Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Chorus of Mushrooms by Hiromi Goto

Chorus of Mushrooms heralds the debut of a young Japanese Canadian feminist, Hiromi Goto. Until the publication of Chorus of Mushrooms in 1994, the primary voice heard from Japanese Canadians was that of the people interned during World War II. Hiromi Goto examines the immigration experience of the Japanese Canadian beyond war and into present day Alberta. Celebrating cultural differences as a privilege, Chorus of Mushrooms explores the shifts and collisions of culture through the lives of three generations of women in a Japanese family living in a small prairie town.

Amazon description

I am often asked how I find all the magic-realism books I have in my collection and which I review here. Sometimes it is by recommendation, such as the inclusion in one of the magic-realism lists you find on the web, sometimes (if it is a new book) through Netgalley and Edelweis, but sometimes it is by luck, one might say magic. My husband and I are a great frequenters of second-hand and charity bookshops. In which case I usually work my way along the shelves with an alphabetical list of books I am looking for and occasionally I pick a book off the shelves which is not on that list. Chorus of Mushrooms is such a book. I think what caused me to take down this book was a combination of the author's name (I find that authors with non-English names are more likely to write magic realism) and the title, which sounded as though it might be magic realist. Sure enough, on the back was a quote from a review referring to the book's magic realism. So I paid the £2.50 being asked and went home with it in my bag. I opened the book with trepidation. I had been playing with a short story idea about mushrooms and was worried that Hiromi Goto had got there first. I am relieved to inform you that she has not.  

So what  is this novel about? As is the case with much good literary fiction it works on several levels. As the description states, the immigration experience of a Japanese family in Canada is at the heart of the novel.  The three generations of grandmother (Naoe), daughter (Keiko) and granddaughter (Murasaki) have very different attitudes to their Japanese roots. Naoe refuses to speak English and mourns the loss of her life in Japan. Keiko rejects her mother's Japanese culture, trying to be more Canadian than the Canadians. And Murasaki tries to find her own Japanese/Canadian heritage. I am reminded of If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz, which I reviewed last year, which had a similar inter-generational culture clash. Not only would it seem that this is part if the immigration experience but that it is highly suited for a magic realist treatment. 

The cultural clash is also expressed through language and story-telling. Naoe, refusing to speak English, sits near the door speaking continuously in Japanese. Keiko in turn refuses to speak Japanese, with the result that mother and daughter do not appear to communicate. Murasaki wants to communicate with her grandmother but is denied the language. But as the book progresses it becomes clear that language exists on more than one level. Throughout the book there are conversations between Naoe and Murasaki, which seem able to happen in their heads and without them physically speaking to each other.  On two occasions first Naoe and then Murasaki are not sure what language they are speaking. 

Storytelling is an integral part of the book. Murasaki asks Naoe to tell her traditional folktales, but it is not clear how accurately she is in their retelling: Child, this is not the story I learned, but it is the  story I tell. It is the nature of words to change with the telling. They are changing in your mind even as I speak. The book is framed as a story being told by Murasaki to her boyfriend, which allows Goto to expand on the metafiction aspect of the book.  She uses it to draw the reader's attention to the book's structure. For example, the unnamed Japanese lover says: You switch around in time a lot... I get all mixed up. I don’t know in what order things really happened. To which Murasaki/Goto replies: There isn’t a time line. It’s not a linear equation. You start in the middle and unfold outward from here.  Goto is on record at expressing her frustration that people require closure to the story, whilst women's lives tend to go in circles. As Naoe says: there is always room for beginnings.

Naoe's story begins again halfway through the book. And as her story separates from those of Murasaki and Keiko we move increasingly into mythic realism. Is this Naoe's story or Muraski's imagined story about her grandmother? Freed from her place on the chair by the door Naoe takes (or is taken on) a road trip across Canada, where she becomes both a real and mythical figure.  Meanwhile Murasaki and her mother begin to connect through the medium of food.  There is a whole essay to be devoted the function of food in this novel. As Murasaki says: There are people who say that eating is only a superficial means of understanding a
different culture... I  say that’s a lie. What can be more basic than food itself? Food to begin to grow? ... But don’t stop there, my friend, don’t stop there, because food is the point of departure. A place where growth begins.”

There is so much to write about this slim (220 page) novel. I wasn't sure about it at first, as it took some time getting going and I took some time getting used to Goto's style, but I really enjoyed it and as you can see I have been thinking about it ever since I read the last word.

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