A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel tells with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan's most celebrated geisha.
Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men's solicitude and the money that goes with it.
In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction—at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful—and completely unforgettable.
Arthur Golden was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was educated at Harvard College, where he received a degree in art history, specializing in Japanese art. In 1980 he earned an M.A. in Japanese history from Columbia University, where he also learned Mandarin Chinese. Following a summer at Beijing University, he worked in Tokyo, and, after returning to the United States, earned an M.A. in English from Boston University. He resides in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, "That afternoon when I met so-and-so . . . was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon." I expect you might put down your teacup and say, "Well, now, which was it? Was it the best or the worst? Because it can't possibly have been both!" Ordinarily I'd have to laugh at myself and agree with you. But the truth is that the afternoon when I met Mr. Tanaka Ichiro really was the best and the worst of my life. He seemed so fascinating to me, even the fish smell on his hands was a kind of perfume. If I had never known him, I'm sure I would not have become a geisha.
I wasn't born and raised to be a Kyoto geisha. I wasn't even born in Kyoto. I'm a fisherman's daughter from a little town called Yoroido on the Sea of Japan. In all my life I've never told more than a handful of people anything at all about Yoroido, or about the house in which I grew up, or about my mother and father, or my older sister — and certainly not about how I became a geisha, or what it was like to be one. Most people would much rather carry on with their fantasies that my mother and grandmother were geisha, and that I began my training in dance when I was weaned from the breast, and so on. As a matter of fact, one day many years ago I was pouring a cup of sake for a man who happened to mention that he had been in Yoroido only the previous week. Well, I felt as a bird must feel when it has flown across the ocean and comes upon a creature that knows its nest. I was so shocked I couldn't stop myself from saying:
"Yoroido! Why, that's where I grew up!"
This poor man! His face went through the most remarkable series of changes. He tried his best to smile, though it didn't come out well because he couldn't get the look of shock off his face.
"Yoroido?" he said. "You can't mean it."
I long ago developed a very practiced smile, which I call my "Noh smile" because it resembles a Noh mask whose features are frozen. Its advantage is that men can interpret it however they want; you can imagine how often I've relied on it. I decided I'd better use it just then, and of course it worked. He let out all his breath and tossed down the cup of sake I'd poured for him before giving an enormous laugh I'm sure was prompted more by relief than anything else.
"The very idea!" he said, with another big laugh. "You, growing up in a dump like Yoroido. That's like making tea in a bucket!" And when he'd laughed again, he said to me, "That's why you're so much fun, Sayuri-san. Sometimes you almost make me believe your little jokes are real."
I don't much like thinking of myself as a cup of tea made in a bucket, but I suppose in a way it must be true. After all, I did grow up in Yoroido, and no one would suggest it's a glamorous spot. Hardly anyone ever visits it. As for the people who live there, they never have occasion to leave. You're probably wondering how I came to leave it myself. That's where my story begins.
* * *
In our little fishing village of Yoroido, I lived in what I called a "tipsy house." It stood near a cliff where the wind off the ocean was always blowing. As a child it seemed to me as if the ocean had caught a terrible cold, because it was always wheezing and there would be spells when it let out a huge sneeze — which is to say there was a burst of wind with a tremendous spray. I decided our tiny house must have been offended by the ocean sneezing in its face from time to time, and took to leaning back because it wanted to get out of the way. Probably it would have collapsed if my father hadn't cut a timber from a wrecked fishing boat to prop up the eaves, which made the house look like a tipsy old man leaning on his crutch.
Inside this tipsy house I lived something of a lopsided life. Because from my earliest years I was very much like my mother, and hardly at all like my father or older sister. My mother said it was because we were made just the same, she and I — and it was true — we both had the same peculiar eyes of a sort you almost never see in Japan. Instead of being dark brown like everyone else's, my mother's eyes were a translucent gray, and mine are just the same. When I was very young, I told my mother I thought someone had poked a hole in her eyes and all the ink had drained out, which she thought very funny. The fortune-tellers said her eyes were so pale because of too much water in her personality, so much that the other four elements were hardly present at all — and this, they explained, was why her features matched so poorly. People in the village often said she ought to have been extremely attractive, because her parents had been. Well, a peach has a lovely taste and so does a mushroom, but you can't put the two together; this was the terrible trick nature had played on her. She had her mother's pouty mouth but her father's angular jaw, which gave the impression of a delicate picture with much too heavy a frame. And her lovely gray eyes were surrounded by thick lashes that must have been striking on her father, but in her case only made her look startled.
My mother always said she'd married my father because she had too much water in her personality and he had too much wood in his. People who knew my father understood right away what she was talking about. Water flows from place to place quickly and always finds a crack to spill through. Wood, on the other hand, holds fast to the earth. In my father's case this was a good thing, for he was a fisherman, and a man with wood in his personality is at ease on the sea. In fact, my father was more at ease on the sea than anywhere else, and never left it far behind him. He smelled like the sea even after he had bathed. When he wasn't fishing, he sat on the floor in our dark front room mending a fishing net. And if a fishing net had been a sleeping creature, he wouldn't even have awakened it, at the speed he worked. He did everything this slowly. Even when he summoned a look of concentration, you could run outside and drain the bath in the time it took him to rearrange his features. His face was very heavily creased, and into each crease he had tucked some worry or other, so that it wasn't really his own face any longer, but more like a tree that had nests of birds in all the branches. He had to struggle constantly to manage it and always looked worn out from the effort.
