Dreams, Spirits and Kitchens – Reading Banana Yoshimoto

You know, I’ve noticed dreams appearing a lot in fantasy or surrealist novels, even magic realism (which is not too far departed from the others, I can tell you that much!)

For instance, Daine often communicated with the Badger god through dreams in Tamora Pierce’s The Immortals quadrilogy – which, I should mention, is one of my favourite novel series (yeah, I’ve been Pierced – ho ho, look what I did there).

Funnily enough, this whole communing with gods through dreams is a very common form of the fantastic in literature, from what I’ve seen in the fantastic novels. I wrote a whole chapter on Dreams and their connection with mythology when doing my dissertation, focusing on several Japanese novelists. One of those novelists happened to be lady who goes by the name of Banana Yoshimoto, once Mahoko Yoshimoto. Why her pen-name happens to be Banana… well, she loves the banana flower (from the genus Musa), for its cute and androgynous sounding name (thanks, Wikipedia!). She’s not the only one to have done this, either. The renowned haiku poet Basho named himself so for the banana tree in honour of the home h is disciples built for him, and the banana tree (basho) they planted. For him, I believe, it involved key aesthetics that were rife within the era… and area. The area being China and Japan.

I was introduced to Yoshimoto through research for my dissertation – which turned out to be lucky, because her writing ending up forming a hefty part of my studies. One of these, and the first I read, as well, was her novella/short story collection ‘Kitchen’. I don’t really know what to call it, as it includes two stories, so it’s not really a novel or novella, but then I’m not sure you could call it a ‘collection’, either. Shall we call it a ‘novel collection’, for now? It is rather novel, after all. I was interested to see both stories described as involving ‘transexuality’ – a note, by the way: I know it should be transgender, not transexual, but there’s no way of attaching an ‘ism’ or an ‘ality’ to transgender without it sounding stupid. It says a lot really, you can’t reduce it down to just a word, take the people out of the equation, you know? Anyway, that whole misnomer didn’t really bother me. I don’t have a right to be offended by it, and at the end of the day it’s just a word (ironic, really, saying that, as I am well acquainted with the gashes of words) that doesn’t detract from the quality of the book. It was interesting to see the blurb draw attention to that whole thing, really, as it’s not a massive part of either story. Eriko’s part in Kitchen focuses the effect she leaves on Mikage and Yuichi as his mother/father, including after her death in the second part of the story, while Hiiragi’s cross-dressing in Moonlight Shadow is described more as a way of dealing with the death of his girlfriend. In fact, both instances could be considered as a way of dealing with loss. Eriko transitions after her wife dies, and it appears that she just one day wakes up and decides to ‘become a woman’ – as in, less of a realisation and more of a spontaneous decision. Spontaneous is, in fact, the epitome of who Eriko is.

Dreams play a large part in both Kitchen and the accompanying Moonlight Shadow. Hell, existing dreams aside the entire novel has a dreamlike feel to it. I mean, look at this:

“That summer I had taught myself to cook. The sensation that my brain cells was exhilarating. I bought three books on cooking – fundamentals, theory and practise – and went through them one by one. On the bus, in bed, on the sofa, I read the one on theory, memorising caloric content, temperatures, and raw ingredients. Every spare minute I cooked. Those three books grew tattered with use, and even now I always have them near at hand. Like the picture books I loved when I was little, I know the illustrations on each page by heart.” (Kitchen, Yoshimoto, p57)

I think it’s the nostalgic tone that is so rife within Yoshimoto’s work that creates this dreamlike sense. If you think about it, memories and dreams are in appearance very similar. How many can say they have mistaken dreams for memories, or memories for dreams? Probably quite a lot. I know I have, I’ve even written poetry about it. But the wistful and dreamy descriptions are what I love so much about Yoshimoto’s writing. It embodies the healing that follows accepting the pain of the past and because of that it’s so comforting to read, like drinking a whole bottle of wine but only receiving a faint buzz, or eating aaaaall of the good quality chocolate one can eat without getting sick or diabetic or even dead through chocolate poisoning. It’s like that – and this is happening through all of the character’s dreadfully sad experiences. It’s uplifting.

“Back?” Yuichi looked surprised. “Where to? Where did you come from?” You’re right,” I teased, wrinkling my nose. “If I tell you, this night will become reality.” (Kitchen, Yoshimoto, p101)

But writing style aside, my favourite part really is the dreams. There’s not actually a lot of proper dreams that are described within the narrative. In the first story, Kitchen, there’s only the one shared dream between Mikage and Yuichi – which frankly is beautiful on its own – and is constantly referred to through the rest of the story. Yoshimoto does this in her other collections, too, although they don’t always exist to display the connection between two people. In Asleep, the constantly sleeping, jobless Terako is visited by the spirit of her boyfriend’s comatose wife in a bid to get her off her butt – although, you could say they were both connected by the lover they shared. It’s this connection to others which marks the reason why the dreams in Yoshimoto’s stories are my favourite part. Even when the dreams become a source of pain, like in Moonlight Shadow, they represent a connection between others instead of an exploration of the self. Maybe it’s somehow referring to how we are all made up of the people we’ve known, even after those people have died. Maybe I’m looking too much into it. That’s the problem with literary analysis. I know everyone says that the meaning of a book lies within its readers, but can you ever truly profess to understand the true nature, meaning, symbolism of a book? I don’t know. At the very least, considering the heavy association with healing in Yoshimoto’s writing, using something like dreams as a means of forging a stronger connection with others would surprise me.

Before I bring this to a close, I’d like to bring attention to an image I found while searching for a potential cover image for this post. It didn’t feel right to just use it,  but I’d still like to show it because it looks awesome. It was designed by a person called Heejin Park, and if I’m right in what I’ve read on the blog post, they were designing their ideal front cover for the novel:

“Kitchen” by Heeijin Park

I really wish there was an actual copy of Kitchen with this cover. I already have my own copy of Kitchen but I’d love one with this. Personally, I think it perfectly represents the tone and personality of the novel. Also, I love the general style of their art after looking through their blog, so props to them for that.

Anyway, I’m going to leave it here for now. I’ve been working on finishing all of the draft posts I’ve started on here, but was never able to finish. Now that my studies are over, I’m hoping to find the time to actually complete and post them. I’ve still yet to find a proper routine to this thing, but hopefully that will be fairly soon. You can likely expect to see a lot more game-related posts on here, since that’s the bulk of them – and once I’ve finished playing Dishonoured (finally!), I’m planning to write something about that, too.

I’m so lucky to have an intellectual, game-savvy boyfriend to discuss all this with. It’s very helpful.

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