Banana Yoshimoto’s novella ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel explore the blurring of gender roles through the characterisation of the key male characters, Eriko and Pedro. The obscurity of gender roles is utilised by both authors as a literary tool in the formation of interpersonal relationships with the protagonists of each text. Furthermore both authors employ this blurring in the deconstruction of their respective audience’s societal expectations. Yoshimoto on the conventions of conservative 1980’s Japan, and Esquivel as a 3rd wave feminist writer on the patriarchal expectations of 1980’s Mexico.
Finally, both texts delineate the underlying danger of the absence of clear gender roles in society, existentially in ‘Kitchen’ and from a feminist perspective in ‘Like Water For Chocolate’. Yoshimoto’s ‘Kitchen’ utilizes Eriko’s gender shift to form an interpersonal relationship with protagonist Mikage in the form of an unconventional family. Eriko’s transsexuality provides Mikage with a mother and father figure in one, “Even though I’ve lived all these years as a woman, somewhere inside me was my male self…But I find that I’m body and soul a woman.
Eriko’s awareness of the male and female components of herself allows her to provide a parental entity to orphaned Mikage. The use of caesuras in the form of apostrophes and full stops, combined with the short syntax of the last two sentences prolongs the rhythm, heightening its sense of importance. The event of Eriko’s death leaves Mikage “utterly devoid of hope”, and she grieves intensely for Eriko: “I had never felt so alone as I did now”, the use of the superlative ‘never’ creates emphasis on Mikage’s sense of loneliness as she metaphorically looses both a mother and a father.
The interpersonal relations formed by Eriko’s blurred gender role, creates an unconventional family with no limitations of blood and sex. Similarly, Laura Esquivel’s novel utilises the reversal of Pedro’s traditional masculine role as a literary tool in the formation of a romantic relationship with the protagonist. Tita’s almost masculine characterisation in the context of Esquivel’s 3rd wave feminist notions is balanced romantically by Pedro’s female attributes.
Through the literary magic realist tool of cuisine Esquivel creates an inversion of sexual roles, illustrated most effectively through Tita’s aphrodisiac meal: “It was if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce... In this way, she penetrated Pedro’s body, hot, voluptuous, aromatic, totally sensuous”. The use of phallic diction in the form of the verb ‘penetrates’ conveys the sexual nature of the process and the blurring of gender roles, which in turn generates romance.
In addition, the use asyndeton and pleonasm emphasises the intensely pleasurable effect of their figurative union through gastronomy. Pedro’s blurred gender role essentially plays a vital role in the formation of strong interpersonal relationship with the protagonist, which forms the basis of Esquivel’s text. Banana Yoshimoto’s seminal novella, ‘Kitchen’ set in 1980’s Tokyo, a context characterised by urbanism, consumerism and large-scale conformity, deconstructs the expectations of the audience through the use of Eriko’s transgenderism.
Yoshimoto’s text mirrors traditional narrative structure, however Eriko’s transsexuality adds a foreign dimension that confronts conformity and melanges normality with a figure of ‘the other’. Eriko’s presence is blatantly utilized to unsettle the audience as she follows the exaggerated stereotype of a transsexual lifestyle, and dies a nightmarish death, by the stabbing of a crazed stalker.
However, Yoshimoto portrays Eriko’s difference as standard in the constructs of the text, and the characters in which she interacts with behave nonplussed towards her transgenderism- “Eriko asked herself, ‘What do I want to do now? …‘Become a woman’… Because she hates to do anything halfway, she had everything ‘done’, from her face to her whatever…. ‘What an amazing life story! ” The casual nonchalant tone of the dialogue between Mikage and Yuichi demonstrates an acceptance of the unconventional, transcending the limitations of normality in Tokyo’s urban setting. Through the employment of caesuras in the form of commas, questioning and quotations, a natural progression of conversation is portrayed. The use of colloquial diction creates an insouciant tone.
Mikage’s enthusiastic response, underlined through the use of exclamation, and the positive diction, highlights her acceptance of Eriko’s difference. Through Eriko’s blurred gender role, Yoshimoto essentially entreats an acceptance of the unconventional ‘other’ on the conservative Japanese audience. The emasculation of Pedro in Esquivel’s novel deconstructs the prescriptive roles of romance and Mexican society, redefining the patriarchal context in a 3rd wave feminist ambition.