When I was six or seven, I learned something about my father I'd never known. One day I asked him, "Daddy, why are you so old?" He hoisted up his eyebrows at this, so that they formed little sagging umbrellas over his eyes. And he let out a long breath, and shook his head and said, "I don't know." When I turned to my mother, she gave me a look meaning she would answer the question for me another time. The following day without saying a word, she walked me down the hill toward the village and turned at a path into a graveyard in the woods. She led me to three graves in the corner, with three white marker posts much taller than I was. They had stern-looking black characters written top to bottom on them, but I hadn't attended the school in our little village long enough to know where one ended and the next began. My mother pointed to them and said, "Natsu, wife of Sakamoto Minoru." Sakamoto Minoru was the name of my father. "Died age twenty-four, in the nineteenth year of Meiji." Then she pointed to the next one: "Jinichiro, son of Sakamoto Minoru, died age six, in the nineteenth year of Meiji," and to the next one, which was identical except for the name, Masao, and the age, which was three. It took me a while to understand that my father had been married before, a long time ago, and that his whole family had died. I went back to those graves not long afterward and found as I stood there that sadness was a very heavy thing. My body weighed twice what it had only a moment earlier, as if those graves were pulling me down toward them.
* * *
With all this water and all this wood, the two of them ought to have made a good balance and produced children with the proper arrangement of elements. I'm sure it was a surprise to them that they ended up with one of each. For it wasn't just that I resembled my mother and had even inherited her unusual eyes; my sister, Satsu, was as much like my father as anyone could be. Satsu was six years older than me, and of course, being older, she could do things I couldn't do. But Satsu had a remarkable quality of doing everything in a way that seemed like a complete accident. For example, if you asked her to pour a bowl of soup from a pot on the stove, she would get the job done, but in a way that looked like she'd spilled it into the bowl just by luck. One time she even cut herself with a fish, and I don't mean with a knife she was using to clean a fish. She was carrying a fish wrapped in paper up the hill from the village when it slid out and fell against her leg in such a way as to cut her with one of its fins.
Our parents might have had other children besides Satsu and me, particularly since my father hoped for a boy to fish with him. But when I was seven my mother grew terribly ill with what was probably bone cancer, though at the time I had no idea what was wrong. Her only escape from discomfort was to sleep, which she began to do the way a cat does — which is to say, more or less constantly. As the months passed she slept most of the time, and soon began to groan whenever she was awake. I knew something in her was changing quickly, but because of so much water in her personality, this didn't seem worrisome to me. Sometimes she grew thin in a matter of months but grew strong again just as quickly. But by the time I was nine, the bones in her face had begun to protrude, and she never gained weight again afterward. I didn't realize the water was draining out of her because of her illness. Just as seaweed is naturally soggy, you see, but turns brittle as it dries, my mother was giving up more and more of her essence.
Then one afternoon I was sitting on the pitted floor of our dark front room, singing to a cricket I'd found that morning, when a voice called out at the door:
"Oi! Open up! It's Dr. Miura!"
Dr. Miura came to our fishing village once a week, and had made a point of walking up the hill to check on my mother ever since her illness had begun. My father was at home that day because a terrible storm was coming. He sat in his usual spot on the floor, with his two big spiderlike hands tangled up in a fishing net. But he took a moment to point his eyes at me and raise one of his fingers. This meant he wanted me to answer the door.
Dr. Miura was a very important man — or so we believed in our village. He had studied in Tokyo and reportedly knew more Chinese characters than anyone. He was far too proud to notice a creature like me. When I opened the door for him, he slipped out of his shoes and stepped right past me into the house.
"Why, Sakamoto-san," he said to my father, "I wish I had your life, out on the sea fishing all day. How glorious! And then on rough days you take a rest. I see your wife is still asleep," he went on. "What a pity. I thought I might examine her."
"Oh?" said my father.
"I won't be around next week, you know. Perhaps you might wake her for me?"
My father took a while to untangle his hands from the net, but at last he stood.
"Chiyo-chan," he said to me, "get the doctor a cup of tea."
My name back then was Chiyo. I wouldn't be known by my geisha name, Sayuri, until years later.
My father and the doctor went into the other room, where my mother lay sleeping. I tried to listen at the door, but I could hear only my mother groaning, and nothing of what they said. I occupied myself with making tea, and soon the doctor came back out rubbing his hands together and looking very stern. My father came to join him, and they sat together at the table in the center of the room.
"The time has come to say something to you, Sakamoto-san," Dr. Miura began. "You need to have a talk with one of the women in the village. Mrs. Sugi, perhaps. Ask her to make a nice new robe for your wife."
"I haven't the money, Doctor," my father said.
"We've all grown poorer lately. I understand what you're saying. But you owe it to your wife. She shouldn't die in that tattered robe she's wearing."
"So she's going to die soon?"
"A few more weeks, perhaps. She's in terrible pain. Death will release her."
After this, I couldn't hear their voices any longer; for in my ears I heard a sound like a bird's wings flapping in panic. Perhaps it was my heart, I don't know. But if you've ever seen a bird trapped inside the great hall of a temple, looking for some way out, well, that was how my mind was reacting. It had never occurred to me that my mother wouldn't simply go on being sick. I won't say I'd never wondered what might happen if she should die; I did wonder about it, in the same way I wondered what might happen if our house were swallowed up in an earthquake. There could hardly be life after such an event.
"I thought I would die first," my father was saying.
"You're an old man, Sakamoto-san. But your health is good. You might have four or five years. I'll leave you some more of those pills for your wife. You can give them to her two at a time, if you need to."
