This novel is Mineko Iwasaki’s memoirs of her life as one of Japan’s finest and most popular geisha of her time.

Author :  Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown

Publised:  2003

Publisher :  Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster UK, Ltd.)

ISBN: 0-7434-6900-3

No. of  pages :  334

Her Story :

Madam Oima, the proprietress of the Iwasaki okiya, a highly successful geisha house in Gion Kobu,  was happy to find her successor in the pretty, captivating face of five-year-old Mineko.  She petitioned little Mineko from her parents and thus started the career of one of the most foremost geishas in Japan.

At a very early age, Mineko Iwasaki was trained in Japanese dance, music and the arts  in preparation for an illustrous career as a geiko (geisha) and as an honored successor to Madam Oima.  As Japanese art is obsessed with perfection,  Mineko embraced this cultural virtue as her personal creed so that her beauty and relentless mastery of the arts brought great honor and fortune to the house of Iwasaki.

Although Mineko was always surrounded by beauty and privilege,  her life was a life of  self-imposed hard work to be the best — constant training, rigid self-discipline, and grueling schedules.

Mineko Iwasaki

In her memoirs, the author takes care to point out that real geishas are artists, exceptional in the art of traditional Japanese entertainment, which include the highly ritualistic tea ceremony,  traditional dance forms, and the art of conversation, to name a few.  Perceptions of geishas as stylized prostitutes are Western misconceptions which are rooted in the confusion between courtesans (an entirely different group) and geishas.  Being a geisha is to embody the Japanese art form–bringing Japanese artistic perfection to life.   So a geisha is an artistic entertainer par excellance, nothing more.

Mineko’s memoirs chronicles her years as a geisha until her shocking retirement from the business at age 29.

At present, the author is in her fifties and lives with her husband and daughter in Kyoto,  Japan.

The Review :

Through one geisha’s story, we get to take a good look at the mesmerizing and quite secretive “flower and willow” world.  This is a wonderfully descriptive account of the geiko community that upholds and celebrates the perfect feminine.  This is quite an eye-opener, actually, and casts huge doubts on the credibility of works that portray geishas as women of ill-repute.

Overall, it really isn’t a very compelling read but the author has many little stories that keep one’s  interest up — like the time when Prince Charles autographed her favorite fan, uninvited or when she decided to subtly flirt with the Duke of Edinburgh in full view of Queen Elizabeth II, as a little revenge for the Queen’s refusal to eat even a little of a meal which was meticulously planned for the royal visit (Mineko saw this as an unforgivable breach of etiquette).

As informative and interesting these accounts are, one is left with a feeling, though, that the author never allowed the reader to know her very well.  Perhaps, the author is a naturally private person; and also perhaps Ms. Iwasaki  does not possess the expressive skills of a writer.   Rande Brown, who is named as co-author must simply be a translator and not a real writer as well.  This is quite evident in the way the book is written—simple, sometimes bland and amateurish; but, its simplicity is what makes the book very readable and friendly to those who usually shun memoirs.

On The Side :

A little research into Mineko Iwasaki reveals that the author was the major inspiration for Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“.  However,  she sued Mr. Golden for libel and defamation of character in 2001.  Mineko claims that Golden’s book twisted her accounts, betrayed her confidentiality and that his acknowledgement of her being his primary source, has earned her the contempt of the present geisha community.  It is Golden’s depiction of the geisha as a highly cultured prostitute that has earned Mineko a lot of flack, even to the point of receiving several death threats for violating the traditional code of silence.  The suit was settled out of court in 2003.

The New York Times and The Independent have better accounts of this dispute.    An interview granted to The Boston Phoenix talks about Mineko Iwasaki’s decision to publish her memoirs, her corrections on the common misconceptions of geishas,  and her early retirement.

In A Nutshell :

Geisha of Gion” has given me the impetus to select  “Memoirs of a Geisha” as my next read.   Despite having been disparaged by Ms. Iwasaki as an inaccurate depiction of geishas, it nevertheless must have been a result of research into geisha culture and interviews of other geisha.

From the pen of a genuine geisha, and not just any geisha but from the best there was, Geisha of Gion“, though, is the work to take seriously.  I consider myself privileged to have learned about this secretive world from someone who had lived in it and is actually in its roster of  legendary characters.

