Monday, October 29, 2012

Winner of the 2012 Canada-Japan Literary Award


I was delighted to hear that my memoir The Reading List has won the Canada Council for the Arts Canada-Japan Literary Prize!  The news release and jury's comments can be read here.  As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian (Yonsei), this award means a lot to me because it recognizes the hybrid nature of my cultural experience, growing up Canadian, but with Japan always present as that body of ancestral stories, collective memories and fantasies ... my imaginary homeland.

To celebrate, we have made my memoir available as an e-book.  For the kindle version, click here, and for the kobo version, click here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book #66: What Draws Me to My Favourite Authors

“He felt unable to urge the unbuckling of the trunk.  He felt as though he was prying, and as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity – not greed, curiosity, more fundamental even than sex, the desire for knowledge.”                                                  -A.S. Byatt, Possession

Ever since a week ago I completed the second draft of my novel and handed it over to my agent, I’ve been feeling out of sorts.  I always feel this way when my writing project goes on hold again … kind of melancholy, on pins and needles, unsure of what I even feel like reading.  Over the past month while I was hibernating in my head and writing for glorious chunks of time every day, the down side was that I did very little reading.  So in a way it’s nice to come out of the cave for a while and breathe and read again.

A.S. Byatt’s mammoth Man Booker prize-winning novel Possession has been sitting on my bedside table for some time, but I’d been putting off reading it because the topic – a simmering romance between two literary scholars, who bond over discovering an illicit romance between their respective authors of study – struck me as a tad all too reminiscent of my own former life as an English prof, burrowing myself away in dusty rare books libraries.  Once I got used to Byatt’s longwinded descriptions of clothing, gestures and the interiors of houses, to name just a few instances (perhaps meant as a kind of parody or luxuriant love affair with the conventions of the Victorian novel, depending on how you look at it), I found myself settling into the rhythm of her prose and getting immersed in the inner lives of the central characters.  Currently two hundred and fifty pages in, what’s most striking to me is the way the novel is bringing back fond memories of the life of the mind, but memories I could never acknowledge having while I was caught up in climbing the ladder of the Ivory Tower.  These disavowed memories, which I suspect most academics have, are brilliantly illuminated by this novel.  When Roland, our unlikely hero, a mild-mannered postdoc trying to eke a living studying the Victorian poetry of Randolph Ash, unearths from an archive a couple of thinly veiled love letters that Ash appears to have penned to the poet Christabel La Motte, his pulse quickens; his interest is deeply personal, prurient.  Seeking the advice of Maud Bailey, a scholar who specializes in La Motte, Roland is drawn on increasingly obsessive journey.  Compelled to go on a trip together to La Motte’s country home, the two discover a full set of letters that sparkle with a vibrant interchange of ideas about faith, crisis of faith, art, poetry and desire.  Most importantly, it appears that Roland and Maud are the first scholars to lay eyes on the letters and gain such insight into Ash’s illicit relationship with La Motte (Ash was married to another woman, not a poet, with whom he exchanged some comparatively drab letters). 

It's precisely this kind of rare connection with the private life of a favourite author that I lusted after during my short-lived career as an academic, even though I could never admit it at the time; in order to have any cred as a scholar, you’re forced to pretend that your perspective is far more serious, aloof and remote – couched in the interests of the latest “ism.”  And yet, what inspired me to keep poring over the papers of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather was this more primal desire to get inside the author’s unconscious and discover something secret, illicit maybe, deeply personal always, giving me some special private insight into why that author wrote the way she did.  This would be, as Byatt’s title suggests, absolute possession.

I’ll be interested to see where the plot goes in the second half.  I’m tucking this novel into my overnight bag as I get ready to leave for the Niagara Literary Arts Festival, where I’ll be giving a reading from my memoir The Reading List at 2:00 pm later today, at the Niagara on the Lake Library, before seeing a play (Misalliance) with my mother at the Shaw Festival.  Niagara on the Lake is so picturesque I feel it could almost be out of Byatt’s novel.  Hope to see you there!

Photo from: here
 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Challenge of Memoir

Over the past couple weeks, I've been taking time off from my day job to indulge in the life of a full-time writer.  I've been loving it, I have to say, though it's been surprisingly busy.  Not as many days of pure contemplation as I'd expected.  I've been working around the clock to make revisions to my novel in progress, based on my agent's feedback, and taking breaks by giving a series of readings from my recently published memoir, The Reading List, as part of Asian Heritage Month.  Last night, I read for a very warm audience in the gallery of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, while earlier in the week I read at two of the Toronto Public Library's branches and at the Plasticine Poetry Series at Paupers Pub.  (Unfortunately, I seem to have left my camera at one of the events ... so no photos for now).