They talked about the pills a bit longer, and then Dr. Miura left. My father went on sitting for a long while in silence, with his back to me. He wore no shirt but only his loose-fitting skin; the more I looked at him, the more he began to seem like just a curious collection of shapes and textures. His spine was a path of knobs. His head, with its discolored splotches, might have been a bruised fruit. His arms were sticks wrapped in old leather, dangling from two bumps. If my mother died, how could I go on living in the house with him? I didn't want to be away from him; but whether he was there or not, the house would be just as empty when my mother had left it.
At last my father said my name in a whisper. I went and knelt beside him.
"Something very important," he said.
His face was so much heavier than usual, with his eyes rolling around almost as though he'd lost control of them. I thought he was struggling to tell me my mother would die soon, but all he said was:
"Go down to the village. Bring back some incense for the altar."
Our tiny Buddhist altar rested on an old crate beside the entrance to the kitchen; it was the only thing of value in our tipsy house. In front of a rough carving of Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, stood tiny black mortuary tablets bearing the Buddhist names of our dead ancestors.
"But, Father...wasn't there anything else?"
I hoped he would reply, but he only made a gesture with his hand that meant for me to leave.
[Geisha] is not about sex, though sex is available. It's about being a womanand being present in this group of men and changing the social dynamic. . . . .It is the only subculture in Japan I know of that is absolutely ruled by women. -- Interviewed in People Magazine, November 23, 1998
Arthur Golden's novel is wonderful:involving, intelligent, fascinating, and almost Dickensian in the way the characters inhabit the landscape, and the landscape permeates the characters. It's unique, beautifully written book.
Reading Group Guide
1. Many people in the West think of geisha simply as prostitutes. After reading Memoirs of a Geisha, do you see the geisha of Gion as prostitutes? What are the similarities, and what are the differences? What is the difference between being a prostitute and being a "kept woman, " as Sayuri puts it [p. 291]?
2. "The afternoon when I met Mr. Tanaka Ichiro, " says Sayuri, "really was the best and the worst of my life" [p. 7]. Is Mr. Tanaka purely motivated by the money he will make from selling Chiyo to Mrs. Nitta, or is he also thinking of Chiyo's future? Is he, as he implies in his letter, her friend?
3. In his letter to Chiyo, Mr. Tanaka says "The training of a geisha is an arduous path. However, this humble person is filled with admiration for those who are able to recast their suffering and become great artists" [p. 103]. The word "geisha" in fact derives from the Japanese word for art. In what does the geisha's art consist? How many different types of art does she practice?
4. Does Sayuri have a better life as a geisha than one assumes she would have had in her village? How does one define a "better" life? Pumpkin, when offered the opportunity to run away, declines [p. 53]; she feels she will be safer in Gion. Is her decision wise?
5. How does Sayuri's status at the Nitta okiya resemble, or differ from, that of a slave? Is she in fact a slave?
6. Are Mother and Granny cruel by nature, or has the relentless life of Gion made them what they are? If so, why is Auntie somewhat more human? Does Auntie feel real affection for Sayuri and Pumpkin, or does she see them simply aschattel?
7. "We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them" [p. 127]. How does this attitude differ from the Western notion of seizing control of one's destiny? Which is the more valid? What are Sayuri's feelings and beliefs about "free will"?
8. Do you see Sayuri as victimized by Nobu's attentions, or do you feel pity for Nobu in his hopeless passion for Sayuri? Do you feel that, in finally showing her physical scorn for Nobu, Sayuri betrayed a friend, or that real friendship is impossible between a man and a woman of their respective stations?
9. How do Japanese ideas about eroticism and sexuality differ from Western ones? Does the Japanese ideal of femininity differ from ours? Which parts of the female body are fetishized in Japan, which in the West? The geisha's ritual of preparing herself for the teahouse is a very elaborate affair; how essentially does it differ from a Western women's preparation for a date?
10. Does the way in which the Kyoto men view geisha differ from the way they might view other women, women whom they might marry? What are the differences? How, in turn, do geisha view men? Is the geisha's view of men significantly different from that of ordinary women?
11. Do you find that the relationship between a geisha and her danna is very different from that between a Western man and his mistress? What has led Sayuri to think that "a geisha who expects understanding from her danna is like a mouse expecting sympathy from a snake" [p. 394]?
12. As the older Sayuri narrates her story, it almost seems as though she presents Chiyo and Sayuri as two different people. In what ways are Chiyo and Sayuri different? In what ways are they recognizably the same person?
13. Pumpkin believes that Sayuri betrayed her when she, rather than Pumpkin, was adopted by the Nitta okiya. Do you believe that Sayuri was entirely blameless in this incident? Might she have helped to make Pumpkin's life easier while they were in the okiya together? Or has Pumpkin's character simply been corrupted by her years with Hatsumomo and the entire cruel system that has exploited her?
14. Sayuri senses that she shares an en, a lifelong karmic bond, with Nobu [p. 295]. How might a Western woman express this same idea?
15. During Sayuri's life, Japan goes through a series of traumas and unprecedented cultural change: the Great Depression, the War, the American Occupation. How do the inhabitants of Gion view political events in the outside world? How much effect do such events have upon their lives? How aware are they of mainstream Japanese culture and life?
16. What personal qualities do Sayuri and Mameha have that make them able to survive and even prosper in spite of the many cruelties they have suffered? Why is Hatsumomo, for example, ultimately unable to survive in Gion?
17. Is Sayuri the victim of a cruel and repressive system, a woman who can only survive by submitting to men? Or is she a tough, resourceful person who has not only survived but built a good life for herself with independence and even a certain amount of power?
