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Research papers

Eating and Reading Hiromi Goto

  • Lisa Harris

Corps de l’article

“What can be more basic than food itself?”

—Hiromi Goto, Chorus of Mushrooms [1]

Characters lick, chomp, slurp, and chew their way through Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms and The Kappa Child[2] Yet Goto’s characters and texts balance on the knife edge of the diner becoming the dish, as they are consumed by the reader. In the act of writing, culture is “simplified, commodified, as readily consumed as yoghurt,” says Goto. “Lactose intolerant? Don’t worry, there are tablets you can chew so everyone can enjoy!” [3] Goto complicates a “fast-food” reading, as she does not simplify commodify herself as a Japanese-Canadian woman to be gulped down by the reader. Instead, she introduces delicate narrative bones to problematize the markers of gender or race that the reader may rely on. When Goto’s narrative does not perform conventionally, and she presents the reader with an ambiguously gendered narrator in The Kappa Child, or the failure of a multicultural meal in Chorus of Mushrooms, such bones of contention can result in a kind of recoil in the reader.

Food is idiosyncratic, unconventional, and celebrates mixture rather than uniformity in Goto’s fiction. I read Goto’s characters as embodying the same qualities as their food, and I use food as an extended metaphor to explore how the novel questions nationality and gender as culturally fixed and pure concepts. Guy Beauregard notes that “Goto insists on the provisional nature of cultures and identities, and negotiates shifting and evasive Japanese-Canadian feminist subject positions.” [4] One way Goto maintains the provisional nature of culture is through language. Goto assumes that her “readers are English-speaking and do not understand Japanese” [5] and she uses the Japanese characters and Romanized Japanese words in Chorus of Mushrooms to “highlight that difference exists, all cannot be understood, language could and can be a barrier.” [6] The Japanese words get stuck in the non-Japanese speaking reader’s throat, precipitating a kind of reading recoil, since the reader may react to a challenging part of the text as they would to a piece of hair or a fish bone in one’s food. Recoil, or the inability to swallow, therefore provides a useful model to understand our inability to read and reading as consumption.

The style and content of Goto’s writing call attention to the act of reading in the same way that feeling disgust calls attention to the act of eating. When the narrator of The Kappa Child is forced to eat rotten chicken, for example, it [7] is aware of every taste, texture and “the gristly white threads [of chicken] growing like tapeworms in [its] stomach.” [8] The narrator is made conscious of how and what it eats, in the same way that Goto’s narrative makes the reader aware of how and what they read. One stops to investigate the food, and assesses whether it is still wise to eat it. Although recoil exists within the story when characters spit out inedible potato salad or rotten chicken, recoil on a structural level implicates the reader’s consumption through reading. Whilst rejecting the greasy chicken in The Kappa Child signifies the narrator’s inability to stomach its father’s aggressive attempts to provide for his family, how the reader reacts to an absence of gendered cues in The Kappa Child, or the expectation of “markers of ethnicity” [9] in “Not Your Ethnic Body,” signifies the reader’s politics of reading practice.

Here, I will explore how Hiromi Goto’s fictocriticism, “Not Your Ethnic Body,” interrupts the readers’ assumptions about how they read Japanese Canadian writers. I explore how the narrative structure of the novels Chorus of Mushrooms and The Kappa Child also interrupt such assumptions. Goto’s fiction and critical work are particularly invested in complicating the Japanese-Canadian body as a site of consumption, and food theory offers one way to understand how the reader approaches Goto’s text. [10]

Hiromi Goto was born in Chiba-ken, Japan, and immigrated to Canada with her family in 1969. She grew up on the West Coast and in Alberta, and now lives in British Columbia. Goto has won multiple awards for her writing, and food plays a significant role in her three published novels, Chorus of Mushrooms, The Kappa Child, and The Water of Possibility. Her collection of short stories, Hopeful Monsters, also returns to food grown, eaten, shared, and rejected in a world where monsters are closer to home than we may like to think.

