Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Reading "Moshi Moshi" And Sharing Tea, Grief, Hotels, And Smiles With Banana Yoshimoto

"I nodded and sipped my cocktail. The taste of fresh fruit spread over my tongue.  This was all that being alive meant, really." - From the novel "Moshi Moshi" by Banana Yoshimoto

The first novel I read by Banana Yoshimoto was "Kitchen." It is a short novel about a woman in her twenties dealing with grief. I was also in my twenties at the time, and it hadn't been that many years since I had lost my dad at the age of fifteen. In "Kitchen," lead character, Mikage, has just suffered the loss of her grandmother to whom she had been very close. To deal with her loss, she takes to sleeping on her kitchen floor because the hum of the refrigerator makes her feel less alone. "Kitchen" is what hooked me to Yoshimoto's novels and solidified her as my favorite modern author. Yoshimoto's newest English-translated novel is called "Moshi Moshi," and it continues to display her genius in describing twenty-something women suffering early loss. What is different about Yoshimoto's novels is that although her characters are hurting, each of her novels shows a glimmer of optimism. I haven't come across any other writer who accurately depicts the devastation of dealing with grief while simultaneously describing the protagonist's ability to maintain a positive attitude. Each of her characters finds happiness in the simplest of things. This trait matches Yoshimoto's "deceptively simple" prose, as her writing has often been described. Her language is simple, yet the meanings underlying her novels' themes are deep.

"Moshi Moshi" takes this grief theme full circle from "Kitchen." "Moshi Moshi" is the story of a young woman in her twenties named Yoshe who has just lost her father by carbon monoxide poisoning. Her dad had recently begun a relationship with a bewitching woman without Yoshe and her mom knowing.  This woman wanted to die but needed someone to take along with her, so she coerced Yoshe's dad into a car parked in the forest and poisoned them both.

Yoshe is an only child, just barely a woman, who is living on her own. She is fresh out of culinary school and now has a job helping out in the kitchen of a bistro. Yoshe tries to deal with her grief, and as she is "finally starting to be able to feel the joy in sitting down to a cup of tea or just getting up in the morning," her mom decides she can no longer bear living in the condo the three of them had shared in the town of Meguro. Instead, she wants to move in with Yoshe to the city of Shimokitazawa which has younger residents and many tourists. She tells Yoshe that Shimokitazawa reminds her of the first city she and Yoshe's dad lived in when Yoshe was a baby:

"Back then both your Dad and I were happy, for no particular reason - maybe because we were young, or it was just that kind of age.  We'd shop every day in Yanaka Ginza - we'd get deli food for dinner, savory preserves, roasted rice crackers, and then a cup of tea. If we had time, we'd stop at the traditional dessert parlor and have a beer, or some isobeyaki."

Yoshe realizes that her mom needs this time to heal. Yoshe absorbs herself in her cooking and waitressing work at the bistro and begins dating a customer she meets there named Shintani-Kun. But her grief overwhelms her.  Still, she shows up to work every day at the bistro no matter how badly she feels:

"Even so, come tomorrow morning, I'd be kneading bread dough, boiling water, shredding salad vegetables, mopping the floor. My body would know what to do, and I'd smile and greet customers when they came in."

Pretty soon, Yoshe and Shintani-Kun start going out for drinks after she finishes her workdays at the bistro, and she feels a sense of hope:

"I felt joy. Working at the bistro, Shintani-kun feeling at home there. Seeing my apartment across the street. I knew it wasn't going to last forever - things changed and moved on, and if you thought they could stay the same, they got ruined, like our family had done. Still, I desperately wanted all of this happiness to stay, just the way it was."

My Banana Yoshimoto collection of books on my couch

When your parent dies while you are still in childhood, a part of you remains arrested in that state because the only place you can be with them throughout adulthood is in your memories. I definitely related to the solace Yoshe seeks in her memories that she relays throughout "Moshi Moshi." Yoshe remembers her childhood vacations this way:

"The light from the TV dappling the dark room made me think of family vacations of old. I felt as though I was back in a room in a traditional inn, already asleep, while Mom and Dad watched TV lounging on the mat floor."

I particularly liked this hotel memory because my happiest memories from childhood are the times my mom, dad and brother took family vacations to Disney World or the Poconos, and we had our parents' undivided attention. We explored the parks and swimming pools by day and then shared the same hotel room by night.

Yoshe believes that memories of her dad are etched not only in her heart and mind but also in the places he walked through: "Of course, there were some things that didn't change - the familiar and nostalgic colors and smells, tastes and places in our memories.  But we could no longer relive them as things that were real to our own bodies."

