By Eleanor Bowskill, Hannah McWhinnie, Victoria Bromley and Lily Baldanza
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart is an authentic and heartfelt collection about the all-encompassing nature of heartbreak. Its delicate words make the reader nostalgic for the memories of a stranger. Malaysia-born writer and translator Florentyna Leow lived in London and Kyoto before relocating to Tokyo. Fresh into her twenties, Leow was offered the chance to live and work alongside an old friend as a tour guide in Japan. Tasked with navigating cultural hotspots and cohabitation with her new companion, it soon becomes clear that this new place might not remain fruitful forever.
We were interested in Leow’s writing process of unearthing such intimate emotions balanced among more domestic experiences. Leow explained that as her day job involves writing “in the realm of Japan-related food and travel,” she found writing this collection to be of a similar process, from transcribing interviews to research. With writing “a calling, not a choice,” Leow said she’d been “mulling over” the core themes of the collection for several years. She would “jot down ideas” and put them aside before the “urge to create reared its head again.”
Despite having a clear vision for the collection, Leow admitted that “almost none of the essays turned out the way I thought they might.” One of these drafts evolved into fragmented vignettes, which created a six-part narrative essay, “holding the book together.” Leow even “binned two essays that weren’t going anywhere.” Interestingly, Leow explained how she “hadn’t meant for the book to get quite so personal.” In search for inspiration, she began “rediscovering old messages, memories and photos” and went through “at least two boxes of tissues that month.”
For Leow, the experience of moving cities was a catalyst for her increased sense of who she was. Now “a different person” than when she was in her twenties, she is more “forgiving and compassionate” towards herself. Her pull towards honest and vulnerable personal essays is “like a natural extension” of how she used to write as a teenager, and after reading a plethora of essay collections over the years, she’s “delighted to finally have one of [her] own to point to.”
Rich in its commentary of dual consciousness, Leow states that she did “feel nervous” about this collection during her twenties but not so much in her early thirties, having “a stronger sense of self” than before. The concept of looking like you belong somewhere, whilst still getting to grips with the native language can create a sense of dual consciousness, stuck between the status of tourist and local. Yet, Leow explained that “there are so many ways to be an outsider” no matter where it is you go, that it all becomes a “moot” point. The sense of a connection to both places ensured that Leow was “far more than a visitor” in her homes, but she “will always be an outsider” because she did not grow up in Japan.
With vivid descriptions of mouth-watering, sumptuous delicacies, Leow writes to provoke the senses. If she were to eat one meal to capture the memory of her time in Kyoto, she would revisit her 2016 birthday dinner. After a busy day of tour-guiding, she ate viscous, sludgy roux-based curry rice with “a few chunks” of chicken and carrot, followed by a delicious dessert. Similar foods will forever transport her back to “that summer evening” in Kyoto.
The final essay in her collection, Egg Love, was a beautiful ode to platonic relationships, with the ritual of food preparation a source of comfort and a show of affection. To Leow, food is a “love language”, however, Leow believes this idea has “been written about to death” in the food writing world, and it has become difficult to write about cooking as “a labour of love” with originality. And yet, the “consideration, time management and attention to detail” required to make even a simple carbonara feels alchemistic. Each of those small decisions, from slicing the garlic “paper-thin” to “using the right metal bowl” when mixing eggs, have been made “in service of the seven minutes it takes someone else to scrape the plate clean.” For Leow, a shared meal must be an act of love, denoting a certain willingness to make a finished dish the “best version” of itself.
Throughout the book, Leow details her experiences in various underpaid and unfulfilling jobs whilst living in Japan. She puts her unhappiness down to two main causes: her constant state of “boredom” and a “lack of control.” These led to a repetitive routine of “fixed hours, five days a week” with little variation to her workload. Leow abandoned notions of hustle culture long ago. She gave up “trying to write the perfect emails” but did not feel better about doing the bare minimum. Now self-employed, Leow is still overworked but has the “freedom to choose” what to do with her time and pursue a wide range of work opportunities that would not have been possible.