Chorus of Mushrooms is an Ode to the Indefatigable “Immigrant Experience” 

Irteqa Khan

Hiromi Goto’s debut novel, Chorus of Mushrooms (1994), is a profound work of Asian Canadian literature that speaks to themes of race, alienation, acculturation, tradition, and  immigration. An exploration of (be)longing and seperation, of food and folklore, and of memory and desire, this critically acclaimed work is a treat for readers who seek to reclaim the beauty of the Othered self and how to imagine and create worlds of hope in diasporic communities everywhere. One theme that drew my attention is the idea of the “immigrant story” and  the ways in which it tessellates through the experiences of the novel’s three main characters, Keiko,  Murasaki, and Naoe. Goto emphasizes that the taken-for-granted nature of the immigrant experience is wound up in the belief in its universality. For me, the way in which Chorus of Mushrooms as a whole transcends this idea is by transforming the immigrant story into a particular and autonomous narrative. In the novel, the lived experiences of immigration that characterize the Japanese diaspora in Alberta have a self-determining power that no law, prejudice, or political machination can thwart. Through the evocative monologues of Naoe, Keiko, and Murasaki in the “The Herald:  Multicultural Voices of Alberta” and the interlude that poignantly contemplates homeland and belonging in “An Immigrant Story with a Happy Ending,” Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms dismantles the taken-for-granted belief that the immigrant story is universal and not particular to  individuals and their landscapes. 

I. “The Herald – Multicultural Voices of Alberta, Part 4: Japanese Canadians Today”


Taking on the style of a “culture” or “lifestyle” editorial of a newspaper, this passage shows readers the monologues of the novel’s three central heroines of the Tonkatsu family. The aged yet  imaginative Japanese grandmother or Oba-chan Naoe, her culturally confused daughter Keiko, and  Keiko’s sensitive and brave daughter Murasaki, who reluctantly goes by the name “Muriel.” Set in the prairie town of Nanton, Alberta, the passage addresses the immigrant story in the way that it uses satire to highlight the generational, linguistic, and cultural disparity between the three women. 

Keiko assertively clarifies that she prefers to be called “Kay” and looks down on the Japanese community of Vancouver and their widespread desire to strengthen their bonds with their homeland, stating that she could “never understand why people ever left [Japan] if they always pine for the past” (Goto 189). As Keiko stresses the inability of immigrants to juggle two cultures or sets of ideals, she furthers the taken-for-grantedness which characterizes the immigrant story– that immigrants and their stories are taken for granted based on conflicting notions of belonging and alienation and “how life in Canada (as immigrants and descendants of immigrants) should be faced”  (de Béjar 619). Keiko’s solution revolves around throwing away one’s own culture, forced assimilation as a necessary and sensible practice, and there being no shame in “living like everyone else” (189).  Her monologue shatters the particular and autonomous nature of the immigrant story by insisting on universal prerequisites. Fluency in English, acculturation amounting to ease and reality, immigration being a concrete matter of choice, and the “necessity to reassure her Canadian identity as opposite to her old Japanese one” (de Béjar 620). The satire in Keiko’s monologue manifests when we examine it in the context of the novel as a whole. According to Roger Bromly, Goto’s intention in Chorus of  Mushrooms was to “challenge traditional notions of culture” (Slapkauskaite 116). Keiko’s monologue does the exact opposite of this by showing her as the immigrant who conforms to “white Canadians’ racist perception of Japanese-Canadians” (116) as she actively “enjoys” the process of assimilation — anglicizing her name, rejecting the Japanese language, distaste for cooking and eating  Japanese food, and essentially hiding “beneath a fluffy woolly skin of a white sheep” (Goto 175) in search of belonging in her new home. 


