Memoirs of a Non-Geisha

April 15th, 2008 · 1 Comment
by Jennifer Epstein

The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody EpsteinIt is with delight that we bring you a guest post from author Jennifer Epstein whose novel The Painter from Shanghai was recently released to excellent reviews. Of course, with every drop of good news, comes, well, a reminder that at some point in the past, another author wrote a book about a woman in the same part of the world. Epstein had two choices: fight or embrace…

Nearly a decade ago, when I haltingly embarked on the project that would become The Painter from Shanghai, I was nothing if not flattered when people in my writing workshop immediately began comparing my novel to Memoirs of a Geisha. Well, actually, I was something else—mainly, surprised. Like most of the apparent universe, I’d devoured Arthur Golden’s runaway bestseller (my husband still refers to that weekend as “the time Jenn left me for the geisha”). But Painter struck me as a completely different endeavor. For one thing, it was set in China, a country I’d spent well over two years living and traveling in, and one I found radically different from Japan (where I’d lived for five). In fact, my first reaction upon detraining at Guangzhou Station in 1986 was a stunned astonishment: apart from Chinese characters (appropriated by Japan from China thousands of years ago, and somewhat awkwardly adapted to its own, radically different language), the Middle Kingdom seemed to share almost nothing with it’s smaller, more homogeneous neighbor. It was loud, rude, exuberant; cluttered, colorful, vividly alive. Watching Chinese citizens barrel across streets against the light, laugh and curse musically on the street and jostle good-naturedly in a ticket line, I—who had just spent a quiet year with a family in Kyoto–felt like a schoolchild let out to recess.

Of course, the fact stands that my novel–like Arthur Golden’s–begins in a brothel. Unlike Memoirs, though, it isn’t centered there. At heart, The Painter from Shanghai is less about prostitution than cultural mergings and clashings, and art, and a painter’s pain-filled but ultimately triumphant quest for self-realization. As I imagined her, Pan Yuliang—the real-life figure at its center–was a woman who battled fiercely against preset gender roles and aesthetic norms, during a uniquely tumultuous moment in Chinese history. So while I—like Golden–tried to take an unflinching look at the daily degradations and misogyny inherent in a life of prostitution (and it should be noted somewhere that a geisha is far more than a prostitute—as anyone who has read Memoirs should know) I was far less interested in the brothel itself than the fierce individualism and artistic sensibilities that (I imagined) separated Yuliang from her coworkers there—the same qualities that would eventually drive her transformation into one of China’s most controversial and daring modern artists. And then, there was the writing. As I’ve said, I thoroughly enjoyed Memoirs, and certainly admired Golden’s clear, elegant writing style. For my own part, though, I was trying for something very different; something more experimental; something that played with words and rhythm and image in a way that (hopefully) evoked–if not Joyce or Woolf–then at least the impressionistic daring of Pan Yuliang’s own paintbrush.

For all my efforts, though, my book continued to be compared with Memoirs. People to whom I described the project congratulated me beamingly, as though I’d taken on the Geisha sequel. Writing instructors glowingly referenced it in recommendations they wrote for me. Well-meaning friends pointed out where Memoirs had failed them, as though to caution me of the same pitfalls. Rather than fight the trend, I ultimately opted to embrace it, mentioning the comparison preemptively in agent queries. The responses I got went in two directions: at least one agent (I’m fairly sure) didn’t even read the manuscript before offering me her unqualified and enthusiastic services. Several others declined with polite (if unwritten) yawns, implying one Asian prostitute was quite enough.

The shadow of Memoirs reached, in fact, well beyond the point that a fabulous agent (who did read the book) took me on and promptly sold it to eleven publishers, both here and abroad. I have no way of knowing how many of these sales were on the strength of the kiss of Geisha’s kiss. I do know, however, that my two English-language publishers both agreed that marketing it after Memoirs made sense. Norton’s catalogue introduces Painter matter-of-factly as “evocative of Memoirs of a Geisha,” a description that is now writ, in bold, on the book’s Amazon page. Penguin went a step further, putting a round, red sticker on their (quite lovely) trade paperback’s cover that cheerily notes: “If you liked Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll love this!”

“Don’t we want the book to be seen—well, on its own terms?” I asked my agent, hesitantly. But it was hard to argue with the common logic: Memoirs was a book people knew, loved and identified with. Referring to it offered an immediate hook to readers. Hooked readers, as everyone knows, leads to bagged revenue. And after seven years without an income, two college tuitions to save for and two years at a pricey writing program to pay off, income was something I couldn’t afford to eschew.

All this, by the way, is a quandary faced by other books as well; my friend Charlie Leerhson’s terrific new biography, for example. Crazy Good—based on the astonishing true story of Dan Patch, a former grocery-cart horse who “was the most significant pop-culture figure in the first half of the 20th century”– labored under the inevitable comparisons to Seabiscuit before finally getting picked up by Simon and Schuster. Charlie acknowledges that such automatic comparisons “give reviewers something to wrap their minds around, and thus can get you noticed and remembered.” But on the whole, he says, he considers it disadvantageous.

As far as the Memoirs hook goes, my own views are still unformed. Certainly, the comparison was picked up by reviewers—to mixed effect: Library Journal signed off its very nice, starred review by noting that “fans of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs…will enjoy this engrossing story of a woman forced to choose between following her heart and pursuing her art.” Entertainment Weekly, on the other hand, began its rather sniffy short take like this: “More than a decade after Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden’s best-seller still inspires imitators like The Painter From Shanghai….”

Happily for me, though, the New York Times not only loved the book, calling it “luminous”, “vivid,” “an irresistible story” but also refrained form making any literary references at all. Even more gratifyingly in some ways was the South China Morning Post, which compared my book to a “cross between Zhang Yimou’s movies and Chen Yifei’s oil paintings.” Granted, this may not hook American readers, most of whom probably couldn’t pronounce Zhang and Cheng’s names, much less get the reference. But for me, it’s worth at least a few sales.

In the end, while it’s been interesting to have traveled this far with a geisha, I do hope we’ll part ways at some point—even though (I’ll admit it) I plan to set my next novel in Tokyo. During World War. I do, however, plan to avoid the brothels. And if the book is pegged to anything this time around, I hope it’s War and Peace.

You can find Jennifer Epstein’s website here. And buy her book (c’mon you know you want to!) here.

File Under: Wrapped Up In Books

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