Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book #10: The Missing Leg in Anthony De Sa

Sometimes I find myself thinking about my grandfather's old girlfriends. Is that weird? But everything about his life is weird. He died of some mysterious, unspecified illness before I was born, and my father only ever refers to him by his first name, "Kaz." Where other girls had grandpas who'd been struck down by cancer, all I had was this faded, black-and-white image: a man with a vivacious smile and a debonair wave to his hair. The photo must have been taken in Japantown, before the war.

According to my great aunt, Kaz was quite the "bad boy" - drinking, womanizing, leading a louche existence when he was barely out of high school. Apparently, there was a jazz singer named Lily, whom he fell in love with. My great aunt giggles as she remembers this, but something nervous and almost hysterical undercuts her show of boisterousness. I want to know more, but her lips tighten, and she says mockingly, "Look at Leslie, so bemused, taking it all in."

Perhaps these childhood memories have something to do with why I'm tantalized by Anthony De Sa's Barnacle Love. This collection of linked short stories tells the tale of the Rebelo family, beginning with Manuel, a young fisherman, fleeing the insular confines of his Portuguese hometown. He washes up nearly drowned on the shores of Newfoundland, ready to make a new life, but where does he fit in? What does it mean to follow his dreams? Caught between tradition and the surging pulse in his blood, he falls under the spell of a fisherman's daughter, who, despite being a cripple, is strength and sexuality incarnate:

"Her hands blur as they weave the leather straps and secure the metal brace to her thigh - the moulded cup meets the hardened flesh where her leg should be. He's not sure how he feels about it - she is not whole. But when she brushes by him he is caught in her smell of cotton sheets and the peppered sweetness of cinnamon. There is intrigue in her difference - something fragile that needs his tending. Manuel wants to hold her, touch her."

With her missing leg and her slight figure - so slight that she appears almost an apparition when he first sees her - she represents mystery and the beauty of something lost. Her atrophied flesh and severed bone embody something unknowable about her past, in the same way that Manuel's own ties to Portugal are being torn away.

I find myself wondering about my grandfather's past and what it must have been like growing up in the shadow of Japan. He bristled under his father's expectation that he carry on the family tradition by becoming a doctor. I remember my great aunt alluding to his thwarted musical talents. She said that his personality dissolved after the war.

I want to ask my dad what happened, but something stops me. He already looks edgy, lying on the couch, flipping the channels, and I haven't said a word.

So instead I simply ask him if he would like to read Barnacle Love.

Photo from: here


Mrs Midnite said...

I also have a grandad I know very very little about, he died when my mum was young. The bits I do know make him interesting but I have no way to know more.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Although these gaps in family knowledge can be frustrating, in a way, they make our grandfathers interesting.... It frees up more room for imagining who they were.


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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.