“A child from my heart, a child from my body, but not from my mouth. The language she forms on her tongue is there for the wrong reasons. You cannot move to a foreign land and call that place home because you parrot the words around you. Find your home inside yourself first, I say. Let your home words grow out from the inside, not the outside in.”
Chorus of Mushrooms details the lives of three women in rural Alberta. Naoe the eldest, mother to Keiko and grandmother to Murasaki. Naoe recounts her life from Japan to Alberta, but the major focus here is not on history but on identity. Naoe, is the only character who is deeply connected to her Japanese roots. Despite living outside of Japan for many years, she prefers Japanese language, food, products, lifestyle. This annoys her daughter, Keiko, to no end. Keiko rejects her Japanese background, preferring and insisting upon a Western and Christian lifestyle. She butts heads with Naoe due to Naoe’s own quiet stubbornness to keep her culture and Keiko’s desire to be rid of it. This causes Murasaki, Keiko’s daughter to grow up with one half of each culture. Murasaki’s perspective splits into two. One is from the eyes of a child growing up, the other is and adult recounting her past.
“Let me be old and foolish when I grow up.”
There is so much intricately wrapped within these pages. The novel deals with racism from outsiders, but also racism within the household, and self-racism. Through these three women, we see how culture trickles away as one adapts to a different culture and/or lifestyle. And yet, Hiromi Goto asserts that culture never truly disappears. It is always there, lurking beneath our nails. Despite Keiko’s efforts to control the amount of exposure Murasaki has to Japanese culture, Naoe manages to foster in the seedling that proceeds to take root and grow as Murasaki explores adulthood. Murasaki manages to coax Keiko back into her culture, and Keiko is able to let Naoe go to do her own thing. Culture, and the passing of it, it traditionally associated as a woman’s responsibility and duty. Goto reveals how complex culture is, how steadfast is remains in us through simple actions that become the foundation of our identity, and how the loss of it equates to an emptiness experienced by all the characters. At one point, Naoe, who physically represents Japanese culture for Keiko and Murasaki, leaves. In other words, culture abandons Keiko and Murasaki leaving them as husks.
“Home life is something you have to cart around with you forever. Nor Freudian shit for me, but the home life stuff gets tattooed on to you something awful. Or something good. Just depends. Hysteria or history can become one and the same. Passed on from daughter to daughter to daughter to daughter to … The list is endless and the tattoo spreads.”
But Goto introduces and reintroduces culture to her characters in a different way then expected. Since culture is such an innate part of us, it then must be something we can detect with our senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. If culture is the dividing line between our animal-like instincts and human-like thoughts, then the lack of it must surely return us to our animal state. And so, it becomes natural that, like animals, Keiko and Murasaki seek out culture (like prey) using their senses. Slowly, slowly, food is brought in. Then clothes, music, language, items, practices, etc. The reintroduction of culture is done at a pace that lasts a lifetime, as seen by adult Murasaki who is more Japanese-Canadian, then Canadian-Japanese. Chorus of Mushrooms doesn’t hammer in the lesson of how important culture is, nor does it waste time with never-ending list of attempts cultures have made to destroy another culture. It’s a quiet story of the individual. It shows how one cannot live without their culture, but also how being part of a culture is a practice that must be maintained. Your senses keep you physical attached—keep you in the reality aspects of a culture. But there is also the life-long practice of being mentally, spiritually part of a culture.
“You have your basic Yankee Doodle Tom Sawyer role model, but let’s face it: most childhoods begin and end in Cinderella’s ash heap.”
Naoe, despite being the character who is the most attached to Japanese culture, is lost spiritually. She is attached to her culture through her senses and memory, but struggles her whole life with a stubbornness that refuses to align to the expectations of her culture—especially as a woman. Murasaki, despite being the furthest away from her culture, becomes spiritually attached through her desire to explore herself. She teaches herself to cook Japanese food, speak Japanese, practice Japanese culture, etc. mainly because she desires to so, no other ulterior motive. What keeps these two in-touch with one another are stories. It’s an element of magical realism, but it works well. Naoe and Murasaki are able to talk to one another in Japanese and tell each other stories, because that’s what it means to pass down and inherit a culture. One is connected, and can communicate with, their predecessors. A culture’s stories tell us how that culture thinks and views the world, and that too is passed down through the stories a mother tells her children.
“It’s difficult growing up, moving closer than further away from people who tell you they love you. I’m not bitter. I’m just saying, it’s difficult growing up. People say this and that.”
I don’t know if it’s intentional meta commentary, but there is a connection between the exploitation/destruction of a culture and its association with women. Chorus of Mushrooms, despite having a few male characters, does not focus on them. In fact, they barely take up much space and most definitely have no say, nor impact on the women. In a way, it felt like reading a book set during the 1920-50 where a male character who is something of an outsider, struggles with something, views women as nothing more then a companion. Think of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but now imagine it being told from Daisy’s perspective where Jay Gatsby is treated the same as Daisy was in the original novel. This is a gross oversimplification of the novels written during the 1920-50, but I think we can all agree that women were not always treated respectfully, or treated as wholly developed characters during that period. This isn’t to say that Goto treats her male character’s disrespectfully, far from it. It’s just that almost all the male characters want the women to align to their expectations, or they expect to be a part of the woman’s life just because she loves them/shows them compassion. I know some people might be “disappointed” with the ending but here’s how I interpret it:
- If a woman is culturally incomplete, how can she be expected to pass her culture onto her kids?
- Goto also seems to advocate that since culture remains ever-changing, evolving, it only makes sense that one abandons the aspects of culture that suppress them—especially as women. In learning and practicing one’s culture as a woman, it’s very easy to be pulled into gendered expectations because in order to feel apart of a culture, you feel like you must behave and live in a certain way. But Goto breaks from this by allowing Naoe and Murasaki to choose a path that makes them happy, a path that puts them first.
“I am an old woman, and I am also stubborn, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid and bitter. It’s only that I spent so much time saying nothing in my youth.”
What do you think? Leave a comment!