18. Why might Golden have chosen to begin his narrative with a "Translator's Note"? What does this device accomplish for him?
19. In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden has done a very daring thing: he, an American man, has written in the voice of a Japanese woman. How successfully does he disguise his own voice? While reading the novel, did you feel that you were hearing the genuine voice of a woman?
On Thursday, November 5th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Arthur Golden to discuss MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA.
Moderator: We are so pleased that you could join us tonight, Arthur Golden, to discuss your bestseller, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. It is a rare book that garners so many rave reviews and fans as yours has. Do you have any opening comments for your online audience this evening?
Arthur Golden: I am happy to be here, never having done an online chat!
Leslie Blake from Vermont: What sparked your interest in the geisha and Japan?
Arthur Golden: When I lived in Japan in 1981 I met a guy whose father was a famous businessman and whose mother was a geisha, so I wanted to write a novel about such a fellow. But when I researched the subject of geisha I changed topics. I changed topics because it seemed such great material for me for fiction.
Ellen Wood from Portland: Is Sayuri Mineko's alter ego? How closely do their lives reflect one another? Thanks for the note at the end of your book about Mineko. That was really fascinating that you had that opportunity to speak to a real geisha.
Arthur Golden: Mineko and Sayuri are very different. The only similarities in their lives are that both were sold as children, and both set a record for the sale of their virginity. Other than that, the stories of their lives as well as their personalities are quite different.
Kenneth R. Abraham from Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles: There was an introduction by Jakob Haarhuis in the edition of MEMOIRS I read. I just wanted to know how I should interpret this introduction, in which he relates a series of interviews with a geisha, as I understand the content of the book is mostly fiction.
Arthur Golden: The content is entirely fiction, although the historic facts of a geisha's life are accurate. The translator is also an invention. The problem for me was that I had to find a way to make it believable for Sayuri to annotate the story as she told it. If she lived in Kyoto all her life she won't even know what we wouldn't understand, so I wanted the reader to know from the beginning of the book that she is living in New York City, telling her story, looking back at her life, already knowledgeable about it, and talking to a Westerner. Under these circumstances, she would naturally annotate her story as she told it. That, for me, is the reason for the translator's preface.
Monica Bradley from Richmond, VA: I loved your book and found it hard to believe that a man could have so perfectly captured a woman's voice from a foreign culture. What do you think enabled you to capture the female psyche so well?
Arthur Golden: I am very flattered by this question, and although I have heard it quite a number of times, I am never sure how to answer. For me, the experience of writing from the point of view of a woman simply involved imagining how the character might react to what had happened to her -- not how I would react, but how she would react. Many times I thought of ideas, but I couldn't manage to get them properly written on the page. I would come up with another idea, and it would go smoothly. But the following day when I reread it, it would stand out, and my intention was to make a kind of smooth surface where nothing seemed jarringly out of place until it seemed that way to me. I think that it is fairly common for readers to be disturbed by problems like anachronism in novels, or moments when characters behave out of character, so writing from a different perspective is just a matter of paying attention to the part of yourself that notices those things.
Francesca from New York: Do the traditions of the geisha still exist today? Are there still schools, etc.?
Arthur Golden: Yes, the traditions and schools still exist, but nowadays geisha enter the profession voluntarily after high school, rather than involuntary as children; and at the end of the night they go home to their own apartments, so the life is much less rigorous and much more free than it was.
Marcy from New York: Is there a story behind why you made Sayuri's eyes gray?
Arthur Golden: There is. In the first draft of the novel, she didn't have those eyes, but when I reread it while preparing to edit it, I noticed a lot of water imagery I hadn't been aware of. Then I took my children to a water amusement park, where I happened to see two sisters all wet from the water with the most astonishingly beautiful blue-gray eyes, and it suddenly struck me that I just had to give Sayuri those eyes. As a footnote, since writing the novel, I learned to my surprise there really are people in Japan with such eyes, mostly because of traces of Russian ancestry.
Sarah from Florida: After finally finishing your novel and creating such a huge success, how does it feel? Are there great demands on your time now? Pressure to write something equally good?
Arthur Golden: First of all, it feels great! I have been astonished by the success of the novel. In fact, I am right now at Universal Studios, where I have been given a tour of the set and kimono design for Steven Spielberg's adaptation, so you can imagine how utterly flabbergasted I feel by all of this! As for the pressure, I try to look at it this way: If you are going to have a problem in life, this is a really good problem to have!
Claire from Dallas, TX: I hear Steven Spielberg will be the director of the movie version of your book. How fantastic! How closely will they stick to your story? Are you involved in the project? And when will it be in theaters?
Arthur Golden: They are sticking very closely to the original story and, in fact, changing essentially nothing, though they have to shorten it considerably, of course. They are keeping me involved informally. I spent a weekend with the costume and set designers, discussing issues that concerned them in their work, for example. And I am sure every so often they may have one or two things they want to talk to me about, but mostly my job is just to sit back and watch it all and have great fun. I would like to add that I feel incredibly fortunate that the story is in such great hands.
Marcia B. from New Kent: I found your prose really beautiful, especially your metaphors. (For example, the scene in which Sayuri finds a crumbling moth, and its destruction signals her to leave her past behind.) In writing this book, did you try to keep in the spirit of the Japanese language, as they would express things?
