Hom­ing in on an ex­tra­or­di­nary life

Toyo: A Mem­oir

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Delia Fal­coner Delia Fal­coner’s

By Lily Chan Black Inc, 272pp, $29.95 NLESS I see her life branch­ing into mine, she gives me no an­ces­tral help,’’ Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can au­thor Max­ine Hong Kingston wrote about her aunt, mur­dered for adul­tery, in her 1975 mem­oir The Woman War­rior. ‘‘ It’s hard to write about my own mother,’’ Amer­i­can poet Adri­enne Rich said in her 1976 book Of Woman Born. ‘‘ What­ever I do write, it is my story I am telling, my ver­sion of the past.’’

A new kind of bi­og­ra­phy emerged in the 1970s, charged with the en­ergy of an ex­plod­ing fem­i­nist move­ment, in which women started to re­cover the of­ten-over­looked lives of fe­male rel­a­tives. Be­cause they had to make a case for telling women’s sto­ries, these books were of­ten also au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Lib­er­ated from the ‘‘ neu­tral’’ third per­son of non­fic­tion, writ­ers be­gan to re­flect on their own sto­ry­telling.

In Aus­tralia, you can see this legacy in Drusilla Mod­jeska’s ac­claimed Poppy (1990), and in edited col­lec­tions of fam­ily writ­ing such as Mod­jeska’s Sis­ters (1993), Beth Yahp’s Fam­ily Pic­tures (1995) and Carmel Bird’s Daugh­ters and Fathers (1997). Open any copy of the an­nual Best Aus­tralian Sto­ries and you will find our writ­ers — per­haps more than else­where — still scrupu­lously pre­oc­cu­pied with their own speak­ing po­si­tions. Things are chang­ing, though: a new gen­er­a­tion of life writ­ers, such as Alice Pung and Ben­jamin Law, seems less self-con­scious.

What’s in­stantly ap­par­ent in Toyo is how un­bur­dened Lily Chan is by this his­tory as she launches straight into her third-per­son ‘‘ mem­oir’’ of her grand­mother. Toyo’s mother, Kayoko, a fish­er­man’s daugh­ter in Ja­pan’s Goto is­lands, was sent as a maid to the Taka­hashi fam­ily in China. But the real rea­son seems to have been to pro­vide a sex­ual com­pan­ion for Mr Taka­hashi. When Kayoko be­came preg­nant, he set her up in an apart­ment in pre-war Osaka, where she con­verted the bot­tom floor into a cafe.

It’s only in the me­dia re­lease pro­vided with Toyo that Chan gives an ac­count of her process that not so long ago might have been in­cluded in the book it­self. Toyo lived with her fam­ily for as long as she can re­mem­ber. From a young age Chan be­gan col­lect­ing her sto­ries ‘‘ like lol­lies in a jar’’. When it came to sto­ries Toyo hadn’t told her her­self, ‘‘ I imag­ined how she would re­act or feel ac­cord­ing to what I al­ready knew about her.’’

The ef­fect is re­fresh­ingly im­me­di­ate, as the book takes the dra­matic shape of its sub­ject’s life. You can see why Chan, a Ky­oto-born, Mel­bourne-based artist and lawyer, won the Peter Blazey Fel­low­ship for man­u­script-in­progress for this book.

Toyo’s was a full life. She mother es­tab­lish her cafe, with helped her its con­stant sound­track of jazz, as a re­treat for Osaka’s up­per classes. Furtive vis­its from her fa­ther punc­tu­ated her child­hood. Af­ter tak­ing refuge from the war with other chil­dren in a coun­try tem­ple, Toyo, aged 10, re­turned to find the cafe flat­tened. Kayoko then es­tab­lished a wildly suc­cess­ful yak­i­tori (grilled meat skew­ers) busi­ness in Himeji, only to lose it be­cause of a bad loan to a feck­less lover. She died young, and hor­ri­bly.

Griev­ing Toyo had the good for­tune to marry Chi­nese-Ja­panese Ryu Zhang and be taken into the heart of the big Zhang (later Chang, then Chan) fam­ily. Though this came at the cost of her cit­i­zen­ship: Chi­nese were even more de­spised than Ja­pan’s out­cast class, the bu­raku­min. Re­search­ing her book, Chan re­alised she had hit on ‘‘ ev­ery mi­nor­ity pos­si­ble’’. Un­mar­ried women in the 1930s, Chi­nese mi­grants to Ja­pan: ‘‘ These were the voices of peo­ple who did not oc­cupy large tomes in his­tory.’’

Kayako’s busi­ness nous passed to Toyo’s son Yoshio, who made a for­tune through laun­dries and early gam­ing par­lours, some­times fight­ing lo­cal yakuza. Then — al­ways im­pul­sive — he moved the fam­ily to Perth, where Chan was born. On be­com­ing a devo­tee of In­dian mys­tic Sai Baba, he moved them again, to a con­tem­pla­tive life in ru­ral Narrogin, south­east of Perth.

It’s the in­tensely per­sonal de­tails Toyo passed on that bring this story to life: cool green ap­ples de­liv­ered to the tem­ple chil­dren by a farmer; her dy­ing mother’s doc­tor buy­ing the naive girl a yel­low hand­bag and tak­ing her out for a meal of udon; loved red shoes turned to minia­tures in a fire. We get a sense from their fresh­ness of what a tal­ented sto­ry­teller she must have been.

Chan has a sim­i­lar eye. One of her most mov­ing sto­ries is of Toyo, new to Perth, gamely set­ting out on a tour of Mar­garet River. None of the cou­ples, or the group of knit­ting An­glo women in golf hats and flo­ral scarfs, re­sponds to her at­tempts at con­ver­sa­tion. When Yoshio picks her up, days later, she sobs all the way home in the car.

It’s a shame Chan’s over­refined prose sti­fles their ‘‘ life­ness’’ (as critic James Wood would put it), as she strives too of­ten to pin them to artful sim­i­les. Boys lean to­wards Toyo in a ‘‘ tsunami of long­ing’’. A se­cret is a ‘‘ thorned ker­nel lodged against her ribcage, knock­ing into her with ev­ery step’’. Chan’s third per­son also lacks tonal vari­a­tion. As a re­sult, Toyo’s story is not al­ways quite as mov­ing as one wants it to be.

Thank­fully bi­og­ra­phers no longer need to make a case for writ­ing about or­di­nary women. Though, as a reader shaped by writ­ing so keenly aware of the com­pli­ca­tions of writ­ing about fam­ily, I have to ad­mit Chan’s seam­less en­try into her grand­mother’s in­ner thoughts some­times wor­ried me. Yet what lingers most strongly from this skil­ful and lov­ing por­trait is the sense of a woman who made her own life rich, through her gifts of imag­i­na­tion and open­ness.

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