Filling the Void: Exploring Female Connection in Loneliness
Feature by Zoë Abrahams
As I get off the metro, I find the streets of Rotterdam deserted. The wet ground reflects the flickering stoplights alerting me to cross the road. It has just stopped raining, but the air is still sticky and weighs heavy on my skin. I see the leaves dwindling down onto the pavement. Autumn is finally coming. My feet carry me to one of my favorite spots in the city – the bookstore. Whereas I found myself alone in the streets a moment ago, as I step foot into the bookstore, that loneliness is suddenly replaced by a certain sense of belonging. People are pondering the bookshelves, talking to each other in hushed voices, patiently waiting in line to buy their new treasures. I maneuver myself through the stacked bookshelves full of recent publications. How am I supposed to find the perfect book? The first few shelves are congested with popular titles and books ‘seen on BookTok’. I roll my eyes. Has BookTok really infiltrated my favorite bookstore? It takes a while before my eyes rest on a potential candidate. Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi. The title grabs my attention, yet it is the premise of the novel that takes my breath away. This is just what I was looking for.
Sitting down in the bookstore café, sipping on my matcha latte, I decide to open the book. Emi Yagi introduces me to Ms Shibata and her intriguing predicament. Although I do not yet know everything about Shibata, I am immediately invested and feel connected to her character. I am sucked into Shibata’s life, the story of her sudden “pregnancy”, and the overwhelming loneliness she experiences during it.
After being the victim of sexual harassment at her previous job, Shibata welcomes her new workplace and even the tedious responsibilities that come along with it. Still, she is at her breaking point. Upon the sight of the once again dirty cups and the penetrating smell of stale coffee in the breakroom, Shibata snaps at her male colleagues that she can no longer be the one to clean the cups after meetings. “I’m pregnant,” she declares, “the smell of coffee…it triggers my morning sickness.” The twist, however, is that Shibata is not really pregnant. As a consequence of this small interaction, Shibata is now forced to carry out her fabricated lie for nine months. Ironically, this is the sacrifice she makes in order for her not to perform the tedious tasks generally assigned to women in the workplace.
“‘Hey, this isn’t so bad!’ he exclaimed as I showed him what to do. You’re right about that, I said back. That’s why it’s called instant coffee.”
Her colleagues immediately celebrate the positive news and embrace her new position within the company – yielding her unexpected benefits such as leaving the office early each day. Enjoying her newly gained freedom as a “pregnant” woman, Shibata makes extensive trips to the supermarket, cooks healthy meals for herself and the “baby,” and joins prenatal aerobics classes – activities she did not have time for before she “got pregnant”.
As her “pregnancy” carries on, both Shibata and the reader begin to question the deception of her “pregnancy”. Might she actually be pregnant after all? After the holidays, Shibata states: “I realized that my belly was a little bigger. That made sense, considering all the Kabukiage I’d eaten back home. But there was something else to it. There was this force I could feel inside me…” To convince the reader, and maybe even Shibata herself, Yagi combines moments of magical realism, such as her conversations with the original virgin mother Holy Mary, with seemingly realistic experiences of pregnancy symptoms such as the growing sensation of a void.
Yet, the spell of “pregnancy” and “motherhood” soon wear off. Apart from the women she meets in her aerobics classes, Shibata is completely alone and isolated through her upcoming “motherhood”. The lie she carries becomes a burden to her social life, which dwindles as the void inside her grows. Shibata declares: “So this is pregnancy. What luxury. What loneliness.” She realizes in her loneliness that the alienation of pregnancy and motherhood, even when not physically real, might as well be worse than the oppressive and gendered office culture that inspired her experiment in the first place.
“Even if it’s a lie, it’s a place of my own. And if I can hold on to that lie inside my heart, if I can keep repeating it to myself, it might lead me somewhere. If I can do that, maybe I’ll change a little, and maybe the world will, too.”
What started as an experiment, to see whether “it even occurred to any of my coworkers, maybe somebody who’d actually been in the meeting, to clean up”, Shibata’s experiment seems to evolve into an act of rebellion. It almost becomes impossible for the reader not to see her experiment as a form of feminist protest against the rigid gender roles in Japanese society and especially Japanese office culture. At the end of the novel, Shibata realizes the grand scheme of her experiment and the impact her lie has had on her position within the office: “that is what I wanted to see” she says, “unexpected cracks in a giant system that seemed so unassailable.”
While Shibata struggles with the isolating loneliness of “motherhood” in her small Japanese apartment, my vision pans out to my surroundings of the bookstore café. I notice the women sitting around me. Do these women also feel a sense of loneliness in their experiences of womanhood? What did these women have to sacrifice to get to where they are right now in their lives? I look at my phone and scroll through Instagram. All I see are posts of women shaping themselves into desirable objects, women getting married, women getting pregnant. Although they seem happy, I can’t shake the feeling of loneliness and discontent. On the daily, women are impacted by societal gender roles shaped by patriarchal structures. To fit into the confining normative gender roles, women tend to sacrifice their wants and needs. Whether they sacrifice their career to get children or they sacrifice their wish to have children to the detriment of their career. Women are never allowed to have both. Ms Shibata then seems to have found a loophole in the system through her fabricated “pregnancy”, but by doing so she sacrifices her mental health and enjoyment of life.
Shibata’s story reminds me of another woman’s story in contemporary Japanese literature. The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura focuses on the same feelings of loneliness and the desperate need for female connection in her novel, but instead of a fantastical “pregnancy”, the lives of the women in Purple Skirt are drastically transformed by an invasive stalker.