In contrast, through her monologue, Murasaki illustrates a much more incomplete and fallible portrait of her life as a Japanese immigrant in Canada. She acknowledges her cultural  background as something “that wasn’t Occidental” (Goto 189) and meditates on the stereotypes and hurdles she is forced to face as an ethnic minority and immigrant woman in the dominant Canadian society. Compared to Keiko, who prefers assimilation to all else, Murasaki battles with the notion of cultural integration and laments the intolerance of cultural difference in her surroundings. Her regret over her upbringing, loss of language, and unanswered questions about her heritage are testament to her gradual awareness of the “ambivalent role of Japanese culture in Canadian society dominated by the Anglo-Celtic majority” and the significance of this for “her own ethnic identity” (Slapkauskaite  117). Murasaki’s liminal positioning, not belonging fully to her old Japanese culture nor her new  Canadian culture, likewise represents the generational disparity between herself, her mother, and her grandmother. She is not Keiko, who abandons her Japanese heritage in an effort to fit into dominant Canadian culture, nor is she Naoe, who refuses to speak English and “sustains herself by telling  Japanese fairytales” (117). Rather, she is a clear example of what “ethnic hyphenation” (116) looks like. Murasaki’s monologue is satirical in the way that it criticizes how outsiders take the immigrant story for granted and view it from a universal lens by “tagging minority subjects to their respective prescribed stereotypical images” (Beautell 10). Goto plays with this idea by structuring Murasaki’s criticism of her landscape, which is replete with “people [who] think certain things of you just because your hair is black and they have watched “Shogun, the Mini Series”” (Goto 189), as a  newspaper editorial titled “Japanese Canadians Today” — deliberately fetishistic in how it describes “authentic” immigrant voices and their struggles to the mainly white demographic of a small prairie town. 


Meanwhile, Naoe proudly embodies the legacy of homeland, bygone days (especially with how she begins all of her stories with mukashi, mukashi, omukashi, which is similar to “once upon a  time”), magical realism, and the arbitrariness of belonging. Her monologue is the antithesis of her daughter Keiko’s, and is in the distant foreground of granddaughter Murasaki’s. Also the most succinct, Naoe’s monologue leaves much to be answered with its intertwining of English and  Japanese, missing context, and “lost in translation” ambience. However, because of the language barrier and the fact that her monologue is only half translated, I interpret that Naoe’s immigrant story is one of reserve, self-preservation, and exploration. Due to her age and the comfort provided by Japanese legends, childhood memories, and food, it becomes apparent to me that she has slightly stronger feelings of contentment than her daughter and granddaughter. I think what holds her back is that she wants to be there to guide and support Murasaki and the realization that she cannot do anything about Keiko’s abandonment of her heritage. Naoe has her stories, her past, and her memories which all define her existence. Therefore, “do you even want to?” and “if you leave your home [your prejudice] and start walking this road, I’ll meet you somewhere” (Goto 190) in the context of Naoe’s “Japanese Canadians Today”self-introduction and the way she directly addresses her audience in it encompasses the choice embedded in her experience in becoming a part of Canadian society. She has escaped the “in-between” phase of immigration and the shedding of the old for the new simply by virtue of how strongly she associates with her Japanese heritage. Her experience is not only one of immigration, but of longing for peace in a new landscape. The satirical nature of Naoe’s monologue is in her refusal of the dominant Albertan-Canadian culture around her to “reproduce  Japanese culture” (Beauregard 48) by highlighting her story in a superficial newspaper editorial. The haphazard use of Japanese in an editorial which supposedly spotlights the story of Japanese immigrants is an unexpected twist, and through Naoe, subverts the structure of the dominant,  Western culture (which is represented through the editorial) by being unapologetically Japanese and not expecting outsiders to fully understand the complexity of the immigrant story.  