Arthur Golden: That is a terrific question, and the answer is yes -- very much so! I never went so far as to try expressing things first in my own mind in Japanese and then translating them into English, but I was always aware of choosing words that would seem to convey the spirit of Japanese as spoken by a woman -- because in Japan men and women speak very differently. Some circumstances call for more polite and formal language than others, and strange as it may seem, the reality is that women must always speak in a more genteel and polite manner than men.
Beth from Chicago: Since the book has come out, have you heard from any other geisha, and what has their response been to your work?
Arthur Golden: The only geisha I know who reads English is Liza Dalby, who as a American graduate student actually became a geisha in Japan during the late '70s and wrote a book about it called GEISHA. Happily, she has reacted very well to the novel, and in fact we are doing a series of events together in San Francisco this week. But, although the novel is in the process of being translated into Japanese, it hasn't been released there yet, and I have no idea what the reaction there will be.
Emily Marshall from Baltimore: What were some of your own misconceptions about the life of a geisha before you spoke with Mineko and wrote the first draft of your novel?
Arthur Golden: I misunderstood so many things about the day-to-day life of geisha that it is hard for me to point to a single example. But to name a few things: I wrote a scene in which a geisha put on her makeup and got all the facts wrong; I didn't understand the extreme importance of kimono in that culture; and I didn't have any idea about the ways in which geisha related to one another in reality and to their customers.
Katrina Baron from Minnesota: I found it really funny that when the geisha entertained men, their manners and appearance were so refined, but they got drunk and told the men dirty jokes. Not what you would expect, right?
Arthur Golden: I was surprised by that myself. When I first began doing research, I imagined that geisha were very ethereal creatures -- more likely to recite a poem than tell a dirty joke -- but when I had a chance to spend time among geisha, I saw the reality very quickly. I think it is easier to understand if you keep in mind that men go to geisha in order to be entertained, usually at the end of a long workday, and jokes go over much better than poetry.
Penny from Nashville, TN: I heard that after you met a real Kyoto geisha, you scrapped your first draft entirely. How daunting was this to start over, and did the new novel pour out easier then?
Arthur Golden: It is true that I scrapped the novel after meeting a geisha, and in a strange way, I was pleased to do it. I wanted to be accurate to the world of geisha as it really was, and now through good fortune I had the opportunity to correct my mistakes. What was much harder was throwing out the entire second draft as well and starting it over a third time, when I came to understand I still hadn't produced the novel I hoped to write.
Mary Burke from New Orleans: In reading your book, it struck me that a geisha really is so many things -- a performer, a supermodel of sorts, a businesswoman, a prostitute. How would you describe the geisha?
Arthur Golden: Gosh, you have done a pretty good job! Geisha don't have any counterpart in our culture because here in the West, men and women socialize together freely. In Japan they don't. Men hire women to entertain them, and the principal role of a geisha is to provide female companionship. Sometimes that means telling stories, sometimes it means just being arm candy, and at other times it can also involve sex.
Elaine from Seattle: The scope of your book is so wide -- including decades and decades of history, beginning in Japan and ending in America. When you started writing this novel, did you realize it would be an epic of sorts? Did you write an outline of everything you wanted to include?
Arthur Golden: I did know that the novel would cover quite a span of history, and this thought appealed to me. I have heard the novel described as "an epic on a intimate scale," and I suppose that is a good way to think of it, because it is really about one woman's life, even though it is set during a period of considerable turmoil. As for the outline, yes, I actually did write an outline, but working only one or two chapters ahead of the point I had already reached. As John Updike describes writing a novel, it felt like driving down a road at night; you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
Jonathan from Seattle: My wife and I saw you at the recent NW Bookfest! Since it took you many years to write this book, when can we expect another wonderful book from you?
Arthur Golden: Much sooner than the nine years it took me to write this one! I comfort myself with the thought that this novel took nine years because it was really three completely separate novels I wrote, so my best guess is three years. It will not be about Japan, but I would rather not say anymore about it.
Anna from New Jersey: How long was your book tour? I've heard they are terribly exhausting. What was a typical day like? By the way, my mother and I loved your book.
Arthur Golden: I am now on something like my fourth or fifth book tour. I have spent about a total of four or five months on the road during the last year. A typical day is something I could never have imagined two years ago: a couple of radio interviews, a print interview or two, a photo shoot, maybe a TV appearance and a bookstore appearance in the evening, as well as drop-ins to sign books at various bookstores in the area. Some days are slower than that and then, even when I am at home, I have been averaging six or seven interviews a week and sometimes a couple of photo shoots a week.
Ejovi from New York: Currently, what prices do geisha entertain for?
Arthur Golden: I can only guess, since I have never paid myself, and my research focused on the time period before the war. It is something like this, though: Four or five men at a first-class teahouse for the evening entertained by a couple of geisha, including dinner and a couple of drinks, would run probably upward of $10,000.
Josh from Philadelphia: This novel involved a great deal of research that was expensive, difficult, and involved asking lots of favors from lots of people. I would like to know if you were nervous to invest so much time and effort into a book, when you had never written one before?
Arthur Golden: Yes, very nervous. But what else can you do? It is a strange undertaking to take your life into your hands this way, unsure of the outcome, and it is perfectly true I might well have ended up flat on my face. I suppose all any of us can do, while at the same time relying on our best judgment, is give ourselves permission to take risks.
Dale from Williamsburg, VA: There is so much beauty in the culture and traditions of the geisha -- teaching young girls discipline, dance, manners, art of conversation, etc., but on the other hand there is such an opportunity for young girls to be abused or sexually exploited. Where do the Japanese weigh in on this issue today? Are they proud of this cultural practice, which used to be so prevalent? Would it ever have a rebirth?