One of the most interesting, invigorating aspects of giving readings, I've discovered, is taking questions from the audience afterward.  Many people asked insightful questions ranging from the writing process to my personal life and I was intrigued to find out that one audience member, who lives in the vicinity of my parents' neighbourhood, had even gone on a stroll to check out my childhood house.  One question that came up repeatedly was: how have people depicted in your memoir responded, after reading your book?  I think this is a question that a lot of readers probably have not only about my memoir, but memoirs in general, yet memoirists may find difficult to address, because the truth in my experience is that most people depicted feel varying levels of ambivalence.  While my family is proud that they now have a writer among them, some family members have expressed a certain degree of disenchantment about the exposure my book brings to our family and family secrets in particular, while others seem terrified that in a future book I'll turn my pen to them.  It might seem obvious that a memoir like mine - one that explores a turbulent period in my life, as it intersects with my father's own struggle with his mother's imminent death - would create some ripples.  But while I was writing it, I tried to bracket the whole question of audience response and simply focus on telling the most honest and authentic story, from my perspective.  Although I initially struggled with feelings of self-consciousness (that sinking sense of I can't write this ... for what would my family and friends think?), the deeper I got into the project, the more I found that feeling had vanished and my writing or creative process had taken on a life of its own.              

One nice, unexpected thing is that I've managed to reconnect with "Josh" (my ex-boyfriend from undergrad days, who plays a central role in my book).  When he was in Toronto on business, we had brunch at a place on Ossington and caught up on the past decade.  Of course, he did let me know that he had read my book and it had disrupted his sleep patterns a bit.  He took issue with a certain scene where he is depicted sipping cognac (apparently scotch is his drink), while perusing the internet, wearing a wifebeater (this inspired him to go get some new undershirts).  He was his usual entertaining, eccentric self and we reflected on the passage of time.  Glad we've become friends again, which I didn't think would happen through my memoir.   

If you're interested in reading more about it, you can click here to read my interview with Open Book Toronto earlier this month.
 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review of My Book on CBC

I just found out that Priscila Uppal, whose own writing I greatly admire, gave my memoir The Reading List a really insightful review on CBC.  The podcast can be listened to here (it starts at about the 33:40 minute mark).

May is Asian Heritage Month!  I will be quite busy over the next couple weeks giving a series of readings from my memoir.  If you live in the Toronto area, I hope you will be able to come out to some of the following events:

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm at George F. Locke Library (3083 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON)

Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 2:00 pm at College/Shaw Library (766 College Street, Toronto, ON)

Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm at Plasticine Poetry Series (Pauper's Pub, 539 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 7:00 pm at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (6 Garamond Court, Toronto, ON)
 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Book #65: China Diary

Apologies for my blogging hiatus . . . just got back to Toronto.  For the past couple weeks, I've been travelling with my boyfriend in China.  Although I wasn't able to blog during my trip (limited computer access), here are a few excerpts from my photo diary.

This is a picture of me hanging out in Soho, the neighbourhood in Hong Kong where my boyfriend grew up.  The picture was taken right after I'd gotten off the plane, after twenty-four hours without sleep, so everything is kind of swimming before my bleary eyes: the fluorescent yellow leggings that many of the girls in this fashionista city are wearing, the multi-tiered escalators cut into the mountainous terrain carrying people past the colourful cafes, bars and shops (one upper level boutique reputedly used to be the apartment where part of Chung King Express was filmed, bringing the area to life all the more vividly in my mind's eye).
A few days later, we have tea at the elegant Repulse Bay Hotel, which is of particular interest to me because I'm currently reading Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City.  This novella by one of China's preeminent writers of the early twentieth century is partly set at this very hotel, during the Second World War.  It tells the story of Bai Liusu, a beautiful but disgraced divorcee in her late twenties, who has been forced to live on the charity of her Shanghainese family.  As money becomes tight during the war, her family makes clear that they'd just as soon send her back to her loathesome in-laws or let her beg in the street.  But when the matchmaker Mrs. Xu takes an unexpected interest in her situation, Liusu agrees to be offered up to one of the biggest playboys in China, Fan Liuyan, the orphaned son of a wealthy, property owning family - gambling that she'll be able to snare him into marriage.  Travelling with Mrs. Xu to the Repulse Bay Hotel where she is set to meet Liuyan, Liusu's first impression of the hotel still holds true today: "Soon cliffs of yellow-and-red soil flanked the road, while ravines opened up on either side to reveal dense green forest or aquamarine sea.  As they approached Repulse Bay, the cliffs and trees grew gentler and more inviting.  Returning picnickers swept past them in cars filled with flowers, the sound of scattered laughter fading in the wind."
Liusu and Liuyan soon become caught up in an intense game of dangerous liaisons, he trying to seduce her and compromise her reputation, she trying to discern whatever feelings may be forming beneath his slick exterior.  But in the end, it's the war - Japan's invasion of Hong Kong, along with Pearl Harbor - that forces the couple to confront their true feelings.  Struggling to find enough to eat, Liusu and Liuyan find themselves taking care of each other, as they return to the Repulse Bay Hotel, this time to seek refuge.  By the time they arrive, however, the hotel is under siege: "By this time, Liusu wished that Liuyan wasn't there: when one person seems to have two bodies, danger is only doubled.  If she wasn't hit, he still might be, and if he died, or was badly wounded, it would be worse than anything she could imagine.  If she got wounded, she'd have to die, so as not to be a burden to him.  Even if she did die, it wouldn't be as clean and simple as dying alone.  She knew Liuyan felt the same way.  Now all she had was him; all he had was her."

