“I mutter and mutter and no one to listen. I speak my words in Japanese and my daughter will not hear them. The words that come from our ears, our mouths, they collide in the space between us.”
Paperback, 268 pages.
Read from December 9, 2019 to December 12, 2019.
A Chorus of Mushrooms is what I would describe as “my kind of book”. It’s the type of book that details lives and scenarios that I know nothing about, with poetic, imaginative, and dream-like writing, and with words that are in partial or full in translation. There must be something about this ‘poetical otherness’ that I’m completely obsessed with. Another draw for me in this book is that the town the majority of the book is set in, Nanton, is a town I visited as a kid over many summers. The book also spends time in Calgary, a city I lived in for many years.
A Chorus of Mushrooms details the lives of three different generations of Japanese-Canadians on the matriarchal side and was first published in 1993. The family lives on a mushroom farm in Nanton, Alberta, Canada. The grandmother, Naoe, is very old and requires the care of her daughter, Keiko, and granddaughter, Muriel or Murasaki, as Naoe calls her. The first person narrative switches between Naoe and Murasaki and drifts between different points of time. Naoe knows English but refuses to speak it as her Keiko has abandoned her heritage and culture in order to try and assimilate into their home in Canada. Naoe may no longer be close to Keiko but they still care for each other in their own way. Naoe had a very different life in Japan and thing have not always been easy for her and she is frustrated because she feels she has no one to communicate with that deeply understands her. Despite her age, Naoe decides one day to leave her home in Nanton and in the middle of winter. From there, the story takes a different turn with Naoe making the reader wonder what’s real or the wishful imaginings of the author. Murasaki was always extremely fond of her grandmother and recounts her childhood and all the Japanese myths her grandmother used to tell her. After Naoe leaves, Murasaki attempts to fill the emptiness of her grandmother’s presence as well as a piece of her identity that has been kept from her by Keiko by attempting to reconnect with her heritage.
This beautiful book won numerous awards when it was first published and it’s easy to see why. The book will always continue to relevant as it speaks to anyone looking for their own identities or to anyone who has ever had to establish themselves in another country. Further, A Chorus of Mushrooms is partially autobiographical as Hiromi Goto moved to a mushroom farm in Nanton when she was a toddler and her grandmother used to tell her stories growing up too which I’m sure contributed to the intimate and personal feel of this story. The story itself is simple, elegant, and delicately told with sentences of untranslated Japanese, along with being fiercely feminine and sexually empowering.
I loved this book. Really loved it, as I read most of it in one sitting. It’s the kind of book that feels like a comfortable blanket that I’d want to crawl back into again. I would highly recommend this book to literary-fiction lovers, Murakami-lovers, or for those who are looking for something a little different but not too challenging that will still keep you engaged and captivated.
“Had I recognized it only then? We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.”
ebook, 132 pages.
Read on February 7, 2019.
This is the only full-fiction selection from the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist though its story is likely all too real for many. This is an intricate story of a set of first-generation Canadian brothers, Michael and Francis, and their upbringing in the rough neighbourhood of Scarborough, Ontario in the 90s.
The story has a weaving timeline that begins in the present day in which Michael is welcoming an old school friend, Aisha, into the home he still shares with his ailing mother after Aisha’s father has passed away. The two of them allude to a tragic event involving Francis and from there Michael ruminates on the details of his childhood opening the whole story up to the reader as well as the events that brought about the death of his brother, Francis.
Michael and Francis’ mother is originally from Trinidad and Tobago and with their father absent, she is the sole provider for her boys. She works hard, too hard, in order to keep food on the table for them. It is her character I find the most tragic. After Francis dies, she is never herself again. She tried so hard to bring her boys the best yet they were never able to overcome the impossible circumstances that poverty and race trapped them in.