Arthur Golden: You would be surprised how ignorant most Japanese are on the subject of geisha, but it is safe to say this kind of exploitation was frowned upon in ways it wasn't 50 years ago. As for the question of rebirth, geisha culture has never really died out in the first place, but it has changed. It is much less exploitive now than it was before.
Bruce McCardle from Pittsburgh: Do you know of any other books or movies we can learn more about geishas from? I found your book remarkable.
Arthur Golden: I recommend Liza Dalby's book GEISHA and Jodi Cobb's book of photographs, called GEISHA: THE LIFE, THE VOICES, THE ART. A number of documentaries on the subject are in preproduction now, and a companion book as well, so more will be available before long.
Elise from Bedford: After reading your superb novel, I really feel differently about the geisha. I see her now as a high-class mistress, not really a prostitute at all -- except for perhaps the sale of her virginity. What do you think?
Arthur Golden: I think that is a good description, particularly if you think of the sort of high-class mistress who exists on the same continuum as a prostitute, that is to say, we are not talking about women who become mistresses out of love but because of the opportunity it affords them.
Missy from Brooklyn: To write about all the elaborate practices in the geisha culture -- putting on the makeup, tea ceremony, dancing -- did you have to enact any of these yourself to understand them?
Arthur Golden: In every case, I had to learn enough about these practices to write convincingly about them, but I never had to go so far as take lessons myself or try any of these practices. But I did put a small amount of makeup on the side of my face before writing about it, to see how it felt.
Moderator: It's been a pleasure to spend some time with you this evening, Arthur Golden. Reading MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA was truly a remarkable experience for me and for the many fans who joined us tonight. We hope you'll join us again in the future. Do you have any final comments for our online audience?
Arthur Golden: Just to say thanks so much for all the thought-provoking questions and for taking the time to log on!
Memoirs of a Geisha 4.6 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing and a beautiful read. It felt like Chiyo and Sayuri were right next to me telling the story of their lives. Beautifullly witten. This book engulfs the reader in its own world and even the most relunctant readers will find that they can't put this book down. I told my friend who only read a book once in a while and she finished the book in about 4 days. The story pulls your heart strings and you will hold your breath to find out what happens next. It is one of those books that when you hear its name again you immediately smile and say what a good book it was. You'll find yourself reccommending it to all your friends and family.
More than 1 year ago
I first want to address a couple reviews I read before I purchased Memoirs of a Geisha, because I very nearly skipped this novel due to the content of these reviews. People were offended by the sexual content in this novel, and some even said that the author gave the impression that Geisha were more sexual than they really are.
I disagree. Yes, there is a bit of sexual content, but it is in no way overwhelming, nor does it mislead readers to believe that Geisha are the same as prostitutes. If anything, the author of this book does a fantastic job of describing the art of the Geisha. I learned quite a bit about Geisha, and what they really do. I've always heard some people insist that a Geisha's job had nothing to do with sex, while others say that Geisha were no different from prostitutes. Both are wrong, and this book does a fantastic job of clarifying that balance. On top of that, it paints a wonderful picture of both the darker and brighter sides of a Geisha's life. It's not pure oppression, while at the same time it's not all rainbows and butterflies. I love that the author was honest in this portrayal, and kept his writing very respectful and open about a Geisha's life style.
And finally, it was simply an interesting story. The characters were well developed and interesting to follow, and I found myself deeply connected to their experiences. It's a wonderful novel I highly recommend.
More than 1 year ago
I adore the film adaptation but it's like looking at the reflection of a flower compared to the tragic loveliness the novel portrays. While there are some cultural innacuracies that a concientious reader would do well to research (the very misunderstood mizuage ceremony specifically) it tells a simple and sad but ultimately peaceful story. If you liked the film you will love this even more!
More than 1 year ago
This book is written around the World War II era of Japan. Its written in fairly complex literature, with full English and Japanese names and locations. Its historacle fiction, whereas the events in the story took place but the people are for the most part fictional.
This story is about a young girl living in the country of Japan. She is taken away with her sister to be sold off to the Geisha market, where they will spend years learning how to entertain men for gifts and money. For the longest time she was thought to be a troublemaker and never to be a Geisha, but none could reject the fact that she was unique from everyone else in Japan, she had "mizu" or blue colored eyes.
After several years of being beaten by those that ran her Geisha house, of causing reckless mistakes, and of being plotted against on a regular basis by the most respectable Geisha in all of Japan, she became one of the most desired women in Japan.
She soon fell in love with a chairman, so she planned out how she could get to him. However, war broke out between Japan and the United States...
More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha. It was an enjoyable read and the plot really intrigued the reader. The topic was interesting as well, because I am not knowledgeable in Japanese history or geisha.
Though this was a fictional novel, it still gave me the idea of what it would have been like to have been a Japanese geisha. Golden did a spectacular job of telling the story. His use of language and the voice he gave to his characters made you believe that Sayuri and her friends were all real people. As you kept reading, you became attached to her silliness and watched her mature into a funny, beloved geisha.
One of the things I loved about this story was Sayuri’s personality. Her foolishness got her into massive amounts of trouble. At one point in the story, all seemed lost. You got the feeling that Sayuri would never make it out, but she came back, stronger than ever. I love how in that moment, Golden gave you goose bumps, and made you feel as if you might lose Sayuri. Then, he gave us that moment of relief when all became well for her. He also snuck in a little lesson for Sayuri; she learned the importance of hard work and the satisfaction of earning something yourself. The story definitely showed the hard work done by her in order to become a geisha.