In personal correspondence related to my research, Goto writes, “food is dear to me, both physically, literally and symbolically.” [11] Yet the recurrence of food in Goto’s work not only reflects her personal interest but also points to the racialized history of Japanese-Canadian agricultural labour and food production in Canada. At the end of the 19th century, immigration to Canada was encouraged as cheap labour to build Canadian infrastructure, including the Canadian Pacific Railway. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, Western Canada, home to the majority of Japanese and Chinese immigrants, went through an economic depression, and white unemployed Canadians vented their anger against Asian immigrants with violent race riots and racist immigration policies.

After Pearl Harbour, 22,000 Japanese were “named…out of existence as Canadian citizens” [12] when their property, personal belongings, and fishing vessels were seized by the Government. In March 1942, Japanese Canadians from the coastal villages and Vancouver Island were herded into the Livestock Building at Hastings Park, Vancouver, and left in squalid conditions. [13] By November 1942, some 12,000 Japanese Canadians were interned in ramshackle detention camps in the interior of British Columbia, a further 4,000 were forcibly relocated to remote areas of Alberta and Manitoba to work on sugar beet farms, and the remainder lived in self-supporting communities in B.C. or were sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Ontario. [14]

After the war, many Japanese Canadians were prevented from returning to their homes. The official policy of dispersal meant that those who refused to move eastwards were classified as disloyal, stripped of their citizenship, and eventually deported to Japan. [15] The racism of internment was partially re-inscribed through food since the labour camps forced workers into food production, and many Japanese-Canadian families have their history tied to farming and food production as a result. Hiromi Goto herself grew up on a mushroom farm in Alberta. Although Goto does not make direct reference to this racialized agricultural history, it is indicated in the racism that each family faces in Chorus of Mushrooms and The Kappa Child and provides the setting for both novels.

Not Your “Edible” Body

“Not Your Ethnic Body” is a short piece of fiction, which critiques the social constructedness of race in the relationship between the writer and the reader. The protagonist is an author working at home, who is interrupted by the voice of an invisible “they” reading over her shoulder who cajole her to “talk of ethnicities, not race, [and it is] certainly inappropriate to talk about racism.” [16] The text is interspersed with sections of the protagonist’s writing, poking fun at the tensions she negotiates as a Japanese-Canadian woman, when Canadian signifies “white.” Goto explores the conversations inherent in her bicultural identity, without reducing or privileging one over the other. Goto investigates how “ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture,” [17] and yet she refuses to be this spice at the same time.

Towards the end of the piece the protagonist stands naked before the judgemental voices and asserts the autonomy of her body-text: “you would like to know me,” she says, “but you won’t. You call me ethnic and you seek to possess me like you have possessed the term ethnic for yourselves and everyone else based upon your own definitions.” [18] The protagonist then disappears into a blip on her computer screen, as “they” punch on the keys and pull the plug to desperately get her back. When the protagonist is not the spice, the voices are left looking at their own dull dish.

The protagonist’s fiction describes a woman with skin “gleaming like polished cedar” and “long silky black hair” that smells “rich and ancient like incense in a temple.” [19] The woman’s lover, George-san, is so overcome by her that he is inspired to write a book called, “I Wanked Off In Japan and Now I Wrote This Book.” [20] “They are not amused” [21] by the writer mocking their taste and refuse to accept her writing, excusing themselves by saying that “it’s not the kind of body they are interested in.” [22] “They” want the writer to behave in a certain way as a female, ethnic body, and the writer is rejected when she does not deliver what “they” expect to be on the menu.

The title alludes to ownership and racism; it could be read “not your ethnic body” and does not belong to you, or “not your ethnic body” to problematize the label ethnic. It is not categorically stated that the narrator has Japanese ancestry, but Japanese words (“umeboishi baba”), [23] proper names (Mari, Junko, and George-san) and food (salted sour plums) suggest that she does. Yet this very question of categorical ancestry is mocked by the narrator as she explicitly names “foreign words,” “chopsticks,” and “exotic foods” as weighted “markers of ethnicity” [24] that “you”—the assumed reader or publishing world—expect to read about.

