Saturday, January 29, 2011

Yarn by Kyoko Mori

Today I finished the beautiful memoir Yarn by Kyoko Mori.  I went through a phase in the summer when I started to buy bucketloads of knit lit.  I had my amazon prime membership, and I wanted to take advantage, and I ordered book after book.  Some of those books disappointed me- I found them to be badly written or thought the stories were lacking.  I was a reader long before I was a knitter, and tend to be critical of the books I read, for better or for worse.

Yarn was incredible.  It was nothing like what I had imagined it to be.  Kyoko Mori writes in a beautiful, lyrical way, but for the entire book I could never place my finger on what about the memoir made it so interesting, so intriguing.  It wasn't until I read about her experience teaching at Harvard, at almost the end of the book, that I realized what made the Kyoko Mori's writing so wonderful.

"My new students at Harvard impressed me with their intelligence, their knowledge of the world, and their willingness to work hard.  Many were good writers and a few seemed truly gifted.  All of them would have been better off if I could have persuaded them to expect a little less.  The essays they composed about their junior year abroad were full of lively details and sophisticated cultural observations, but the true story lay in the disappointment of rooming with another American student whose politics embarrassed them or the frustration of having a brother or sister visit during the worst week of their stay.  These small and yet troubling experiences- mentioned in passing- hinted at complications that revealed their personal quirks and family histories, but I could seldom convince the students to pursue the stories they considered so trivial.  The few who focused on pain wrote about the depression, anorexia, or sexual abuse they had suffered.  Asked to stand back and provide more perspective- or else return to the topic when they were ready to do so- they gave me revisions in which the huge unmitigated pain was described in even more detail and with less perspective... I didn't know how to get a group of sophisticated high-achievers to value a bad good story over a good bad story."

The skill Mori talks about trying to teach her students- that of identifying a good story in a sea of mundane detail- is one which she has mastered.  Reading her book is like jumping from puddle to puddle, while avoiding dry sidewalk.  Your feet get wet, and with each step you are aware of the dry land below you, but the direction you have chosen to go is far more interesting.  Mori paints a memoir with negative space, including details most writers would never think to include, and yet it is those details which make the story so unique and identifiable.

Kyoko Mori tried to teach her students to value a bad good story over a good bad story, but in her own work, she presents the perfect example of a good good story- with details expertly chosen and words equally perfect, her story meanders through the incongruities and minor challenges of life (fixing up a house, maintaining friends with an ex-husband) and displays how managing those minor downfalls creates a rich and interesting character.

Knitting plays a deceptively small part in the memoir- although each chapter is named after and revolves around a knitting project or concept, those knit pieces provide a foil to Mori's life, revealing and expanding through metaphors details which otherwise might have been missed.

It took me over a semester to read Yarn, as I picked it up and put it down sporadically, whenever I had time, and although it was well suited for that purpose, I wish now that I had read it from start to finish in a more diligent manner, as I now have piecemeal memories of details of Mori's life, rather than the sweeping panorama I like to take away from a memoir.  I'll try not to fret, as I can't help but feel like with Mori's perspective of writing and life my experience of her story was just the way it was meant to be read.

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