Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book that juxtaposes two tales about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan. Mikage, the heroine of “Kitchen,” is an orphan raised by her grandmother, who has passed away. Grieving, Mikaga is taken in by her friend Yoichi and his mother (who is really his cross-dressing father) Eriko. As the three of them form an improvised family that soon weathers its own tragic losses, Yoshimoto spins a lovely, evocative tale with the kitchen and the comforts of home at its heart. In a whimsical style that recalls the early Marguerite Duras, “Kitchen” and its companion story, “Moonlight Shadow,” are elegant tales whose seeming simplicity is the ruse of a very special writer whose voice echoes in the mind and the soul.
#ReadingIsResistance to the mundane and mainstream. To the idea that love, death, and everything inbetween follows rules. And to the idea family is constrained by blood lines.
I’m finding the more broadly I read authors who are less like me, the more entertaining my world becomes. And I’m finding Japanese authors have wriggled into my readers’ heart.
Enter new (to me) author Banana Yoshimoto, who says on her website she chose the nom de plume because she liked banana flowers. Which is so completely different from the racist term I had most often heard regarding Asian Americans. And while Banana Yoshimoto is not Asian American, but Japanese, that racist epithet is what I immediately thought of. I worry about what that might say about me.
Kitchen is a tenderly written book about death, love in many forms, and what family comes to mean. The title symbolizes the place Yoshimoto’s narrator, Mikaga, becomes most comfortable. The kitchen is what becomes home, regardless of circumstance. A well kept, well stocked kitchen is balm to jangled nerves and the problems which plague every human being.
I came to Japanese writing through Haruki Murakami, the voice of Japanese magical realism. Yoshimoto’s book has hints of magical realism, but it’s grounded in the realities of lives filled with grief from mutual loss, and happiness from mutual kinship. And just under the surface are the oblique references to what can only be referred to as … otherworldly. I’m not sure that’s the right word, but it will have to do because those are the themes touching on the indescribable. It’s the evanescence we all chase after as we seek answers which are bigger than we are.
Mikaga finds comfort in her kitchens, which ground her and give her space to deal with the just on the tip of the brain/heart/lips thoughts of heavier concerns. Kitchen may be about love, and death, and family; it’s also about finding a resting place among the chaos.