Audrey Kobayashi and Linda Peake argue that “whiteness is indicated less by its explicit racism than by the fact that it ignores, or even denies, racist indications.” [25] Hiromi Goto does not allow such indications to go unnoticed, and her protagonist uses the words “foreign” and “exotic” to mock any attempt to compare her to a non-existent normality. In another critical work, Goto argues that:

Caucasian Canadian writers writing about Caucasian characters, their lives, their tragedies, their “culture,” are not perceived as writing from culture, because it has been institutionalised, colonized, as the norm against which everything else is measured. [26]

Goto ensures that the reader is made aware of how they read from culture. “Not Your Ethnic Body” challenges how the Japanese-Canadian body is constructed through writing, and the protagonist playfully destabilises her “ethnic” body before the judgemental voices can reject her for not being “ethnic” enough.

Sneja Gunew argues that it is an “easy leap from the food of the other to the symbolic consumption of the body of the other.” [27] I read “Not Your Ethnic Body” as investigating the very moment of that leap, putting it on pause so to speak, expanding the gap, and making the terrain unfamiliar, in order to prevent the leap from being so easy. As bell hooks writes:

The commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization. [28]

“Not Your Ethnic Body” is stuffed with food-related imagery and language which displace a cannibalistic reading practice. The narrator of “Not Your Ethnic Body” plays with the symbolic consumption of the other by contextualising herself as a subject to be consumed by the reading public, yet her awareness of her role and that of the reader prevents her from being totally consumable. The protagonist lies on her futon, turning from her back to her belly to her side, like meat on a rotisserie, and the predatory voices “wait…gasp…stare mouthing words they think will somehow save them.” [29] The narrator gestures towards eating herself, repeatedly bringing her fingers to her mouth, and referring to her lips as “umeboishi” even though “they didn’t look like a salted sour plum. [30]The textual structure savours morsels of the narrator’s body in turn, and the reader subsequently consumes the narrator’s tongue, lips, and skin as they read each section of the text. [31]

The protagonist’s writing is too complicated for the narrative voices of “Not Your Ethnic Body” to consume. They cannot stomach the subtleties of her mockery and are disgusted when their needs are exposed by her refusal to meet those racialized expectations. “Only something that you thought might delight or satisfy can disgust,” [32] and “Not Your Ethnic Body” transfers disgust onto the anticipation of delight and attempted racialization of the protagonist, rather than onto the protagonist herself. Although “they” try to blame her, the narrative voices need the protagonist’s presence more than she needs their approval.

The narrative close-ups of tongues, sticky fingers, and lingering consumption are reminiscent of scenes from Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. Film critic Yau Ching critiques the culinary “striptease” in Lee’s film because “when we Asians become the food we eat; the image of racialized food reinforces the stereotype of the Asian Body, smooth and soothing.” [33] Smooth and soothing are more feminine traits that, like taking one’s clothes off, Ching implies are disempowering. Yet Uma Narayan cautions against only associating agency with the dominant group, [34] and Goto’s protagonist demonstrates that being naked is not a weakness when she sustains a perspicacious literary/culinary striptease (an overwhelmingly female art form) using her body as false bait.

The protagonist exploits a powerful contradiction in her situation: that “they” see the protagonist as an “othered” category of being, and yet they listen closely to her every word. In food theory, “‘disgusting’ designates the horror of being brought into intimate contact with what is considered another category of being;” [35] disgust is thus both a moral and aesthetic category of what is deemed an Other. Cries of “that’s disgusting!” are a visceral reaction as well as a plea for reinforcement, “to assuage doubts that…we are not disgusting or shameful.” [36] In “Not Your Ethnic Body,” “they” try to assuage their doubts by rallying against the protagonist, but “they” are undermined by the protagonist’s shameless confidence in her naked body, as “she knows her body is beautiful and that they wish it theirs.” [37] Although the protagonist is positioned as a consumable subject, she demonstrates the provisional nature of this role, and turns the knife and fork onto her reading public.