Wandering along the beach, staring at the vanishing horizon, brought these characters to life all the more immediately in my imagination.

The following week, we departed for Shanghai where we spent the next few days eating, drinking and touring the galleries of Shanghai's truly impressive art scene.
One of the more interesting exhibits we visited reconceptualizes what it means to read and write a book.  Artist Xu Bing puts on display his rough drafts and process work that went into writing a book comprised entirely of icons common in our contemporary experience - no alphabet, no complex grammar required at all.  According to the artist, "Book from the Ground is a novel written in a ‘language of icons’ that I have been collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life."  The project makes you think about what it means to inhabit a fluid, cosmopolitan universe, where so much of our time - particularly when we're travelling and don't speak the language - is spent looking for universal icons, like the stick figure of a woman on the washroom door.  To think that a whole novel could be written using these icons is indeed a provocative idea.  I spent much time staring at the pages on display, delighting as I managed to piece together - or construct - the narrative.

From Shanghai, we took the train to Suzhou, a smaller city known historically as a centre of poetry and the arts, landscape architecture in particular.  The gardens of Suzhou are delightful for strolling, contemplation and just letting your imagination wander.  I can't think of a better form of rejuvenation.

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Grandmother's One Hundredth Birthday

The past couple weeks have been eventful.  I finished writing my novel and delivered it to my agent, who is currently reading it to provide feedback.  So now, I've been feeling kind of on pins and needles, with no project to keep my mind company when I wake up at four in the morning, unable to fall back to sleep ...  To distract myself, I've started reading a hodgepodge of books, not so much novels as much as history books on China, since I'll be travelling to Shanghai and Hong Kong at the end of the week on a long awaited trip to visit my boyfriend's family.  It's my first trip to China - very excited!  More on this later ...

And speaking of family, yesterday we celebrated my grandmother Esther Kayaco Kuwabara's one hundredth birthday at a luncheon for one hundred of our relatives from across Canada at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.  "I have no idea why I am still alive ...  I was the weakest one in my family - why am I the last one living?" my grandmother kept saying, her eyes filled with wonder and amazement.  I have fond memories of my grandmother who has always been a great storyteller and, as the stories told by her children about her at the birthday party attest, has succeeded in creating something of a mythology about herself.  Named after Kayaks River, a tributary of the Skeena in northern BC, close to where she was born, my grandmother Kayaco has often struck me as very much a child of the Canadian wilderness, despite her surface appearance, in some of the black and white photos I've seen, as a Japanese doll with large eyes and a too serious smile.  When she was a young child, a wild cat crept into their house and jumped on her face while she was sleeping, clawing her cheeks, barely missing her eye, leaving her so scarred that she became convinced she would never marry.  Of course, over time, the scars did heal, but her self-image had been forever shaped, not, strangely enough, in terms of a loss of self-esteem, but just the opposite.  Among her six sisters, she would be The Capable One, the one who would be entrusted to run her father's businesses, the logging camp in Prince Rupert and later the two pie shops and restaurant in Vancouver.  In short, she would become the son he never had (though it later turned out that he did have a son, who had been raised in Japan ...)

