‘Geisha’ by Liza Dalby: A Review

    So, I finally have another book review for you guys. When you read books all day every day for your degree, and then spend hours reflecting upon them- it can be hard to motivate yourself to finish writing a book review. Hence, many half finished reviews in the “drafts” section of my blogger dashboard. But, I have now finished this one, and it’s ready to be sent out into the world.

Geisha

      , not to be confused with Arthur Golden’s

Memoirs of a Geisha

      , is a little different to my other reviews, because it’s a non-fiction text. This is the real life account of Liza Dalby, the only foreigner ever to become a geisha. Dalby was an anthropology student who went and trained, and lived, as a geisha for a period of time, and who recorded it in this book. This is a comprehensive guide to the flower and willow world, and so I had to have it. I picked it up from a charity shop too (student city charity shops always have better books; you’re always sure to find something of interest), and so it was a complete bargain in my eyes.

Dalby writes with both a creative and engaging voice, weaving the history of geisha into her own experiences seamlessly. She includes photos, reproductions of wood block prints, posters, charts, figures, and graphs- all of which track the evolution of the geisha, giving an accurate idea of the rise and fall of geisha numbers. Her anecdotes of hosting in tea rooms, and life in Kyoto are hilarious, eye opening, and sometimes even sad. Reading this, I developed a much better understanding of the geisha culture, from the different types of geisha that exist, to town rivalries, differences between country and city geisha, and even how a woman’s geisha name is given to her. It brought Memoirs of a Geisha (review of right here: http://ecstaticallyem.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/the-memoirs-of-geisha-by-arthur-golden.html ) more sharply into focus. In all honesty, it made me wish that I’d taken an anthropology degree.

      The most common statement uttered when I express an interest in geisha culture is this: t

hey’re just prostitutes.

      Although the ‘mizuage’ tradition (the sexual initiation of an apprentice geisha, or ‘maiko’) in years long gone does hint at something like this, geisha are so much more. The word ‘gei’ literally means art, and so a geisha is defined as a female artist. The geisha’s dedication to her art is phenominal, be it dance, singing, or shamisen playing; they are rigorous in their studying of their chosen art, alongside mastering an array of others. Geisha are meant to be witty, with a firm mastery of conversation – which is why they make excellent hostesses in tea rooms. A geisha does not often become accomplished and attain a certain richness that is desirable in conversation until she is in her thirties. Much of this is lost on foreigners; in a tea house we cannot understand the conversation geisha make due to the language barrier. Unfortunately, this means that much of the elegance and amusement of the geisha world is not something we can experience. The idea that most people associate with geisha is that of the ‘y

ū

      jo’, or ‘woman of pleasure’. The history of the y

ū

      jo and geisha is intertwined, but you’ll have to buy the book yourself to read more on this…

One final thing I wish to mention, which I found fascinating, is the process of selecting the name that a maiko shall take. This name usually has a basis in the name of the apprentice geisha’s older “sister”. Her sister is not a blood relation, just as the mother of an ‘okiya’ (a geisha house; all geisha must be affiliated with a house in order to be officially registered in their community) is not the girl’s mother usually, but a figure that will provide advice and wisdom during the maiko’s journey to become a fully fledged geisha. As the ceremony binding sisters is taken seriously, Dalby did not take a name based on her elder sister’s- as for all intents and purposes she was masquerading as a geisha in order to study and present their side of the story. Instead, she took the name ‘Kikuko’: ‘kiku’ meaning  ‘chrysanthemum’, and ‘ko’ being a common feminine suffix.

This book, in summary, is a wealth of knowledge for anyone remotely interested in geisha culture. It’s as close as you will probably ever get to being inside an okiya, living as a geisha. Dalby’s writing style is easy going, and though informative, you’ll never feel overwhelmed with knowledge. It’s an enjoyable read. and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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