Monday, May 17, 2010

Book #4: Enigmatic Houses in V.S. Naipaul

Boarding houses have long fascinated me with their louche, transient quality. In his memoir, The Enigma of Arrival, V.S. Naipaul reflects on the boarding house he first inhabited upon immigrating from Trinidad to London in the 1950s:

"I felt that at one time, perhaps before the war, it had been a private house; and (though knowing nothing about London houses) I felt it had come down in the world. Such was my tenderness towards London, or my idea of London. And I felt, as I saw more and more of my fellow lodgers - Europeans from the Continent and North Africa, Asiatics, some English people from the provinces, simple people in cheap lodgings - that we were all in a way campers in the big house."

People of diverse backgrounds live in close proximity - fragments of their pasts butt up against each other, all the while remaining largely unreadable. Ironically, it is only years later, after Naipaul has become a celebrated writer, that he realizes the boarding house would make prime literary material. At the time, as a fledgling writer, he was obsessed with validating another "idea of London," one that he confesses was drawn from Dickens. A London based on class and hierarchy, the very principles being eroded upon his arrival in the 50s.

Until recently, my father's childhood was veiled in mystery, too. He grew up in 1950s Toronto, at Bloor and Lansdowne - not an easy place to inhabit amidst the post-war discrimination against Japanese-Canadians. While researching my own memoir, probing my dad with questions, I discovered that the house at Lansdowne had been a boarding house. My pulse quickened. One day, we went there together and as I stood in front of the sagging porch, the place caught hold in my imagination. Ancestors and family members came alive as characters, from my fragile, ex-beauty queen grandmother to the grandfather I'd never met. He'd died under mysterious circumstances the year before I was born, and no one in the family liked to talk about him, save the rare allusion to "Kaz's dark side." Later that evening, I started a short literary piece to explore a family in decay.

But now I want to find out what really happened. To connect with the past. Later this week, I plan to revisit the house.

Photo from: here


Bushpig.vrc said...

so i tried to read the snipped that you wrote, but just got to the TOK main page; i once read something by naipul, but must admit that it didn't really move me - i'm a boor like that, i spose.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

No doubt, he isn't everyone's cup of tea. Naipaul is famously quoted as saying about himself, "I am the kind of writer that people think other people are reading." The important thing, in my view, is to pursue literature that speaks to you. If Naipaul isn't it, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

Unfortunately, the TOK anthology is not available online. It can be ordered online or purchased at the book launch tonight (if you happen to live in Toronto). Details at:

Naomi said...

I read your story about the St. Clarens house in TOK 5 and liked your characterization of your self-contained grandmother. My mother often says to put salt on watermelon. When will your book be published?

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

That's great that you liked the story! I plan to finish the book manuscript by the end of the year.


Related Posts with Thumbnails

About Me

My photo
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.