II. “An Immigrant Story with a Happy Ending” 

Although this interlude begins like many of Naoe’s magical legends do, it ultimately darkens and recoils when faced with the cruel realities of homeland, immigration, and belonging. Speaking to the very ‘Otherness’ which the “political discourses of Canada have adopted so as to keep racialized minorities tamed and controlled, alien but close at the same time” (de Béjar 621), it problematizes  “who deserves to be here” (Goto 211) based on a rather racist and pessimistic socio-cultural criteria.  Phrases such as “I say we should never let them in,” and “if those people want to live in Canada,  they’ve got to try a little harder” (211) convey the institutionalization of “stereotypical images of the immigrant ‘Other’ in Canada” (Pich Ponce 75) and mash the immigrant story into a single problem with a single solution — “trying harder” (Goto 211). Trying harder will bring an immigrant closer to the happy ending they seek, yet “when does it end?” (212) reinforces the awareness that simply trying harder will never been enough. When Goto introduces the possibility of nothing being impossible within reason and that “you know you can change the story” (220), it coincides with  Marc Colavincenzo’s idea that “behind a rhetoric of multicultural acceptance Canadian culture is shot through with racism, non-acceptance, and homogenizing or assimilationist tendencies” (Pich  Ponce 75).  

Furthermore, the metaphor of Mr. Baseball in the interlude opens our eyes to the concept that living with a culture rather than against it is the best course of action. This reestablishes the possibility of living with two cultures, which is also an answer to the question of “when does one thing end and another begin?” and “can you separate the two?” (213). In truth, I believe it does not and you do not have to. Murasaki did not, and through her experiences, gave voice to both the triumphs and difficulties faced by hyphenated Canadians like myself and many others. This was her lived reality, and as long as she was alive, she would be locked in constant negotiation with it. Here was Murasaki’s immigrant story — despite the inevitable struggles, fully capable of a happy ending as long as she willed it. What I make of this is that the particularity and autonomy of the immigrant story equal the potential for a happy ending to the immigrant story. The mention of “you tell me” and “nothing is impossible” (212) remind us that the immigrant story is tumultuous but powerful and entirely dependent on the individual living it. Universals are constricting and at risk of being taken for granted by outsiders, yet particulars comprise what Ray Chow calls the “process of writing diaspora: negotiating, and not merely preserving, cultural identities outside of narrow ethnic,  racial, and national borders” (Beauregard 59).  

In Chorus of Mushrooms, Japanese-Canadian writer and feminist Hiromi Goto explores the complexities of the immigrant story through the lived experiences of three generations of immigrant women; Keiko, Murasaki, and Naoe. As a reader invested in this gorgeous novel, she reminds me that the taken-for-granted nature of the immigrant story is predicated on the belief in it as universal and not particular. In my opinion, assuming the universality of an experience which differs on the basis of language, culture, and time is misunderstanding its capacity to affect lives in different ways, places, and contexts. Goto restores my faith as a child of immigrants in the possibility of my immigrant story having a happy ending. Through our own free will and perseverance, we have power over our own stories and making them different yet also meaningful than those of our immigrant parents and grandparents. Just as immigrants are unique and diverse, so too are the stories we carry with us into the places our hearts call home. 


Beauregard, Guy Pierre. “Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms and the Politics of Writing Diaspora.”  West Coast Line 29 (1995/1996): 47-62.  

de Béjar, Alba. “Identity and Belonging in Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms.” Universidad de Vigo,  Proceedings of 31st ADEAN Conference, (2008): 1-8.  

Darias Beautell, Eva. “Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms: Cultural Difference, Visibility and the  Canadian Tradition.” Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, no. 16 (2003): 6-48..  

Goto, Hiromi. Chorus of Mushrooms. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1994.  

Pich Ponce, Eva. “Memory and Language in Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms.” Language Value 4  (2012): 70-88.  

Slapkauskaite, Ruta. “Language and Silence as Identity Tropes in Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of  Mushrooms.” Government of Canada, Canada: Society and the Individual (Proceedings of  Canadian Studies Conference of Baltic States), (2006): 116-127.

Irteqa Khan (she/her) is a Muslim-Canadian writer and poet from Peshawar, Pakistan. She is a first-year Ph.D. student in Political Science at York University. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appears in Homology Lit, Erato Magazine, ANMLY, Honey Literary, The Hyacinth Review, and Aôthen Magazine among others, and is forthcoming in śvās magazine and Cobra Milk. Irteqa’s debut poetry chapbook, rēza rēza, was published with Gap Riot Press in 2020.