What is a woman? This is the central question that Kawakami’s novel, Breasts and Eggs, addresses from every angle. The main character, Natsuko, an aspiring writer, is preoccupied with her body and the gendered and sexed bodies of those around her. She considers the lopsided and transactional nature of relations between men and women in her society. “Free labor with a pussy,” as one woman puts it (249). At the heart of this novel is women’s struggle for financial independence and the legacy of poverty and low-paid work, including in the nighttime entertainment business, which poor single mothers hand down to their daughters. Natsuko’s sister, Makiko, for example, is paid to keep men company in bars in order to encourage them to rack up their drinks tab. Natsuko notes that her sister is “living pretty much the same life as our mom” (20). The novel never loses sight of the poverty invoked in its striking first sentence, “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had” (11).
In her curiosity about sex and bodies, through dialogues and internal monologues, Natsuko explores many complicated issues in detail. For example: breast enhancement, her sister’s obsession at age 39; breast and nipple color; plastic surgery; menstruation; impotence; fertility; infertility treatment; ovulation; sperm donors; unhappy marriages; child sex offenders; sexual predators; and absent and abusive fathers, like her own.
“In a deeply feminist process, Natsuko listens closely to her body’s likes and dislikes.”
Natsuko, at 30, listens closely to her body’s likes and dislikes. In this deeply feminist process, Natsuko defends herself, body and soul, from unwanted advances, unwanted advice, and disapproval from family, friends, and acquaintances, including her editors. Despite the sexual possibilities around her, Natsuko does not participate in any type of sexual activity. Natsuko had a much-loved boyfriend when she was young, but she hated having sex with him. Yet the novel’s radical and intimate subjects lead us to expect her sexual awakening and fulfillment, whatever form it might take.
Confounding expectations for sexual self-realization, Natusko declares to a fellow-writer and single mom: “I want a kid so bad” (312). Now 38, Natsuko is suffering from writer’s block and a mid-life crisis: struggling to write her next novel, painfully aware of her solitude, drawn to kids. She explains to her friend, “And I can’t have sex… […] Emotionally, I think. I don’t know, I’m not sure. I just don’t want to do it. I’ve done it before, when I was younger […] I just wanted to die” (312).
Natsuko underlines and questions her distaste for sex at different points. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m really a woman,” she continues, “I know I have the body of a woman. I have breasts like a woman, I get my period like a woman” (312). And later, “Am I really a woman?” (316). Such speculation peppers the novel—including the bathhouse episode—and recurs in the work of women writers across time and space. In Between Then and Now, written almost 70 years ago by the recently re-translated Italian writer, Alba de Céspedes, Irene says: “‘What do women do?’ I wondered, for, in spite of my relationship with Pietro, I had a feeling I belonged to another sex” (123).
“Disentangling desire from sex and gender, Natsuko affirms the integrity of her non-desiring body.“
Financially stable but finding sex repugnant, Natsuko considers artificial insemination, which is not available to single women or lesbian couples. Romantic possibilities surface when Natsuko develops a deep connection with a man, Aizawa, a doctor she meets while exploring the medical, ethical, legal, and social issues around sperm donor conception. After Aizawa expresses his interest in her, Natsuko wonders, “Was I still incapable of having sex? […] I had convinced myself that sex would never work for me. What if things had changed?” She touches her vagina, but “this went nowhere […] Nothing worked […] I stood there, pondering the question of sex.” She wonders, “What’s wrong with that part of me staying the way it’s always been? […] Why did caring about someone need to involve using your body? All I wanted was to have this conversation with Aizawa” (376).
Disentangling desire from sex and gender, Natsuko affirms the integrity of her non-desiring body. She asserts her asexuality alongside her right to motherhood. With Aizawa’s help, she circumvents legal restrictions to artificial insemination by pretending she and Aizawa have a common-law marriage. Natsuko reimagines single motherhood not as an imposition, as it was for her mother and sister, but as a choice. Natsuko’s exquisite body-specific fulfillment comes in the final pages of the novel, in childbirth, in a narrative, physical, and cosmic climax. About her newborn daughter, Natsuko says in wonder in the novel’s last lines, “Where were you? You’re here now. I watched her, this new baby girl, letting her cry into my breast” (430).
Read Tommasina Gabriele’s latest article: “Queering the Textual Politics of Alba de Céspedes’s Prima e dopo” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, available on Oxford Academic.