Francis was the cool kid in the neighbourhood. Popular and into his fair share of trouble and with a dream of being involved in hip hop and music but was constantly fighting the barrage of prejudice against him. Kids from this neighbourhood were made up of a variety of immigrant families struggling to get by. Crime, poverty, and gangs became prevalent and not much was expected of kids like Michael and Francis, and like many of the kids in the neighbourhood, they got smothered in this trapt environment. Aisha was the exception. Aisha did well very well in school and managed to escape the neighbourhood with a scholarship. Aisha and Michael used to spend lots of time at the local library as a way to get out of the house and because Michael was never quite cool enough to hang out with Francis and his friends at a local barbershop.
The story is an encompassing story that touches on immigration, race, poverty and the Black Lives Matter movement, yet the approach of these difficult ideas is broached in such a delicate manner. It’s written in a very matter-of-fact way in that it emphasises that this is just another ordinary family and that their situation isn’t all that unique, making the impact of the story that much more poignant. It’s a very politically and timely piece that is uniquely Canadian in terms of the setting but all-encompassing with its ideas.
The ideas alone are enough to move you but the way Michael and his mother’s life end up, without Francis and without hope of a better life, are what truly make this novel.
Paperback, 272 pages.
Read from April 04 to 08, 2015.
I’m so close to reading all the books in Canada-Reads 2015 now! One more to go. Intolerable is the only official memoir in this years collection and I don’t see how Intolerable could have been written any other way. This book is about a family who is torn apart by history and guilt.
Kamal Al-Solayee, was born in Aden, Yemen in 1964. He was last of 11 eleven children in the arranged marriage of his parents. Despite what people believe of the Middle East now, it wasn’t always that way. Kamal’s father was a wealthy business man and his family enjoyed all the luxuries that came with it. From vacations, photos, clothes and restaurants Kamal’s family was well taken care of in the days of Aden. Kamal’s sisters enjoyed fashion and make-up as well as going to the beach in their bikinis, all activities that were completely normal for them to be partaking in at the time. This happy family life unfortunately did not last. When Yemen was decolonized, Kamal’s father lost everything. The family had to move away from Aden and live off the savings that Kamal’s father had accumulated in which they become middle class citizens.
During this time was when Kamal started to notice that was different in that he took more of an interest in what his sister’s were doing than the masculine activities his brothers took part in. He was always a self-proclaimed mama’s boy so he was able to get away with the behavior while he was still young. As time progressed Kamal began to figure out that he was gay while, unfortunately, his oldest brother started to adopt the strict Muslim ways that had started to spread through the Middle East. His brother began to put pressure on his sisters, who were successful career women, about their ‘demeaning’ dress and behavior and tried to get them to adopt Islamic ways. It wasn’t until the family moved to again to be with their father that things really changed. The country was changing drastically to adopting stricter Muslim laws. Slowing Kamal watched his mother and sister’s become oppressed and their spark fade. The quality of life in their homes also quickly deteriorated in the war-torn area that they were living in. As Kamal knew he was gay, he feared for his life as homosexuality is punishable by death. He knew he could no longer stay with his family so he made the heartbreaking decision to go to school in England.
From there, Kamal realized that he never wanted to return home. He then ended up in Canada and found his home in Toronto but the tension and guilt he felt over the crumbling conditions his family was living never stopped haunting him. He cannot explain to his family the new life that he is living. The wouldn’t understand his homosexuality or even his career choices.
“The Middle East has a way of catching up with you no matter how far you run.”
This book shows the tragic reality of living in the Middle East and what it’s truly like for families that live there and for those who leave it. Kamal is what Canada is all about, as his friends often told him. Kamal came to Canada with nothing but guilt and a heritage he was hoping to leave behind him. While he found a home and success within Canada it wasn’t until he was able to confront his heritage and family that he was able to start feeling whole again. While he never fully reconciled with his family, he was at least able to come to an understanding. Kamal did what he had to do to save himself and live the life that he needed to pursue, but the guilt of leaving his family will likely never leave him.
A poignant read and a necessary one to grasp the real realities of the people living in the Middle East.