Esquivel’s textual construction mirrors the genre of Mexican women’s fiction. Through these codes as a foundation of the novel’s structure, Esquivel parodies the formulaic roles of the feminine, and wages an assault on these constructs, empowering the women of the text. Furthermore the traditional romantic narrative arc in which the text follows is unhinged through Pedro’s emasculation, disregarding the male hero figure, and vilifying the expectations of a patriarchal 1910’s Mexican society.
Pedro’s lack of masculinity as a feminist tool is displayed through the castration of chickens: “The castration is done by making an incision over the chicken’s testicles, sticking your finger in to get a hold of them…and pulling them out”, the emotionally detached tone and instructional diction emphasises the metaphor of Pedro’s emasculation. As Tita is the perpetrator of this act, further symbolism is employed, as feminine status is elevated. Pedro’s blurred gender role allows Esquivel to address 3rd wave feminist issues.
Through the deconstruction of romantic notions and the masculine figure, the female role is empowered, and the expectations of society attacked. Eriko’s blurred gender role throughout ‘Kitchen’ serves as a warning in the face of the loss of traditional gender roles. Although Eriko demonstrates a powerful sense of individualism, her purpose in the realities of the text is somewhat weakened by her lack of a clear gender role in the interaction with others. She provides a father and mother figure to orphaned Mikage, however in the existentialist framework of the novella she is in essence neither completely one.
Her lack of true substance is displayed by her initial introduction: ”The whole of her gave off a marvellous light that seemed to vibrate…She didn’t look human” The use of light and tactile imagery in conjunction with divine diction connotes supernatural properties, emphasising Eriko’s lack of belonging in conventional reality. This is exaggerated further in the last summative sentence, which highlights her inhuman presence. Eriko’s transsexual characterisation displays an underlying societal warning in the absence of clear gender roles, linking sexual identity with existentialist purpose.
Pedro’s emasculation throughout the novella serves as an omen in the face of a new-aged branch of feminism, disregarding the necessity of masculinity. The absence of Pedro’s masculinity provides a catalyst for the drama and unhappiness that occurs through the course of the novella. Pedro’s weakness as an agent of tribulation is perhaps best depicted through his actions following Juan and Gertrudis’ rescue scene, which mirrors the traditional literary “damsel in distress” scenario.
Contrasted with Juan’s masculine actions, Pedro weakly escapes, failing in taking control over his future: “There was a moment, one brief instant, when Pedro could have changed the course of their story... but he didn’t; instead he quickly hopped on to his bicycle and furiously pedalled away”. The tautology of the words “moment” and “instant” exaggerates the importance of the missed opportunity. The use of the conditional tense followed by a negative “but he didn’t” highlights Pedro’s pusillanimity and inability to assert control.
Furthermore the weak imagery of the bicycle in addition to feeble diction contrasts starkly to the valiant image of Juan’s horse further emphasising Pedro’s complete lack of romantic heroism to the detriment of Tita’s happiness. Although Esquivel’s novel is starkly feminist, Pedro’s emasculation is represented as a destructive force, perhaps warning her 1980’s audience of the potential dangers of feminism. The blurring of gender roles of the key male characters sits at the heart of both texts. Banana Yoshimoto’s novella utilizes Eriko’s transsexuality in the creation of an unconventional family for orphaned protagonist Mikage.
Similarly, Esquivel employs Pedro’s emasculation to balance Tita’s powerful almost masculine characteristics in order to generate a romantic bond. Furthermore, Eriko’s blurred gender role is used to deconstruct the societal expectations of 1980’s Japan. Through Eriko’s transgenderism, the presence of otherness is accepted as normality, urging toleration within the audience. Comparable to ‘Kitchen’, Esquivel used the blurring of gender roles to redefine the patriarchal expectations of 1910’s and 1980’s Mexico and the constructs of romance. Through the emasculation of Pedro the female status is elevated and romantic notions revised.
However, both depict dangers created by the absence of clear gender roles. Yoshimoto’s text ‘Kitchen’ attributes sexual identity to existentialist purpose, delineating Eriko’s lack of substantial presence to her transsexuality, obstructing her from truly belonging. Whilst Esquivel points to the downsides of feminism, identifying the necessity of masculinity in the negative consequences precipitated by Pedro’s lack of vital masculine features. Both texts in the blurring of gender roles of their respective key male characters explore universal matters surrounding gender identity.