August 22nd, 2012

  • pylduck

Kyoko Mori's Yarn

I just read Kyoko Mori's delightful memoir Yarn: Remembering the Way Home (GemmaMedia, 2010), and I've decided that of all the types of memoirs out there, I like best memoirs by creative writers that connect reflections on life, relationships, the writing life, and some other detail like a hobby or craft that brings in anecdotes and discussions of a larger history (beyond the individual life). Mori's memoir brings together all these elements wonderfully.

Earlier in this community, I briefly reviewed Mori's novel Stone Field, True Arrow, which focuses on a young Japanese girl who moves to Minneapolis with her mother who has remarried a white American man. Mori's memoir mentions briefly the connection that the author has to my current city--she taught a summer course at The Loft, which is an amazing establishment in town that fosters creative writing through adult education classes, readings, fellowships, and other writing-oriented events. But what I found fascinating in the memoir was that Mori actually spent a big chunk of her early adult life in neighboring Wisconsin and especially in small towns. She offers a number of observations about being Asian in these spaces, surrounded by polite white folks who are very friendly but also utterly baffled by her as a non-white person. She makes some draws out some interesting contrasts between life in small-town Wisconsin and life in the big, urban centers of Cambridge and Boston where she moves after spending most of her 20s and 30s in Wisconsin.

Of course, the overarching theme of the memoir is yarn--knitting yarn, spinning fleece into yarn, weaving yarn, and more. The memoir is not a how-to-guide on knitting, but it is a great reflection on the craft of knitting and the kinds of connections that Mori makes between the act of knitting and her life. She also offers little histories of particular types of knitting and the cultural meaning of knitted objects in different places around the world. Much of this discussion folds into interpretations of her own life, and all of it is decidedly reflective of gender roles and expectations.

Early in the memoir, she draws out the linguistic resonances of yarn and thread with the types of stories and words that we share. Yarns are meandering, often pointless, stories that are nevertheless entertaining and worth listening to as an experience. To have a solid thread in your speech or writing is to have a good grasp on your main point and argument; to lose the thread of your argument, by contrast, means to lose focus. Mori aligns herself with yarns more than threads, happy to experiment and improvise in her life rather than always following through with a predetermined plan.

One thing I liked a lot about Mori's memoir is that she doesn't offer simple adages about life based on her knitting. Instead, she explores the complex, ambiguous, and conflicting emotions about herself, her actions, the decisions she made in life, and what she hopes to do. She does not valorize herself nor how she arrived at where she is as a published author with impressive, solid teaching gigs under her belt (tenure-track and tenured university positions as well as a prestigious 5-year visiting writer fellowship at Harvard University), but rather, she explores the push and pull of her wishes for solitude and the demands of a more actively-guided life.

I really identified with Mori in this memoir, especially the way she described her intense need to be alone but also her close friendships and her relationship with her husband Chuck. Some of the memoir veers towards the kind of writing where the author draws life lessons from her experiences and mistakes, but for the most part, Mori remains fairly ambivalent about deriving meaning and that insistence in American culture that we always grow and learn.

A lot of the memoir is also about processing events early in Mori's life when she lived in Japan. Her father was frequently away from home, staying out with his numerous girlfriends while her mother suffered home alone. Eventually, her mother committed suicide, and her father insisted on blotting that aspect out, paying the police and reporters to describe the death as an accident and never talking about her mother's death thereafter. He also had one of his girlfriends move in shortly after the mother's death, and he eventually married that woman as well while carrying on with his other girlfriends. The stepmother, of course, was none too happy to be the cheated-upon wife who had to raise two children and was never kind to Mori.

Mori eventually left Japan to study in the United States, continuing on to graduate school and a career as a college professor and writer, never to return to live in Japan. Her marriage to Chuck, in fact, was in part a marriage of convenience so that she could stay in the country without having to go back to Japan to apply for a work visa (she had her teaching position all lined up already).

Mori's description of her relationship with Chuck was extremely fascinating as well. From the start, they both maintained that they were uninterested in a vision of marriage that was full of ups and downs, romance, and the dissolution of the self into coupledom. They kept their finances separate, had their own sets of friends, and mostly did things of their own accord without having to think about and take into account each other's feelings or aspirations. The relationship ultimately becomes a kind of safe space for Mori and Chuck, but one in which they were both stifled by indecision and an inability to push for anything. Mori's revelation about her relationship was ultimately that she simply prefers to be alone. I find it interesting because there are a lot of echoes with her portrayal of her relationship and my relationship. I think we sidestep a lot of what Mori saw as ultimately the problems in hers, though.

Finally, it would be remiss of me to say that though Mori talks a lot about yarn and knitting, she never once mentions crochet! As someone who is in Team Crochet, I have to say:

(I posted this drawing on Facebook as a joke to declare war on my knitter friends.)
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