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'Geisha' author should find plenty of fans at Wofford

By JEREMY L.C. JONES
For the Herald-Journal
Published: Sunday, September 25, 2011

Novel Experience 382x255 

(Golden to speak Monday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m. in Leonard Auditorium) 

Arthur Golden's best-selling novel, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” is as vibrant and resonant now as it was back in 1997 when it was first published. Just ask a freshman at Wofford College, and you'll get an earful.

Each year as part of the Novel Experience, Wofford assigns a novel to the incoming freshman class. The students discuss the novel in their humanities classes and write essays in time for the author to give a public reading in late September.

Last spring, the selection committee chose Golden's “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which tells the story of Nitta Sayuri, who as a girl is sold into service as a geisha in Kyoto, Japan. Told in the first person, the novel jumps back and forth between the past and present, revealing the narrator's life in contrasting flashes.

“We decided on ‘Geisha' because it is a compelling novel with teachable issues,” said Sally Hitchmough, an associate professor of English at Wofford College. “We knew it would yield some interesting discussion about values and issues, and those discussions are at the heart of Wofford's humanities program.”

In “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Golden explores the nature of freedom, personal transformation, gender and beauty. There is the bitterness and cruelty of the beautiful antagonist, Hatsumomo, and the simple kindness of a stranger. And always, there is the perseverance of the narrator, Sayuri.

Beyond the richly drawn characters, Golden offers an alluring look into the once secret world of geisha.

“I loved the detailed descriptions of Gion and of the life of the geisha,” Hitchmough said. “The novel offered a credible world, and it was intriguing to me. As a teacher, I enjoyed discussing the ways in which that world is both like and unlike the one in which our students live and work today.

“The students,” Hitchmough added, “seemed to love the novel!”

And what was the biggest surprise about reading “Memoirs of a Geisha” with about 450 incoming college students?

“That men and women were equally interested in the characters and the issues,” Hitchmough said. “I think quite a few of the classes ended up discussing the notion of sexuality as a means to an end. This age (18 years old) is a great age to discuss issues of authority, sexuality and morality.”

By re-creating the world of the geisha, Golden offers readers distance from the real world and their own experiences so that they might discuss emotionally charged topics. In other words, people not only want to read and re-read “Memoirs of a Geisha,” they also want to discuss the story and the weighty ideas beneath the surface.

“The minute detail and cultural allure kept me interested until I was holding my breath at the end,” said Travis Trojan, a freshman from Spartanburg.

“The realistically painful circumstances and high emotions makes it relatable on many levels, while still delivering a quaint storybook ending. It has become my absolute favorite book.”