“Guy, girl, so what?...Do I look like someone who cares?”:  [38] Ambiguous Gender in The Kappa Child

In a recent short story, British writer Sean French argues that “the most wonderful food of all teeters on the boundary of the edible.” [39] The protagonist’s body in Goto’s The Kappa Child could be said to teeter on the boundary of the readable since the narrator is not named, clearly gendered, or referred to in the third person. The narrator therefore cannot be consumed, because it cannot be located. Hiromi Goto explains that The Kappa Child was written to “explore the notion of gender and sexual identity and the body…If gender isn't apparent, how is sexuality defined?” [40]

The narrator of The Kappa Child becomes pregnant by the Kappa, a green, mythical Japanese creature that it encounters at the end of a night shift as a shopping cart collector. The narrator has three sisters—Slither, PG, and Mice—who all have a difficult relationship with their violent father and their long-suffering mother, Okasan. When the family moves to Alberta to farm rice, Goto juxtaposes their experience as Japanese Canadians with Laura Ingalls’s experience of starting a new life on the American prairies in Little House on the Prairie. The family encounters racism in such a closed community, and only after the narrator’s “alien” pregnancy is resolved, does the narrator overcome its feeling of being an “alien” in the family, and accept loved ones into its life.

The unmarked position has traditionally been white, heterosexual, and male. Goto, however, refuses to mark her characters with gender and instead pushes the reader to become aware of how they may fill in the narrative blanks with assumptions that never quite seem to fit. Goto wanted to “explore an identity that placed no quantitative values on physical and social cues” in The Kappa Child, and “to explore a character who was learning to become instead of the gendered baggage we’re laden with since birth.” [41] Although the spaces in the narrative (such as name or gender) invite being completed, the narrative simultaneously resists completion because the characters are in a state of becoming rather than static subjectivity.

Elspeth Probyn would celebrate this becoming as rhizomatic messiness that “produces fabulous bodies with ‘multiple entryways and exits,’” [42] and any analysis of The Kappa Child must reference this messy becoming in its critical prose. There is no neutral personal pronoun in English, and by removing the social cues of a gendered personal pronoun, Goto exposes the short-sightedness of assuming that that s/he is sufficient. Ultimately the rigidity of English grammar cannot support the complex multiple entryways and exits of subjectivity that Goto invokes. It is tempting to refer to the narrator as “she,” since the narrator becomes pregnant, there is reference to menstruation and breasts, and the narrator moves towards coming out as a lesbian by the end of the novel. Yet Goto does not refer to the narrator as she, and it would be inaccurate for any analysis to enforce quantitative gendered values in the name of grammatical correctness. Grammar and language are not barriers for the narrator, as it can talk about itself seamlessly. Any academic interpretation of the narrator using s/he, however, draws attention to its gendered imposition on the text or must announce its objectification of the subject by referring to the narrator as “it.” Although the critical work on The Kappa Child refers to the narrator as “she,” [43] I refer to the narrator as “it” to prevent recourse to the gendered baggage that Goto so carefully dismantles.

Deborah Lupton states that “foods that are of ambiguous texture or appearance evoke disgust,” [44] and although it may be true that humans are reticent to eat an unknown substance, what is classed as “unknown” is learnt and culturally specific. In Japan, for example, milk only gained popularity in the early 20th century as it was previously shunned along with the taboo of slaughtering animals. [45] By making her narrator ambiguous, Goto taps into the reactions associated with recoil or disgust to highlight the limitations of a learnt and culturally specific construction of gender.

In her article “Translating the Self,” Goto describes her existence as “permanently liminal, permanently in translation.” [46] I would argue that in The Kappa Child, Goto encourages the reader to exist in a liminal state by abandoning gender as a pivotal orientation. Goto creates ambiguously gendered characters that challenge the hegemonic desire to name and consume the Japanese-Canadian body; “forge another route,” says the narrator of The Kappa Child, “draw your own map.” [47]

Chorus of Mushrooms: Eating after Multiculturalism

Chorus of Mushrooms is set on a mushroom farm in Alberta, and examines the experience of Japanese-Canadian immigration through the lives of three generations of women. Naoe, the Grandmother, lives with her son-in-law, her daughter Keiko, and their daughter, Muriel. Naoe will not “convert from rice and daikon to wieners and beans,” [48] she only speaks Japanese—although she is fluent in English—and she calls Muriel by her Japanese name, Murasaki. Each family member’s interpretation of what it means to become Japanese-Canadian is indicated by how and what they eat. Naoe, for example, takes refuge in food and the Japanese language to save herself from being blandly assimilated into white Canadian culture. Food unites Naoe and Murasaki as they have midnight feasts, and Naoe shares recipes and flavours through a telepathic connection with her granddaughter. Murasaki therefore learns to use food and language as tools to shape her own version of a Canadian future.

