Homing in on an extraordinary life
Toyo: A Memoir
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.