Memoirs of a Geisha is full of surprises, especially to Western readers unfamiliar with the mysterious Japanese geisha. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is the novel’s author, an American man from Tennessee. Arthur Golden’s fascination with Asian culture was sparked years before he began writing Memoirs of a Geisha, as he holds degrees in Japanese history and art history with a specialization in Japanese art. It was while learning and working abroad that he met Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha who agreed to numerous interviews with Golden in preparation for his novel. Iwasaki provided critical “inside” information that gives the novel both integrity and intrigue.
The rags-to-riches story of Sayuri, the novel’s heroine, is a first-person account, as if she is relating her life story to an American professor. The novel addresses themes such as freedom, beauty, metamorphosis, and gender relationships. Upon publication in 1997, Memoirs of a Geisha quickly became a bestseller, an impressive showing for a first-time author. Memoirs of a Geisha has been translated into more than twenty languages and has sold more than four million copies in English. Critics and readers alike have embraced the novel, and in the first few years after publication, it was a popular book club selection.