Near the end of the novel, Murasaki Tonkatsu discovers that her last name is also the name of a deep-fried pork cutlet dish. When Murasaki’s mother and father immigrated to Canada, they decided to stop speaking Japanese in an effort to assimilate. When they cannot remember how to pronounce their last name, Murasaki’s father insists on keeping “the one word [he] could remember. Tonkatsu!” [49] Murasaki cooks tonkatsu when the family is in disarray; the grandmother has run away like a rebellious teenager, the mother has regressed and stopped caring for herself, the father has shut himself away in his office, and the daughter must care for her parents. The tonkatsu meal would be an opportunity for a seamless multicultural ending when the young woman reunites her family who are struggling to live in Canada, with a traditional Japanese dish. Yet Goto detours such sentimentalism where “multiculturalism as food is often the most benign version of accommodating cultural difference.” [50]

Although Murasaki’s father chooses his family name as a reminder of their Japanese roots, it transpires that tonkatsu is not “purely” Japanese; “ton” means pork, but “katsu” is adopted from the cutlet, which is not a traditionally Japanese way to prepare meat. [51] Goto seems to be suggesting that notions of authenticity tied to a particular place are always socially constructed and subject to change. They must therefore be understood as part of an ongoing process of negotiation. Murasaki is not secure in her role as the culinary matriarch either; it takes three attempts to make tonkatsu worth eating and the family does not sit down to eat until two in the morning—when they do, they have no chopsticks. Even after her father whittles some hashi out of twigs from the garden, Murasaki does not know how to use them. Goto sets up a situation where the family name and meal have the potential to resolve the difficulties of a bicultural identity, yet she refuses to commodify these moments to a narrative end, and introduces complexity rather than a simple resolution.

“There wasn’t a sudden wellspring of words, as if everything we never said burst forth and we forgave each other for all our shortcomings,” says Murasaki. “We sat and ate.” [52] Georg Simmel argues that although eating is a communal moment, it ultimately confirms our experiential isolation from each other because of the idiosyncrasies of taste. [53] The tonkatsu meal is a Simmelian experience, as Goto demonstrates how eating can establish difference whilst bringing the family together.

“Food is the point of departure. A place where growth begins.” [54]

Elspeth Probyn argues that eating provides an “opportunity to go beyond a model whereby the body is an inert entity that passively accepts what goes into it” and that eating is a practise “that open[s] ourselves up into a multitude of surfaces that tingle and move.” [55] Goto rarely provides a secure ideological footing in her prose, as her characters have a dynamic surface that tingles and precludes them being passively consumed. She is aware of what readerly assumptions may exist for her characters and herself as a Japanese-Canadian woman—and like the narrator of “Not Your Ethnic Body,” the novels The Kappa Child and Chorus of Mushrooms use recoil on a narrative level to make gender and race more difficult to digest. Goto leaves a space in the text for the reader to gender and racialize her characters, but she never gives confirmation that such assumptions are accurate.

Goto uses language, complex characterisation, and a renunciation of multicultural resolution to prevent her narrative and characters from being consumed “like yoghurt.” The reader is led to question how race and gender operate in their own reading practise, and to savour the flavour and complexities of subjectivity. The narrator who plays up and reroutes her role as an object of consumer cannibalism, the inadequacies of the English language for dealing with an ambiguously gendered narrator in The Kappa Child, and food’s failure to provide resolution in Chorus of Mushrooms, are all indicative of a writing practise that playfully intercepts and critiques the construction of race and gender through reading.

Parties annexes