One thing I did not like about Memoirs of a Geisha was some of the subject matter. Sex was a very prominent topic in the book; it was a common thing for a geisha to take part in. I feel that Golden’s elaborate descriptions made the reader uncomfortable. I just thought that Golden was a little too detailed.
Overall, the account of Sayuri’s life was phenomenal. I believe that anybody can read this book, even if you know nothing about Japan. I think that once the book is opened, it will not be closed until your eye scans the very last word. From the moment you pick Memoirs of a Geisha up, you will be almost disappointed to know that Sayuri Nitta is only fiction.
More than 1 year ago
Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden does a wonderful job on talking an interview of a women and telling her story as a geisha.
Nitta Sayuri tells her life on what it was like to be a geisha. Sayuri's story begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, as a nine year-old with the most unusable blue-gray eyes. She was taking away from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. Where women witness the transformation of a geisha and the arts of dance and music.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a book with a lot of vivid metaphors, nature imagery, and other imagery and describe the feeling of the characters in the book. The memorable characters and what they face. What it is was like to be a geisha through Natti Sayuri eyes.
This descriptive book has you wanting to read until you can't stop till the end. You will see differently about the Japanese culture and their history. Once you start to read you could hardly put the book down or even if you want to take a break because it's telling you about a person life. Read "Memoirs of a Geisha" and read the suspenseful, romantic, erotic and is completely unforgettable.
More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put the book down honestly. It was so lovely and so enchanting I had to keep going until the end.
More than 1 year ago
Hauntingly beautiful. Wonderfully written. A story to last more than just a single lifetime.
This isn't simply about a geisha living during the early 20th century. Rather, this is the tale of a woman who is forced to accept a destiny she never expected to forgo.
Chiyo is but a young girl when she is sold from her "tipsy" house in the fishing village of Yoroido to live in the geisha district of Gion, located in Kyoto. At first Chiyo yearns to do nothing more than find her sister, Satsu, and go home--but along the way she is met with heartache and deception. But, eventually, Chiyo realized her more mature self, Sayuri, loves her life in Gion. Sayrui herself grows into an alluring, popular geisha who trumps her adversaries with poised dignity, unmatched grace, and meticulous planning.
Sayuri can't simply be described in a paragraph or two with just a ramble of pretty words. The best I can manage to describe her, however, is that she's like an ethereal being who has touched the hearts of many throughout her lifetime. Many times I found myself wishing I could be like her in more ways than one--her tenacity and cunning are the stuff of legends, and--yes--her beauty makes many swoon. Plus, throughout her journey she holds onto the two things that many let slip through their fingers when they are still naive to the world--hopes and dreams.
Sayuri holds onto the hope that she will one day see her family again, and dreams of the day of the one she loves the most will call her his own. As she grows older she breaks into her own in several different ways. In many ways, Sayuri is one of those epic characters who successfully steals a piece of your heart.
It is safe to say that from this moment on, I will hold Memoirs of a Geisha close to my heart. Even when I'm as old as Sayuri at the end of the novel, I'll find myself re-reading this novel and dreaming of both a beautiful and heartbreaking time in cultural history--and reliving Chiyo's transformation and life as Sayuri all over again.
More than 1 year ago
I read this in paperback and fell in love with Sayuri and her vision of Gion. The narrative feels startlingly real, to the exent of my being surprised that Sayuri never truly existed. The language and word choice employed by Golden is so lucid and seductive that the book is near impossible to close once opened. While certainly racy at times, the book avoids straying into overly lurid territory, achieving a breathtakingly beautiful balance between sensuality and hardship. The absolutely hypnotic descriptions of kimonos, ceremonies, Gion, etcetera are amongst the most well-written and gaspingly lovely passages I have ever read. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for elements of a historic documentary, a love story, and a search for identity.
More than 1 year ago
The book was better than the movie and the movie was exceptional.
More than 1 year ago
Golden does a wonderful job of blending the history of Japan from the 20's through the 50's through the eyes of one Geisha it is hard not to imagine him sitting in a teahouse in New York with a tape recorder and notepad at the feet of an aging Sayuri. Part history of Kyoto and all about the life and culture of the Geisha of Gion, it is a tale that draws you in from the first pages to its somewhat predictable conclusion. Being a realist I imagined the worse scenario befalling the heroine and in this tale it usually did, but for me the ending was not full of the terrible grief and loss that I had come to expect. A truly moving tale with memorable characters and imagery that will endure in my mind for years to come. Thanks for a great read, one of those rare books I couldn't put down and that leaves me a bit sad to return to the shelf.
I started this journey on a rainy November afternoon in a small hotel room in Kyoto just across the river from Gion and steps from Pontocho. I finished it back home in Los Angeles, and as I read it here I found myself back in Japan side by side with Sayuri as she walked the streets I had so recently left behind. Thank you for taking me back to Kyoto so vividly and for giving me an even greater desire to return.
More than 1 year ago
I liked the book Memoirs of a Geisha in some parts; but I also disliked it at other parts. I
liked the fact that the author was very descriptive of colors and really described the scenery.
Especially when he would write about the kimonos, he would describe it so that I felt that I had
actually just seen the beautiful kimono with my own eyes.
I did not like the fact that at some points in the book it would be very interesting and a lot
would be going on but in a lot of other parts nothing seemed to be happening. There was a lot of
detail about the daily life of Sayuri for a while which didn’t seem to be relevant to the story. One
example was when Sayuri was a maid, there would be extensive detail about was her chores and
how she was jealous of Pumpkin because she was in training to become a Geisha.