My Mark  :   Very  Good

Advertisements

I had a wonderful month-long vacation in Dubai for the Holidays.  I was impressed with Dubai’s stunningly modern cityscape and infrastructure and the cosmopolitan lifestyle that has made Dubai a true melting pot of  the Middle East.

Because of this, I saw a country of contradictions.  Where else can one see skimpily clad women alongside heavily veiled ones?

This juxtaposition had me intrigued.  I have often wondered then how veiled women or those who have to wear abaayas feel or think about those who never wear them.

So, I just had to buy this book which narrates the true-to-life story of a Saudi princess—a fascinating perspective as it comes from a an Arab woman of note.

Author              :  Jean Sasson

First Release   :  September 1992

Publisher (this edition)        :  Bantam Books  (1993)

No. of pages     :  303

This is the true story of Princess Sultana (fictitious name) of the royal house of  Al Sa’ud, the current ruling clan of  Saudi Arabia.  She tells of her privileged life of mind-boggling riches and of her real life as a woman pinioned by cultural fetters of gender prejudice.

Princess Sultana is a feminist, a woman who feels deeply about the indignity and the precarious  situation of women in Saudi Arabia whose laws and fanatic customs demean, denigrate, and threaten their very lives.  In the milieu of extreme patriarchy where severe punishment is meted for breaking social and religious laws, she is a rare voice, a courageous one, as she has risked her life to tell her story, anonymously, through the author, Jean Sasson.

She recounts her life—how it is like to grow up as a Saudi princess, what incidents she had witnessed and heard of— grave injustices,  appalling torture and punishment done to women, some of whose only sins were falling in love with a non-Muslim or being unfortunate enough to have been raped.

If I was hoping to find some answer to my question on how veiled women feel about thier abaayas,  I did get her opinion.  Of course, this is only one opinion. There should be several, supporting or opposing ones.  I’d love to hear about opposing ones.

Princess Sultana narrates that at the first moments of the first veiling were exciting.  Veiling signifies a child’s transition to womanhood and is practiced as soon as the child reaches menarche.

“For a moment, I felt myself a thing of beauty, a work so lovely that I must be covered to protect men from their uncontrollable desires.”– p.111

But in the next instant, she envies the freedom of those only partially veiled.  (She has to wear a full veil covering her entire face.  I’ve seen women veiled this way in Dubai and frankly, the sight of a heavily veiled woman, who looks like a walking death shroud, did creep me out a bit).

“The novelty of wearing the veil and abaaya was fleeting, though.  When we walked out…I gasped for breath and sucked furiously through the sheer black fabric.  The air tasted stale and dry as it filtered through the gauzy cloth.  I had purchased the sheerest veil available, and yet I was seeing life through a thick screen.  How could one woman see through veils made of thicker fabric?  … my heart plunged to my stomach when I realized that, from that moment, outside my own home I would not experience life as it really is in all its colour…”

“I stumbled over  several children of a bedouin woman, and looked in envy at the freedom of the veil.  Bedouin women wear veils that fell across their noses, leaving their eyes free to examine their surroundings.  Oh how I wished to be a bedouin!  I would cover my face gladly if I could only leave my eyes free to see the inifinite changes of life around me.” — p. 111

Perhaps then, veiled women do feel a certain envy toward those who never have to wear them.  The object of envy would be freedom—freedom to express one’s individuality through their own choices of make-up and fashion; freedom from restrictive clothing;  freedom to revel and have confidence in one’s own body.  These are little freedoms which most women take for granted.   I have sensed sometimes these women’s longing to have the social confidence Western and most Asian women have, an inherited assurance owing to totally different cultural views.

However, I am straying from the subject —which is a review of this book.

Princess is indeed all of these — shocking, fascinating, heart-breaking, outrageous, thought-provoking, unbelievable.  It is mind-boggling to think how ideas and acts, presumed to be medieval, be alive and and accepted in this day and age — the age of information.  The book is simply written, far from being a literary work of note in terms of writing style; but Sasson does convey the story coherently and sequentially well.

For Filipinos, it would be  of interest to know that Princess Sultana makes a lot of references to our “kabayans”, overseas workers who form a significant part of the labor force in Saudi Arabia.

This book is so interesting that it may spur one to read Jean Sasson’s other novels, all of which deal with women in the Arab world.

My Mark :  Outstanding