On the surface, Imamura’s narrator, who refers to herself as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, seems to be a naïve and childlike person who just wants to become good friends with her neighbor, the Woman in the Purple Skirt. Yet, Yellow Cardigan’s obsession – or in her eyes, devotion – to Purple Skirt becomes more worrisome as the story continues. According to Yellow Cardigan, it is Purple Skirt’s life, and we are all just living in it. This idea of ‘being the main character’, is reflected in Yellow Cardigan’s narration, when she states: “when the Woman in the Purple Skirt goes out, it is impossible not to pay attention. Nobody could ignore her.” Strangely enough, however, Purple Skirt is not aware of her impact on the townspeople, as “whatever reactions she gets from people around her, it makes absolutely no difference – she just continues on her way.”
Apart from her order at her favorite bakery, her preferred bench in the park and the games she plays with the neighborhood children, Yellow Cardigan notices another detail in the life of Purple Skirt – she can’t seem to keep a steady job. As a segue into becoming friends with Purple Skirt, Yellow Cardigan decides to take matters into her own hands by manipulating Purple Skirt into having a job interview at the same hotel that she works for herself. With a little help of Yellow Cardigan, Purple Skirt gets the job as the new cleaning lady of the hotel. Yet, even when Purple Skirt is hired, Yellow Cardigan does not stop her stalking tendencies. Rather, they become more desperate and eerie.
“I think what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been wanting to become friends with the Woman in the Purple Skirt for a very long time.”
Throughout the novel, the reader however becomes less interested in the details of Purple Skirt’s life, but rather in the peculiarity of the narrator, Yellow Cardigan. The reader wonders how Yellow Cardigan gets her information – how does she know what happens behind closed doors? It is because of this peculiar narration that Yellow Cardigan gets an almost non-human quality: she seems to hover over the shoulders of Purple Skirt much akin to a ghost. Furthermore, the tone of narration seems to change the longer Purple Skirt is employed at the hotel. Whereas Yellow Cardigan at the beginning of the novel seemed to want to become friends with Purple Skirt, at the end of the novel it seems as if Yellow Cardigan wants to undermine Purple Skirt and her successes at work.
Coincidently – or not, I’m looking at you Yellow Cardigan – during the period that Purple Skirt is hired, a bunch of items go missing from the hotel. Who the culprit is the reader never figures out. But it is clear that all the coworkers suspect Purple Skirt. Especially since Purple Skirt seems to be entangled in a sexual affair with the hotel director. Her reputation at the hotel becomes tainted, so much so that even her lover suspects her of stealing. In her distress, a terrible accident happens to the hotel director at the hands of Purple Skirt. But of course, Yellow Cardigan is there to save the day as she helps Purple Skirt to flee town. And even though Yellow Cardigan expresses her want to go with Purple Skirt, she doesn’t seem to mind that she is left behind. In true tragic fashion, Purple Skirt has gone from the ‘main character’ to the ‘ostracized scapegoat’. “She is distraught. She doesn’t know what to do. And what’s more, she’s all alone in her distress.” Was everything set up, Yellow Cardigan? Was your need to become friends with Purple Skirt a façade?
After witnessing the accident – or rather setting up the accident, right Yellow Cardigan? – she goes to visit the hotel director in the hospital. Whereas Yellow Cardigan went unnoticed before, not only by her object of stalking but also by her colleagues at work, the hotel director finally acknowledges her presence. Using Purple Skirt as blackmail, Yellow Cardigan convinces the director to give her a better position at the hotel and a higher pay. “How long have you been here Gondo-San?” the director asks. “I’ve been here all along” she replies.
“Unfortunately, no one knows or cares about the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. That’s the difference between her and the Woman in the Purple Skirt.”
The name of the Woman in the Purple Skirt is revealed during a staff meeting one day, yet for Yellow Cardigan, Mayuko Hino remains the Woman in the Purple Skirt. This way she is not just another coworker with a name, but rather remains the object of juxtaposition of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. The idea that it was never about Mayuko, the person, but rather the confidence and sophistication she embodied, comes full circle in the end of the novel. Now that Purple Skirt has left town, Yellow Cardigan starts to embody her. Becoming the main character of her own story, Yellow Cardigan has successfully gotten rid of Purple Skirt and replaced her with herself, Gondo-San.
I finish my matcha latte and pack my bag. I too feel like Gondo-San and Ms Shibata sometimes – invisible and alone. However, through reading the experiences of the two women in these novels, and how they dealt with feelings of loneliness, womanhood and their place in patriarchal society, I feel a sense of connection. Women go through very similar struggles, carrying them in silence, and like Ms Shibata we grow a void deep inside ourselves, of loneliness, of unhappiness, of wants and needs unmet. Yet, by filling this void with female connections instead of alienating ourselves, our loneliness evaporates. Even if for a moment.
Zoë Abrahams is an MA Literature Today student at Utrecht University, where she also completed two BAs in Literary Studies and Art History. Her literary passion lies in Japanese and Korean feminist contemporary fiction. In her previous research she analyzed themes of “madness as a feminist protest” in the novels of Han Kang and Cho Nam-Joo (2021), as well as the “female gaze as a negation of eroticization” in the paintings of the forgotten female Renaissance artists Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani (2022).
- Imamura, Natsuko. The Woman in the Purple Skirt, Faber, 2021.
- Takehisa Yumeji. Woman in Despair, ca. 1940, woodblock print on paper, 37 x 39 cm, British Museum: London (Photo: British Museum London).
- Yagi, Emi. Diary of a Void, London, Harvill Secker, 2022.