I just finished reading “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto, which contains two short novellas: “Kitchen” and “Moonlight Shadow”.
There are some emotions that almost everyone experiences, with very few exceptions. Yet the most common, most universal of emotions somehow manage to feel unique to each of us as we experiences them. When we taste the sweetness of love or the bitterness of losing one we love forever, we feel joy or suffering are ours alone. I live in the US. Over the last few years I have realized that when someone announces a death you say “I’m sorry” and you never try to empathize, saying “Yes, I know how you feel,” People don’t want to hear that. On TV or in movies, when a person tries to empathize or relate, it is met with dirty looks or throwing something at the offending party. We want isolation for our pain.
In “Kitchen,” Yoshimoto masterfully deconstructs the pain of losing a loved one, breaking it down into all its varied flavors; overwhelming and subtle. She writes about loneliness, fear, grief, and even anger in a way that feels so intimate, while also feeling normal and every day. So often in books and movies, pain gets the same fade to black treatment that sex scenes used to get. A character learns that they have lost the person they love most, a spouse, child, parent, or friend. For just a brief second we get to see their anguish and then we look away, embarrassed maybe? Only a few things can happen when the lights come back on; the story jumps ahead to years later when the pain has passed, the story becomes one of revenge and retribution. Or in the worst case, it is voyeuristic look at pain, where we roll around in the madness and sorrow of this person. It is this last way of dealing with the pain of loss that is why I seldom read “realism” novels written by and for adult women in my own culture. I take no joy in sharing that sort of pain, nor do I secretly hope for it as I theorize so many do.
A friend suggested I read “Kitchen,” letting me borrow her copy. In the first few pages of “Kitchen” I was a little skeptical, not sure if I could read this book. It opens with loss, with a young woman finding herself all alone, the last living member of her family. But Yoshimoto’s writing was so beautiful that I kept reading and soon I found that I was entranced by the story. I was even reading out passages to my partner and best friend, highlighting the loveliness and texture of the prose.
This is the beginning “Kitchen,” to give you a little taste of her style:
“The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me. Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. Where tile catching the light (ting! ting!).
I love even incredible dirty kitchens to distraction – Vegetable droppings all over the floor, so dirty your slippers turn black on the bottom. Strangely, it’s better if this kind of kitchen is large. I lean up against the silver door of a towering giant refrigerator stocked with enough food to get through a winter. When I raise my eyes from the oil-spattered gas burner and the rusty kitchen knife, outside the window stars are glittering, lonely.
Not only the kitchen and I are left. It’s just a little better than being alone”
In “Kitchen,” Yoshimoto was able to express that this woman’s pain was unique, but only in the tiny details, not in the overall experience. This story is very focused on cooking and revolves around the kitchen. So in terms of food I would say that all loss is the same dish, but that each of us makes it and experiences it differently.
Have you ever used saffron? Have you ever watched it bloom, releasing its flavor into a bowl of water that is then used in your cooking? If the moment of loss is the tiny thread of saffron, then these stories are the bloom, the orange color diffusing into the water, getting lighter and lighter the farther away from the thread it drifts. Until eventually all the water has become scented and flavored of saffron, even if you can hardly see it. Once you add it to rice, it might not bring any noticeable color at all, and yet it is there, maybe not even in every bite, but in some you will taste it and you will remember.
Each page is touched with sorrow and loneliness. But it is also just a subtle flavor in a story about everyday life.
“Every day I thrilled with the pleasure at the challenges tomorrow would bring. Memorizing the recipe, I would make carrot cakes that included a bit of my soul. At the supermarket I would stare at the bright red tomato, loving it for dear life. Having known such joy, there was no going back.
No matter what, I wanted to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without it, I am not alive. That is what makes the life I have now possible.” – Kitchen, page 59
So much of this book is wonderful; I almost want to quote the whole thing. But you know I can’t do that; instead you should buy it or go to the library.
These stories are not fantasy in the traditional sense. No magic, dragons, or wizards. I would not even call them magical realism. They are touched with a hint of fantasy so subtle that it gives the stories a dreamlike quality and beautiful whimsy, like a pinch of salt in hot chocolate. Or, now that I think about it, that saffron rice analogy is just as correct here. A dash of fantasy is in these stories, events that could just as easily be coincidence as magic, infusing the whole story with just slightest flavor of magic.
Like in this passage:
“I saw her face in profile as she watched the river. It shocked me- it was not the of the person I had just talked with. I have never seen such a severe expression on anyone.
She noticed me stand there, smiled brightly again and waved. Flustered, I returned her wave and broke into a run.
In heaven’s name, what kind of person was she? I pondered it for quite some time. More and more , that morning in the sunlight the impression of that mysterious Uraua carved itself with baroque filigree into my sleepy brain” from “Moonlight Shadow” in “Kitchen” page 117
Yoshimoto writes about the most everyday of events or experiences in the same way she writes about the strangest, which I find refreshing. A new juicer holds the same wonder as finding out someone is transsexual; a delicious meal on a cold night holds the same magical serendipity as being able to guess a person’s phone number.
I loved “Kitchen,” and I plan to read more of Yoshimoto’s work soon.