Bibliophile reviews Geisha (memoir, anthropology)

There are books I like to gobble up like candy, and then there are books I like to savour, like a long-drawn out meal where the food is so delicious you don’t want to stop eating. This is one of the latter type of book. It has taken me nearly a whole month to read, and I have therefore had ample time to digest it.

Author: Liza Crihfield Dalby
Year published: 1983
Genre: Anthropology, memoir

In the 1970s, anthropology student Liza Crihfield went to Japan to conduct a study of geisha for her Ph.D. thesis. The book is part anthropological study, part memoir, of Crihfield’s year among the geisha, who invited her to join their ranks, which she did, working as a geisha for about six months. She discusses geisha culture and historical fluctuations and changes in their fortunes, their private lives and their education, dress, social status and standards of conduct. It is a fascinating subject, and written in a very readable style, often with sly humour coming through.

One of the things Dalby tries to do in the book is to debunk the western myth that geisha are nothing but prostitutes and slaves to men’s whims and fancies. Neither myth is entirely true, but because westerners rarely see beneath the surface, things are interpreted in this way. Dalby takes care to stress that geisha are artists whose job is to entertain at parties with singing, music, dance and conversation, and because Japanese women rarely attend parties with their husbands and (at that time, don’t know what it’s like now) women were generally not among the high-ups in companies who would entertain clients, the geisha’s customers are mostly men. A geisha make take on a patron – i.e. become a mistress - but the relationship will, these days, be built more on the need for intimacy and companionship rather than money. Some individual geishas are prostitutes as well, but the group as whole is not. As to being anti-feminist – these was a time when the only way a Japanese woman could be financially independent and not have to marry was to become a courtesan, a prostitute or a geisha. Geisha were socially acceptable, while the other two were not, and so geisha were possibly the most independent women in Japan. In modern Japan this is no longer true as more opportunities have opened up, but even now if a woman wants to pursue a career in the traditional arts of singing, music or dancing, her best choice may be to become a geisha, because she can support herself financially while practicing her gei (art).

Much of the charm of the book is the author’s obvious love for the subject and her writing style. When academics write for laypersons – i.e. “the public” – rather than for other academics, they sometimes fail miserably because they are used to writing in a factual, impersonal style that tends towards dryness and which “the public” find boring, or because they make the mistake of dumbing the subject down too much. Not so Liza Crihfield Dalby. Her writing style is simple, flowing and personal and she allows her obvious love of and respect for the subject to shine through. She explains things in clear, beautiful prose without speaking down to the readers, and draws up an image of the “flower and willow world” of Japan that may not be accurate today, 30 years after she did her study, but which stands as a snapshot of the geisha culture as it was then.

Rating: Highly recommended, good reading, especially if you are interested in the subject. 5 stars.


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