During the Second World War, when the Japanese-Canadians were interned, my grandmother says that the first thing that went through her mind was, "I have only fifteen dollars in my purse."  In the camp, which was situated in the ghost town Sandon, Kayaco used her prodigious cooking skills to earn money, cooking for (as she tells it) lines of people who went on for as far as the eye could see ...  At the birthday luncheon, the stories that my mother told chronicling their childhood with Kayaco in the 1950s, when she spent a summer as the cook at another kind of camp, a children's overnight camp, brought tears of nostalgia to my eyes because I had been hearing these stories about her chopping wood and killing bats and scaring away drunken old priests who stumbled into the camp kitchen late at night for as long as I could remember.  As my uncle Bruce said in his speech, she is a woman who exemplifies the word "gumption."  In addition to listening to these reminiscences, we had musical entertainment provided by several musicians in the family, one of whom is renowned flutist and composer Ron Korb, who performed some stunning pieces from his new compositions.

I was asked to read a poem.  I chose one that may, in retrospect, have been overly symbolic for the occasion, but it is a serious poem about life, death, art and solitude that in some strange way seems to suit my grandmother perfectly.  The poem is called "On Looking into Henry Moore" by Canadian modernist poet, Dorothy Livesay.  Here is the middle verse, which is my favourite:

The message of the tree is this:
Aloneness is the only bliss

Self-adoration is not in it
(Narcissus tried, but could not win it)
Rather, to extend the root
Tombwards, be at home with death

But in the upper branches know
A green eternity of fire and snow. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book #64: Mixed Feelings

"To tell you the truth," he said, running his hand through his hair, "I've always had mixed feelings about you."  His smile was rueful.  "I think you've aroused more mixed feelings in me than anybody else I know."                                                                         -Elizabeth Hay, A Student of Weather

Over the past couple weeks while I've been off work, taking time off to finish my novel (fingers crossed), I've indulged in some reading as well.  One of the novels I read was Elizabeth Hay’s first novel, A Student of Weather.  After reading and loving Hay’s Giller-winning Late Nights on Air a few years ago, I was curious about how her writing evolved (I often find myself drawn to reading first novels of authors I admire, perhaps because I’m working on my first novel).  Here, in Hay’s first novel, we get a smaller cast than in Late Nights on Air, but one that is comprised of characters no less eccentric and fascinating.  The novel opens in 1930s Saskatchewan, where two sisters living on a farm in the sultry prairies fall for the same newcomer, Maurice Dove, a meteorologist from Ontario, or student of weather, who is doing research in the region.  While Lucinda is the fair, beautiful, older sister who is good to a fault, it is the younger sister, Norma Joyce, who is secretive and deceptive and dark, almost foreign looking, that will go to no ends to snare him.

What is disturbing and riveting about Norma Joyce’s desire is that she feels it at such a young age.  She is only nine the summer she becomes besotted with Maurice, while he is well into his twenties: "She memorizes every inch of him.  Every inch of floppy, thick, brown hair, blue eyes and milky neckline, slender hips and slippered feet, and long, flat, clever fingers.  No matter whether riffling through papers or pulling things out of his knapsack, he holds his fingers the way a piano player isn't supposed to."  While the novel appears at first glance to be a classic love story centred on a love triangle, it ends up veering into much more interesting territory by turning into a kind of love story in reverse.  Neither sister ends up with Maurice, but as their entanglements with him continue over some forty years – through Norma Joyce’s birth of their child out of wedlock, his rise to fame as a writer of popular books about weather, and his marriage to two other women – Maurice Dove’s character is gradually revealed to be anything other than good husband material.  But what I found most compelling about the novel’s portrayal of this relationship is the way that despite seeing all his foibles, Norma Joyce’s desire persists – stubborn and irrational as desire is, like the weather itself.  And when she confronts Maurice about the genuine nature of his feelings for her, years later, when they run into each other at an art gallery in Ottawa, he responds that no one has ever evoked in him more mixed feelings.  Mixed feelings, rather than the more straightforward polarities of love and hatred, are what Hay seems to most enjoy putting under the microscope in this novel no less than in Late Nights on Air.

As I was thinking about how mixed feelings play out in A Student of Weather, I came to realize that many of the novels that stay with me and continually tease my mind are centred on love relationships similarly stymied.  Lily Bart’s and Selden Lawrence’s interminable mind games in The House of Mirth, for instance.  In the end, it isn’t getting together that matters, for they recognize they would be miserable together (Lily craves a level of luxury that he can’t offer her, while Selden treasures his independence), and yet, until the very end, their desire for each other persists, mixed with something bleaker because they know their feelings will always be thwarted.  Mixed feelings, indeed.  In a way, aren’t these the relationships that linger most vividly in our memories, whether we like it or not?  As those of you who have read my memoir will know, I’ve had a few mixed feelings myself over the years and, like Elizabeth Hay, I seem to find them more creatively productive to write about than the simple feeling of being in love. 

Photo from: here

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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Last year, Leslie was selected as an Emerging Writer in Diaspora Dialogues and read at The Word On The Street. Her writing has been published in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.