First published on The Local Stew.
Before I read the book, I read the New York Times feature, ‘Mieko Kawakami Cracks the Code of Being a Woman in Japan’: “Kawakami said she would be pleased if her novels provided solace that readers ultimately outgrow. ‘Maybe I will be happy if they look back from the future and say, ‘I used to read Mieko’s books when I was young,’ Kawakami said, ‘but now I don’t have any reason to read them.’”
I felt an immediate kinship with Kawakami. Will there ever be a generation of people whose reality doesn’t include gender inequality? I hope so. Kawakami does too.
I made a mental note to add ‘Breasts and Eggs’ to my reading list, and forgot about it. In the last year, I have cut off almost all male authors from my reading list, and more recently have included more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) authors. It was during this time, ‘Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami’ made a reappearance through the Asian Authors section of Goodreads. I immediately bought it. Translated from Japanese, ‘Breasts and Eggs’ is the expanded version of Kawakami’s novella with the same name, which won the Akutagawa prize in 2008. Divided into Book 1 and Book 2, the blurb describes ‘Breasts and Eggs’ as ‘a radical portrait of working-class womanhood in contemporary Japan’.
‘Breasts and Eggs’ opens with the line “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had.” Like the women in her book, Kawakami was a child of a single mother, in a working-class home. It sets her work apart from authors who write about life in poverty, looking down.
Natsuko Natsume narrates the mother-daughter dynamic between her sister, Makiko and niece, Midoriko in Book 1. Unhappy with her breasts, Makiko is absorbed by the idea of breast enhancement surgery, while Midoriko is plagued by different ideas into silence. On a trip to Tokyo, the anger between mother and daughter reaches it’s reckoning in Natsuko’s flat. Ten years later in Book 2, Natsuko wants to ‘know’ her child. Single and considering pregnancy by sperm donation, she narrates the bureaucratic, social, and internal struggles in making a decision that could forever alter her life. She avoids telling her sister for fear of being judged, not unlike how she couldn’t fathom why Makiko would want breast implants.
Kawakami writes about the oppression of beauty in Makiko’s case, and Natsuko’s want to have a child, without any sentimentality, and without offering reason why. Irrespective of whether it is ‘the right thing’, Makiko wants breast implants and Natsuko, a child, simply because. And if that’s good enough for them, Kawakami expects the same from the reader. Their body, their choice. This reinforcement of autonomy is constant throughout the book.
Natsuko’s narrative in Book 1 is regularly interrupted by Midoriko’s diary entries, giving the reader clues to her silence. The child in Book 1 is both in awe and wary of her changing body, and unable to communicate with her mother. The confrontation in Natsuko’s flat is implied as the turning point in the mother-daughter relationship. In Book 2 Midoriko grows up into a young woman, studying, working part-time, and in a relationship. Natsuko mentions how happy Midoriko seems with her ‘new beau’.
With the exception of Midoriko, there are multiple mentions of unhappy marriages and relationships of the people Natsuko knows, her own mother and sister, former co-worker, and friend. Natsuko herself remains single throughout, her only past relationship ending because she couldn’t have sex with him. “Like somebody had slipped a black bag over my head,” is how she describes trying to have sex with her then-boyfriend. Natsuko doesn’t feel the want of a relationship. But she does feel the want of a child. The narrative in Book 2 explores the flaws of equating the two with each other: “All the books and blogs catered to couples. What about the rest of us, who were alone and planned to stay that way? Who has the right to have a child? Does not having a partner or not wanting to have sex nullify this right?”
I have been thinking along these lines for a while now. Growing up, I didn’t realise being single or single with a child, were options. None of the movies I watched, books I read, or conversations I had presented me with these. Only in the last year, have I started to consider being single, with or without a child, as viable options for myself (in the distant future). In legal terms, there is no bar for single women in India to adopt or conceive through sperm donation. But the social stigma attached to being a single woman and a single mother is intense. Kawakami’s poignancy on this subject hits close to home.
‘Breasts and Eggs’ has ruffled quite a few conservative feathers in Japan, reinforcing the book’s accuracy at ‘telling it like it is’ for women in Japan, resonating in various degrees with others around the world. At a time when pre-existing cracks in society have been disproportionately magnified across gender and class lines, Kawakami’s book is even more potent. ‘Breasts and Eggs’ is not a one-time read. This is a book you go back to time and again, discovering nuance you missed last time.