Review: Breasts and Eggs, a Novel by Mieko Kawakami
Humorous, ironic and occasionally tragic-comic, the Japanese writer’s new novel looks at the ways in which many women have quietly subverted gender roles
Born in Osaka prefecture in 1976, Mieko Kawakami lives in Japan and started out as a singer and songwriter. Her first novella My Ego, My Teeth, and the World came out in 2007 and won the Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers. Breasts and Eggs appeared a year later, winning her the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honour, though not without some controversy, with Tokyo’s then governor and a member of the awards committee terming it “unpleasant to listen to”. She has authored two other novels, Heaven and The Night Belongs to Lovers, both slated to be published in English translation.
It is easy to understand the outrage caused by Breasts and Eggs among a section of readers in Japan. Published in a newly expanded form in English translation in April this year, the novel’s titillating title belies its upfront focus on themes that have less to do with female anatomy and more with the ways many women h ave quietly subverted gender roles. The discursive style allows its narrator Natsuko Natsume (a blogger nobody reads) to touch on several aspects of a single woman’s life in Tokyo.
“If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had.” The novel starts with this remarkable statement as Natsuko travels to Tokyo Station to receive her sister Makiko and niece Midoriko. Makiko is in Tokyo to consult a clinic she has short-listed about breast implants (she eventually decides against having them). An ageing bar hostess like their mother before her, another “single mother, working herself to death”, Makiko’s obsession with what her nipples must look like (she uses a painful chemical process to lighten them) serves as a bizarre background patter at the bathhouse where the two sisters go that first evening. Natsuko looks at her sister’s nipples, “two control knobs stuck onto her chest”, and wonders if she could say, “Maki, your nipples look strong.” Would that be a compliment? Why not? Maybe in the world of nipples, it will be “the strong, dark ones that would reign supreme. Maybe someday they’ll have their moment. But probably not.” Kawakami had worked in a bar herself and has commented elsewhere on the pressures facing ageing hostesses, and Makiko tells the narrator later on in the novel that it is tough on women like her when more youthful, nubile talent is employed.
Twelve-year-old Midoriko has not spoken to her mother in over six months. Her “Journal” reveals a questioning adolescent psyche: “…I’ve been eating eggs for my whole life. But today I learned that women have “ova”, as in “oval”, which literally means egg...” Her schoolfriend Jun had picked her pad apart once but couldn’t tell if the unfertilised egg was there or not. Scared to think that a baby girl is set to become a mother even before she is born (such throwaway statements dot the book, subtly educating one without seeming to) and ambivalent about her own growing breasts, Midoriko’s silence in fact manifests her guilt that Makiko needs to work hard and even consider “making…her boobs bigger” to support her.
Positive she will never marry (her relationship with a school friend Naruse had collapsed because she couldn’t enjoy sex), the idea of having a baby by other means dominates Natsuko’s thoughts. Sperm banks being a no-go for single women in Japan, she searches the Internet for other options. Her pursuit becomes a subtle commentary on social mores that are weighted in favour of men. While with Naruse, she had conditioned herself into accepting that “it’s your job as the woman to go along with him – because it was on me, as woman, to fulfil his sexual desires”, and her interactions with former colleagues suggest that many of them remained married through dependency. One of them who will not leave her husband because the thought of having to pay rent scares her tells Natsuko that her mother’s subservience to an abusive husband had taught her that marriage to men meant little more than “free labour with a pussy”.
Natsuko’s conversations with her editor Ryoko Sengawa and with Rika Yusa, a well-known writer, are more cerebral – indicators perhaps of Kawakami’s own struggles with the craft of writing. Sengawa first contacts her after she has had some success with her first novel, telling her that what had made the book “special” was “your voice, the writing, the rhythm. It has incredible personality, and that matters more than anything if you’re going to keep writing…” She tells Natsuko that her readers matter more, that she needs to find “real readers, the kind who will seriously stick with you after the hype dies down…”
Natsuko had first seen Rika on a TV show, unabashedly carrying her baby with her and telling the reporter she hadn’t done it to make a statement about women’s rights: “I’m a single mother. It was just the two of us at home. There wasn’t anyone else around, so what else could I do?” Rika is known for telling it like it is. “Your curls look great, too, but is there something behind that? Anything you want to say?” she had shot back when asked if her shaved head was a statement of some kind. Rika is intrigued by Natsuko’s wanting a donor baby but Sengawa is surprisingly closed to the idea. Her sudden death by cancer brings Natsuko and Rika closer even while Natsuko pursues her search for the options available to single women: “Maybe I had trouble accepting childbirth as some sort of do-it-yourself project. DIY insemination…Start judging people by their genetic profiles, and pretty soon you’re seeing them like handbags, ranking them like brands.”
Her interest piqued by an interview in which Jun Aizawa, the child of a donor, talked of his quest for his father, Natsuko attends a symposium to hear him speak. It marks the beginning of an acquaintance which deepens over time into an emotional bond. Through Aizawa and Yuriko Zen, also a donor offspring, she learns about complexities she hadn’t thought about. Speaking of her own unhappy childhood Yuriko suggests that what Natsuko wants may be about herself, not the child, that the child may wish “with every bone in her body that she had never been born…” Yuriko is eloquent and persuasive, and her sad, bitter and angry rhetoric highlights issues Natsuko hadn’t thought about. Her words resonate with Natsuko but after an ecstatic unplanned day with Aizawa in Osaka she tells Yuriko she will go ahead regardless. Aizawa is by then more at peace with his situation, and his real regret is that he had never told the man who had nurtured him, the only “father” he knew, “that he was still my dad, as far as I was concerned.” She gets pregnant with Aizawa’s sperm and has a daughter but remains single, the “ground rules” having been laid earlier on since neither of them wants a committed relationship.
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Breasts and Eggs is packed with information on artificial insemination and much more, but it is far from dreary. Something of a feminist icon, Kawakami punctuates her novel with humour, irony, and unexpected forays into tragi-comic farce as in the cathartic mother-daughter scene early on when Makiko and Midoriko, stretched beyond endurance, break all the eggs in Natsuko’s refrigerator, smearing themselves before they sit down together, Makiko plucking egg out of her daughter’s hair while tucking her own eggy strands behind her ears. Or when Natsuko meets with Onda, a self-satisfied voluntary donor who sees himself as a saviour to women like her, comes armed with statistical data to prove his virility and potency, and makes propositions that expose the risks implicit in her quest for unknown donors. Drawing on her own experiences as a single woman and writer, Kawakami depicts the loneliness of individuals, women and men, and their battles for survival. It is a depiction that has not surprisingly struck a chord with many young women, moving them to tears at readings.
Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.