These lines remind me of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" poems which were a favorite of my dad's. He even wrote his own rock opera in the late 1960's-early 1970's by composing his own versions of Whitman's poems through several original songs, often titled the same as Whitman's poems.  The main theme in "Leaves of Grass" is how we are all connected as entities who live the human experience. This includes all of us now living in the present, those who have lived in the past, and those who will walk this earth in the future. Whitman talks about how all generations have physically walked over the same grounds as each other, and when blades of grass grow, these blades are nourished and grown out from the bodies of our ancestors. There is a connection between past, present and future generations because we walk the same steps over the same parts of earth together. The following line from "Moshi Moshi" reminds me of Whitman and also of my dad:

"I started walking again, and even though I was wearing grown-up shoes on a grown woman's feet, the lightness of my step felt just the same as they had when I'd walked in my favorite childhood sneakers, which Dad had taken me to buy."

My dad and me

As the seasons pass, Yoshe's mom embraces the fact that there are so many young people living in Shimokitazawa, and she seems to be returning to a previous youthful self that Yoshe didn't even know existed.  My mom did that too after my dad died. Suddenly, she started hanging out with friends who were in their twenties, and she listened to pop music on the radio and went out dancing. It makes sense now because she was so young back then: my dad was only forty-one when he died, and my mom just turned forty the next month. I remember one of my mom's friends gave her a birthday card that said: "Life begins at 40," and my mom hung that card up in our kitchen.  But I didn't like that card. I wasn't ready for anyone to have any kind of new life other than the childhood I had grown familiar with.

Yoshi expresses similar thoughts. It appears to her that her mom suddenly doesn't need any help with her grief while Yoshe is still struggling so much. It feels like a blow to her when she finds out her mom has landed a job in a tea shop. Yoshe wants to be happy for her mom but realizes she is initially unable to:

"I'm the one who didn't want Mom to get better, I realized. I was shocked at my own immaturity. I was the one who wanted her to stay at home in my apartment, who wanted to keep my mother to myself.  Now, standing in this shop, she was back in the wider world, among everyone else."

I can relate to those feelings too.  All children believe that even as life changes, and they leave school and move on to work life, at least their family will still remain intact. It was a rude awakening for Yoshe and for me when our lives suddenly changed before we properly reached adulthood.

Yoshe tries to follow her mom's example to move forward, but she is still very vulnerable and not in the proper mindset to enter into a healthy and mature relationship with Shintani-Kun. When she finally allows herself to take the next step in their relationship, she's not really into it: "We're probably going to sleep together now..., but so what? What's it going to change?"

Yoshe's nihilistic attitude is a common example of the depression that often hits young women after a major loss in the family. Your entire world has been turned upside down and everything you thought you believed in as a child has suddenly changed due to that one event. I remember sitting in a movie theater in 1990 watching the film "Sweetie" and relating to one of the lead characters, a woman named Kay. She analyzed everything but felt nothing. She looked for symbolism to try and make sense out of life and find messages in things while performing obsessive rituals. In her case, she was obsessed with trees and cracks in the sidewalk. But her anxiety only increased. I also suffered from obsession, anxiety and a feeling of meaninglessness. Looking back, I see I was still trying to make sense out of life and to heal from my grief. Life is frightening when you have to recover from loss. You long for the security you knew as a child.

At the end of the novel, Yoshe visits the scene in the forest where her father and the woman were found dead in the car. She tells her dad it is alright to let go, and he can be at peace. She realizes that she must now focus on the present. Once you suffer a loss, you always fear it will happen again. It's probably more on your mind than someone who has never experienced a significant loss in their life. But we have to be thankful and mindful of what we have in the present. We don't have to worry every single minute. The people we have in our lives are still here:

"My father was gone now, but my mother was here. I could be with her today, for certain, at least, and hopefully much longer than that. I'm coming home now, Mother - Mother, I'm glad you're here - I'll be coming through the door in a moment."

My mom put this yellow happy face in her car to cheer herself up on cloudy days

While getting ready for the paperback version of "Moshi Moshi" to come out, Banana Yoshimoto lost her own father unexpectedly. For years, people had criticized her for not writing about grief in a realistic way. After all, many of her novels are about losing primary family members, but she had never lost one. I remember after I'd read "Kitchen," I was shocked to learn that she herself had not lost a parent. Yoshimoto says that after she lost her father, she realized that she indeed had been on the right track all those years. She said her own writing in "Moshi Moshi" gave her the answers she now looked for as if she somehow knew what she was going to need to help her heal.

Recently, I posted my Goodreads Review of "Moshi Moshi" and was thrilled when Banana Yoshimoto responded to me and thanked me in English for my "beautiful review!" Previously, she had only communicated to me through emoticons and emojis because she doesn't speak or write in English. But just like how Whitman believed previous generations can communicate with present and future generations through shared experiences, language is not a barrier either. I will forever treasure the time that Banana Yoshimoto sent me this smile:

I'm still dreaming that one day I will take a trip to Japan and meet her in person. Why wouldn't I want to meet my favorite novelist?

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