I think that if I was not reading this for a school project I would of liked it even more. I tend
to not like books as much when I’m reading it for an assignment as much as I would have if I
was reading it on my own. If it wasn’t the book that I picked for my assignment then I probably
would have picked it up anyway later on because the story sounds and is indeed a very
interesting one. Before I read this book I knew nothing of Geisha, but now I know exactly what
they are and what they do.
I think that the audience that would most like this book would be patient people that can
stand to read a lot of detail. Also people that like to learn about being a geisha back during World
War Two. I would recommend this book and will most likely be reading it again sometime in the
More than 1 year ago
Memoirs of a Geisha
By Arthur Golden
In 1929 Sayuri’s mother has fallen ill and her father is no longer able to care for her and her older sister, she is soon sold to a representative of a geisha house in the Kyoto district. The she works as a maid and is trained in music and dance with hopes of becoming a geisha one day. But when she is caught trying to run away she is deemed too much of a risk to continue her training, until an accomplished Geisha decides to take her under her wing and teach her everything she knows to introduce her into the society. As she is an apprentice she comes across a man, the only man that had shown her kindness when she was a child, increasing her determination to become a Geisha and gain his approval.
This is not only the story of a Geisha it is the story of Japan during the great depression and during world war two, beautifully written around the struggles of a woman who must work as hard as she can to support herself. The romance is flawless and the drama is poignant and breathtaking this was an amazing read. The movie that followed this book is one of my favorites, though the movie could not come close to the beauty within this novel.
More than 1 year ago
I read this book years ago. Ive never seen the movie but the book is sooooooo good!! A great buy believe me! Definately worth the money!!
More than 1 year ago
I love this book! Looking for a good read that might make you cry, smile, then cry again? Get this!
More than 1 year ago
This was a wonderful easy read. I learned so much about the Japanese and geisha culture through this journey with Sayuri. I loved all the poetic metaphors told throughout the story as well. If you are looking for a light enjoyable read with love, struggles, triumphs, and all the emotions in between this book will not disappoint.
More than 1 year ago
wonderful book, so much better than the movie.
More than 1 year ago
'Memoirs of a Geisha' brings the cult of geisha to a vivid expose and new understanding of the geisha regimen and place in history. 'Memoirs of a Geisha' does all of this in a tender, gripping and enlightening manner for those of us in the unknowing of this aspect of Eastern culture. All the elements of human emotion come to the fore, leaving the reader with the paradox of sadness and joy, pleasure with pain, the rescue of an unknown person to the pinnacle of fame, at a high price. This heart rendering story is hauntingly beautiful. One cannot forget easily the geishas of history whose lives of servitude, regimen, and harsh discipline hinged on the whims of fancy and fortune in the power of men of varying degrees of stature. This is a 'must read' for those who, like myself, had misconceived knowledge of the underpinnings and the life of a geisha.
8 days ago
I’ve enjoyed this book immensely.
5 months ago
6 months ago
More than 1 year ago
I've read it at least four times!
More than 1 year ago
"The Memoirs of Geisha" is a pretty wide known book. Almost 500 pages long, I found it surprising that the author never made it boring. The descriptions are simple but you can always picture the scene immediately, and the story is paced just about right. The book is overall about the life of Sayuri from young to grown-up, containing many characters that all play an important role in her life. Whether it's the "survival" parts or the relationship parts that you like, you get enough of it throughout the story, and they are told so lively that they interconnect.
At first I didn't know if this was the right book for me, because it was long and had so many plot in it. However, the further you get into the book, the harder it is to stop reading. One time when my friend was texting with me, I made myself read a few lines of the book. Then before I knew it, I'm three-four pages over, and my friend was complaining why I didn't reply. To be honest, I got so stuck in the book that I completely forgot I was in the middle of texting. That's how interesting and fluent the author portrayed the story!
I strongly recommend it to people who are interested in the Japanese Geisha culture, and even to those who have no clue what that is, because you will learn a lot while having fun at the same time. However, it should be taken to account that not all parts of the novel is truly based upon the geisha culture. The prototype of Sayuri is a former geisha (once Japan's most famous geisha) named Mineko Iwasaki, whom Arthur Golden interviewed and wrote about in the Acknowledgements. Many events and characters in the book were directly based off of her stories, so Iwasaki took Sayuri as a portrayal of herself. It was surprising that Iwasaki sued Golden afterwards for the book. Why? Before the interview, Golden agreed to keep Iwasaki's involvement confidential, but not only did he mention her in the Acknowledgements, he "twisted reality," in Iwasaki's words. Coincidently, the mizuage auction part of the book was one of the parts Iwasaki claimed to be an unreal custom and would never occur in those days. "After Memoirs was published, Iwasaki received criticism and even death threats for violating the traditional geisha code of silence." Iwasaki later published an autobiography "Geisha of Gion" to contrast with the fiction in "Memoirs of Geisha."
Though I don't really like some parts/characters of the book (in a moral way), it doesn't affect me enjoying the book. After all, the author does a great job absorbing his readers, no matter how debatable some actions or stories in the book are. Personally I didn't like the ending because I would never agree with Sayuri's final decision, but I understand that in her position there might be no other choice, or that some people just follow their heart no matter the consequences. And sometimes that's how life works.
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
One of those books that gives you a new perspective through the eyes of someone else. Suddle nuances and details give layers to the story and bring it to life in a way that is rarely acheived. Beautiful transition from life as described by a child to life as described by a woman who has seen both the best and worst of what the world has to offer.