This month. we asked our regular contributors to write about the feminist books that they love—books that struck a chord, for one reason or another, books they couldn’t put down, that they’ll never donate, that are underlined and dog-eared and bookmarked eternally, that you can maybe borrow, but you most definitely have to give back. First up is Hanna on The Cutmouth Lady:
Urban legends, awkward crushes, high school, sneaking out to the wrong side of town…. Sounds like the makings of a typical coming-of-age story. But add a basically-orphaned Seattle girl sent to Japan to attend a strict Catholic school while living with a distant family friend above a bar, and you’ve got The Cutmouth Lady. A friend gifted this book to me when I was 24, and upon reading it, I immediately felt so much longing and a deep regret that my teenage self hadn’t had this to read on train ride escapes into NYC on the weekends.
The book begins one spring in Hamamatsu when a string of strange occurrences prompts murmurings of a “cutmouth lady” on the loose, confronting schoolgirls near bridges and boathouses, pretending to ask polite questions, and then, when up close, screaming while tearing off her surgical mask, revealing a gash where her mouth would be. While this mysterious figure haunts the dreams of the girls at Kaisei High School, Hiromi, the book’s narrator, is navigating a complex dual world—she is a uniformed student at a strict Catholic school run by unforgiving and oppressive nuns, but lives amongst bar-goers, prostitutes, and drag queens, who become her real sphere of influence. Hiromi is a double outsider—queer and a gaijin (foreigner)—amongst her peers. Throughout the book’s six sections, which read like short stories, though interconnected, Hiromi confronts her interest in girls and her burgeoning sense of identity.
It is incredibly rare that a book’s authority figures, heroes, sages, villains, criminals, and love interests are all women. Centered around female experience and desire, this book gives so much agency to the teenage girl and explores queer identity, secrecy, tradition, friendship, and family amongst familiar teen tropes like clothes, makeup, comic books, drinking, and dating. Dynamics of power (typically exhibited by nuns, parents, men, the wealthy) are often shifting and constantly decentralized, complicating the narrative. Romy Ashby’s writing is gorgeous and cinematic—whether it’s describing the tall reeds grown thick on the shore of Lake Hamana, the narrow alleyways through the city populated with lanterns, sake bars, iced coffee vending machines, and love hotels, or the ruddy, pancake makeup-covered face of a snake-like peer—and she expertly depicts the fascinating juxtaposition between the dark maze of city nightlife and the pastoral setting and puritanical whitewash of Hiromi’s school.
It is fitting that a former close friend of mine pressed The Cutmouth Lady into my hands saying, “This is for you, and it is important.” It’s the kind of book that should be shared between girls like a secret note, favorite sweater, or lucky charm. Go find it, read it, and pass it on. <3
Note: The Cutmouth Lady was released as part of the Semiotext(e) Native Agents Series—which also published works by Cookie Mueller, Lynne Tillman, Kathy Acker, and Eileen Myles, among others.