The words we speak leave small bruises on the skin,

Dear Hiromi,

Your book draws a lot on inter-generational conflict and cultural assimilation. Chorus of Mushrooms centers around  the lives of three generations of women in a Japanese Canadian family living in a small town. Set in Nanton, where the Tonkatsu family owns a mushroom farm, the story is told in alternate fragments, flipping between the grandmother figure, Naoe, her daughter, Keiko, and Keiko’s daughter, Muriel. The narration also plays with time fragmentation: in the present, Muriel is telling to her boyfriend some stories about her grandmother in the past.

The cultural collision happens both within the immigrant family, and also between its members and the small community where they live. Each character struggles over  conflicting ideas of identity, acculturation, ethnic stereotyping and racism. Each have diverse experiences of Japanese Canadian cultural identity. Naoe, born in Japan, is not happy living in Canada: she refuses to speak English and mourns the loss of her life in Japan. To make matter worse, she thinks her daughter Keiko (Kay) has forsaken her identity by readily assimilating herself to the new culture.

On the other hand, under Kay’s point of view, her mother Naoe is a quarrelsome relic of her Asian heritage. After the trauma of the wartime Japanese internment, Keiko tries to behave like the Canadian locals, adopts Christianity, rejects Japanese food and language. Despite avoiding to stand out, Kay lives life with the constant fear of ‘being detected as different’. As she tries to erase any differences between her family and the Canadian community, she also erases a part of herself, and eventually stops speaking.

Finally, Kay’s daughter, Muriel, who is called Murasaki by Naoe, seems to be the bridge figure between the extremes represented by mother and grandmother. Muriel resents that her parents have never exposed her to the Japanese culture, and then tries to reconcile her assimilative upbringing with her family history. Muriel tries to forge new ways of seeing herself and the world around her, and new ways of connecting to her past. By challenging the established notions of identity, she builds a new sense of belonging.

The relationship between Naoe and Muriel forms a profound connection, despite the fact that the granddaughter can’t understand Japanese and Naoe refuses to speak English. Grandmother and granddaughter communicate with each other without words, through physical touch and later by telepathy, and share a connection that anyway could never have been expressed through words. Language and its inevitable gaps and silences are the threads that tie these three women together.

When Naoe departs without notice from their lives, Keiko suffers a major breakdown. Muriel discovers she is still able to speak with her grandmother: she hears Naoe’s voice in her head. On the other hand, Keiko and Muriel, formerly unable to communicate with each other despite their shared language, begin to share their affections in silence, through physical interaction and the love for food.

Along with the exploration of identity, the novel also focus on the discussion of female sexuality in three different generations. Naoe describes herself as being, “eighty-five years old and horny as a musk-drenched cat […].” Naoe’s sensual revival leads her out into a world of cowboys, all mixed up with Japanese mythology. The novel is infused with references to folklore, fables, and language interplays. Japanese words are mixed into sentences in English, which manages to capture the untranslatable within each character. The point of view shifts constantly between Muriel and Naoe, and the story seems to unfold from its middle, flashing between different perspectives and multiple points in time.

Your narration style is layered and poetic, with a magic realism gleam and some metafiction incursions. Both real and imagined stories mingle. The plot is so pliable as its form: narration, characters and language are fragmented pieces here. Such as the book is framed as a compilation of stories within stories, constantly changing, so are the character’s perspectives and identities. Each of the three women is constantly being remembered of how stories can change and how malleable and liberating, as in a form of inner storytelling, truth and identity, in their multiple versions, can be: “It is the nature of words to change with the telling. They are changing in your mind even as I speak.” There is always room for beginnings, isn’t it?

Yours truly,

J.

Ah Xian
Ah Xian

 

“Ha! Keiko, there is method in my madness. I could stand on my head and quote Shakespeare until I had a nosebleed, but to no avail, no one hears my language. So I sit and say the words and will, until the wind or I shall die. Someone, something must stand against this wind and I will. I am.”
― Hiromi Goto, Chorus Of Mushrooms

 

“I turned my head slowly in Obachan’s lap, the fabric scratch and stiff. Inhaled dust and poetry. She stroked my forehead with her palm, and her words, they flowed fluid. I snuggled close and curled my legs and stopped pretending to understand. Only listened. And listened. And then my mouth opened on its own accord and words fell from my tongue like treasure”

― Hiromi Goto, Chorus Of Mushrooms

“Keiko and I, our differences remain. But there are times when one can touch the other without language to disrupt us. Daughter from my body, but not from my mouth. The words we speak leave small bruises on the skin, but what she utters from her face doesn’t always come from her heart. Sometimes, we are able to touch the other with gentle thoughts and gentler hands. We still have our hair days, and she still asks me to clean her ears. Such a fragile, trusting thing, to have one’s ear’s cleaned by someone. It’s not something you can ask of everyone. It is more a woman contact, something that boys grow out of. But old women will turn to their daughters to have their hair looked after. Grown women will still turn to their aged mothers and ask to have their ears cleaned. As long as Keiko asks me to, I know she trusts me.”

― Hiromi Goto, Chorus Of Mushrooms

“‘There isn’t a time line. It’s not a linear equation. You start in the middle and unfold outward from there. It’s not a flat surface that you walk back and forth on. It’s like being inside a ball that isn’t exactly a ball, but is really made up of thousands and thousands of small panels. And on each panel, there is a mirror, but each mirror reflects something different. And from where you crouch, if you turn you head up or around or down or sideways, you can see something new, something old, or something you’ve forgotten.’
‘Wow,’ you say. ‘Wow, that sound like some mind bend. Some people might call it madness.’
‘Yeah, I guess. But some might call it magic.’
‘Abracadabra,’ you say. ‘Shazam! Presto! Open Sesame! Chi chin pui pui! I love peanut butter sandwiches!’ you yell, waving your arms in a vaguely mysterious fashion. Everyone in the coffee shop is staring at you and I laugh and laugh until I am crying.”

― Hiromi Goto, Chorus Of Mushrooms

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Bellezza says:

    What interesting thoughts you bring up in your review. As I read, I understood of course that these things are almost natural concerns between the generations, but not only applying to one’s cultural identity. My own beloved grandmother was often confused, and perhaps a bit angered, by her grandaughters’ assimilation into the twentieth century. I think this concept applies to generations no matter from which country they originate, although certainly more poignantly when one is transitioning from Japan to Canada.

    As to the grandmother’s sexual desires…I guess we can never assume that because someone is old their desires have vanished. That seems a foolish thought from the young, who often dismiss older generations as fragile shells of their former selves.

    Like

    1. Juliana Brina says:

      Great thoughts, Bellezza! What I loved the most about this book is the fact that the fragmented format enacts very well Goto’s ideas on the subject of identity. Also, I don’t know of many fiction books that deal with sex in old age, and I liked how the author addressed this issue. Thanks for visiting the blog! 🙂

      Like

  2. Sounds like a wonderful book from a writer I’ve not had a chance to read.

    Like

    1. Juliana Brina says:

      It’s a great book! I think you might enjoy it 🙂

      Like

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