Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book #6: Kureishi's Eloquent Movements

A detour.

What made me want to become a prof in the first place? As I desperately searched for a new career, it was a question people often asked me.

Ten years ago, while finishing my undergrad, I’d stumbled across a novel that wasn’t on the syllabus for any Honours English seminar. Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album. It’s a novel about Shahid Hassan’s journey through the peeling halls of a London community college known “less in the academic area but more for gang rivalries, drugs, thieving and political violence.” Shahid is bedazzled by an alluring, tormented prof named Deedee Osgood. As soon as he walks into her locker-sized office, she interrogates him with “difficult questions about Wright and Ellison, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison,” all the while tantalizing him with her body language:

“Off he went, being exemplary, until, that is, she crossed her legs and tugged her skirt down. He had, so far, successfully kept his eyes averted from her breasts and legs. But the whole eloquent movement – what amounted in that room to an erotic landslide of rustling and hissing – was so sensational and almost provided the total effect of a Prince concert that his mind took off into a scenario about how he might be able to tape-record the whisper of her legs, copy it, add a backbeat, and play it through his head-phones.”

Years later, while standing on the other side of the lecture podium, I tried to rationalize why I coveted having this effect. Was it sheer boredom? If Henry James wasn’t quite cutting it, then lecturing in stilettos gave my mood a boost? Since the dusty town had nary a single man, I found myself lost in my own libidinal energies, which sought compensatory expression in fashion and makeup. Or perhaps I had such fond memories of my own university crushes – on strange looking men in shabby jackets and balding like smurfs – that I thought, How much more potent, if the erudite train of thought comes delivered in a sleek black suit, smelling of jasmine.

No doubt, there were certain kids who came to my office hours and glued themselves to a chair. It was amazing how the most banal comments – “The Waste Land was shaped by World War One” – set their faces alight. But up close, their youthful, innocent expressions started to make me feel like a tawdry, old woman. In the end, I was too much of a goody two shoes to be a Mrs. Robinson. Unlike my heroine, Deedee Osgood, I would abstain from absconding with a student into the hallucinogenic world of the London club scene.

Deedee is a terrible role model as a professor, but as a complex literary character she knows how to get under the reader’s skin. Not afraid to expose her vulnerability, she hesitates when Shahid asks what drives her: “I’m trying to find out. Other things. Culture. When I can, I do a lot of nothing. And I make stabs at pleasure. Yes.” She's as lost as her students, stumbling along some path to self-discovery without any grand epiphanic moments. Yes, it was time to admit it. So was I.

Photo from: here


Mimi said...

My childhood best friend was Japanese Canadian. Her uncle was alcoholic although the family denied it. He never staggered in the house and definitely not in the streets. He was a quiet, well behaved alcoholic except for some slurred words and glassy eyes at times. Lots of strength, talent and secrets were in my friend's family but no "staggering around" to give them away.

Mimi said...

Sorry - my comment was in response to your earlier piece on The Myth of the Joycean "Epiphany."

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Mimi, thanks for sharing your friend's experience.


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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. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.