t make it in time.)
One of her favorite authors was Banana Yoshimoto, who she reread often as a way to gauge where she stood, emotionally.
I had been planning to share some thoughts on Yoshimoto’s books on this site before I heard of my friend’s sudden passing (due to illness) this week, and I hadn’t intended on the posts to become something of a tribute.
But my young friend’s love for the author, as well as the themes of loss and healing that often thread Yoshimoto novels together, meant I couldn’t write these without thinking of her.
My friend was only in her early 30s. I first met her when she was in her teens, as a student at the school in Japan where I taught. She was never without a smile, even when there was little to smile about.
Sometimes it was a bit wary, sometimes reassuring (especially when I was the new teacher, and 24 years old, and terrified), but most often it was selfless. She was the quiet leader, everywhere she went.
I could see why a perceptive soul like hers would be drawn to Banana Yoshimoto. Even though I will never know the depths to which she felt the words. She was much stronger than I, my friend was. She knew pain, though she never let on.
Thank you for reading this. It means a lot that you’re here.
Kitchen (Translated by Megan Backus)
Released in Japan in 1988 / Released in the US in 1993
When Banana Yoshimoto burst onto the scene with this smash-hit debut novel in 1988, she was still a college student. And when Kitchen instantly won a literary newcomer award she thought, “Oh no, this is bad, I have no other writing to share.”
For someone who says she was too young to know anything about the real world, she was astonishingly ahead of her time. I reread the novel recently for the first time in nearly twenty years, and was stunned at how timely it still is. The story rings truer now, actually.
But thirty years ago it caused an uproar in a Japanese literary scene heavy with tradition, and the author was whipped up in a tornado of praise and criticism, the kind of attention that makes one want to curl up and disappear. Her modest hope had been to write niche novels quietly, for the “kind of people” who needed them.
That was not to be.
Her writing style was celebrated and denounced as non-literary, in the way Haruki Murakami was when he first arrived on the scene. The author speaks often of her gratitude toward Murakami for paving the way and redefining Japanese literature. When they met in person for the first time, she engulfed him in a giant hug. I think I scared him, she laughs in an interview. She still cites him as one of her great teachers.
Yoshimoto knew about fame early. Her father was legendary poet and philosopher Takaaki Yoshimoto, who, with over 100 books to his name, was considered a giant of postwar thought in Japan. A country mourned his passing in 2012 at the age of 87. Banana adored her father, though she admits it was difficult to grow up with such a famous name. (Though no one knew of her familial ties when she won her first award.)
What Banana didn’t know was that her name would become as big as her father’s. (She chose “Banana” as her pen name, she says, because there was a lovely potted banana plant at home. Her father offered up a few other suggestions, but they were no good, she laughs.)
Kitchen is a slim book made up of two short stories. In the title story, a young woman named Mikage grieves the death of her grandmother, who was her only blood relative after her parents passed away. Alone in the world, she is invited by a friend named Yuichi and his beautiful mother (who she soon learns is his transgender father) Eriko, to stay with them temporarily.
As grief envelops her, the only place Mikage can bear to be is in the kitchen, any kitchen. Yuichi and Eriko’s kitchen especially moves her. She describes her first encounter with it:
Lit by a small fluorescent lamp, all kinds of plates silently awaited their turns; glasses sparkled. It was clear that in spite of the disorder everything was of the finest quality. There were things with special uses, like…porcelain bowls, gratin dishes, gigantic platters, two beer steins.
I even opened the small refrigerator (Yuichi said it was okay) - everything was neatly organized, nothing just “left”.
It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight. (From Kitchen)
As she cooks for her new temporary family, the three grow close, sharing in the pains of each day. Mikage learns, in their presence (and the wisdom of Eriko, who has seen much in her day), what it means to find a place amidst her loneliness.
While her characters face the facts of their alone-ness, we don’t have to, at least not in that moment.
There’s a memorable scene in the book where Mikage, unsure of her growing feelings for Yuichi, walks into an unassuming katsudon place and orders a pork cutlet bowl.
This katsudon, encountered almost by accident, was made with unusual skill, I must say. Good quality meat, excellent broth, the eggs and onions handled beautifully, the rice with just the right degree of firmness to hold up in the broth — it was flawless. (From Kitchen)
Moved, Mikage orders one to go, deciding on a whim to hand-deliver it to Yuichi, even if it requires a long-distance taxi ride in the middle of the night.
There are no impassioned declarations of love in Kitchen, because life - and love - isn’t about what one says, it’s about what one does. The cooking, the helping, the being present.
Thankfully, Banana Yoshimoto has decided to say these things, to give words to the emotions we’re not able to verbalize.
So we can keep going back to them, each time having grown a little in our understanding of the world.
Thank you for reading.