Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book #23: Decaying Family Ties

“Kiyo and I were too young to run around, but often we would eat in gangs with other kids, while the grownups sat at another table. I confess I enjoyed this part of it at the time.” -Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar

It’s a story that’s both familiar and strange to me. It might have been my mother’s story if she’d been born ten years earlier or my grandmother’s story if she hadn’t been embarrassed to tell all.

Farewell to Manzanar is Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s fascinating memoir about coming of age in an internment camp during the Second World War. The camp, situated in Manzanar, California, housed over 110,000 Japanese Americans in 36 blocks of hastily constructed barracks on 540 acres of sultry desert land. Jeanne goes overnight from being a carefree seven-year-old to an internee. Her father, a fisherman, is seized one day by the FBI under suspicion that his radio is being used to transmit information to Japan. By the time her father is released, her mother and the rest of the family have been forcibly relocated to cramped, dirty quarters at Manzanar, where the communal toilets are not even partitioned and the food is so terrible that most everyone falls ill.

I wonder to what extent my own family members suffered such indignities upon being interned at camps in Minadoka, Idaho, and Sandon and Kaslo, BC.

But what I find most interesting and unsettling about the tale is the erosion of communal family life. We hear of children and teenagers left to their own devices, allowed to eat in the mess hall with their friends everyday - running from one mess hall to the next in search of more palatable food - and all the while their parents are either absent (interned elsewhere) or languishing in depression and alcoholism. Gangs form, governed by violence and their own secret hierarchies. And covert romances, too (one might speculate). Although the author only touches on these aspects (as a child, she was too young to be sucked into the group dynamics that led to the infamous Manzanar Riot), she is clear about the fallout – the loss of parental authority. It was in this kind of no man’s land that my own grandparents fell in love against their elders’ wishes and ran away after the war.

Photo from: here

Monday, August 23, 2010

Book #22: Racy Regionalism

"The xylophone player!  The xylophone player to marry her!  Yonder he is!"  -Eudora Welty, "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies"

Not so long ago, I spent four years of my life writing a dissertation whose key insight can be summed up by these two sentences: "It is by nature itself that fiction is all bound up in the local.  The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place."  The citation is from Eudora Welty's 1956 essay, "Place in Fiction," which I stumbled across online.  A pang of sadness came over me - this essay would have been a goldmine back in the days when I was "dissertating"!  At the time, I had become obsessed with regional literature and was trying to show how all modernist art is in fact regionalist in its basis.  But now I saw that I could have saved myself three hundred pages.  Welty said it perfectly in two lines. 

(And yes, there was a touch of nostalgia for my old academic self: cuticle chewing, sleep deprived, masochistic, high on literary theory....) 

Indulging in a blue, second-guessing-the-past moment (the crappy weather wasn't helping my mood), I dug up from a storage box Welty's first collection, A Curtain of Green and Other StoriesI'd read a few of the stories back in grad school, but hardly remembered a thing about them.  Now, as I began reading the first story, "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies," I found myself thinking about the way Welty uses dialect and delightful references to local institutions - like "Ellisville Institute for the Feeble Minded of Mississippi" - to create her signature sense of "place."  But it takes more than just that. 

Her real speciality, it dawned on me, is sexual deviance.  A group of gossipy southern ladies are bound together around the scandal of the idiot girl's sexual initiation.  On the verge of being institutionalized, Lily Daw announces that she is going to marry a xylophone player, who has charmed and possibly seduced or molested her, throwing all the ladies into a tizzy.  Their shock and prurient curiosity charge the story with feelings that are tied to the specific locale. 

This is the kind of racy regionalism that fascinates me.

As I kept reading, I began thinking about my own grandmother, Kayaco, and how much she reminds me of a character from a Welty story.  By contrast to my other grandmother (about whom I was blogging in my last entry), Kayaco is a no-nonsense kind of woman, named after Kayaks River in BC, where her father first lived upon immigrating from Japan.  She is a woman who knows her roots and what she stands for.  But to return to my point, she has a keen eye for sexual impropriety and seems to take a good deal of pleasure in rooting it out.  I remember when I was ten, she told me that her mother-in-law had long had designs on my grandfather.  Incest, you say?  Not quite.  You see, her mother-in-law was actually my grandfather's stepmother, but for decades, she had lived in their house.  The family dynamics were fraught, to say the least.

Hmmm....  I got out my notebook and began taking notes. 

Photo from: here 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book #21: History or Love Story?

“This is a story of how I fell in love with a woman who read me a specific story from Herodotus. I heard the words she spoke across the fire, never looking up, even when she teased her husband.” -Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Last night, I was thinking about the historical novel and how its claim to being “historical” is a bit of a sham. A love story, tragically thwarted. This is what most historical novels boil down to. Or at least the ones I adore.

I was thinking about this as I was rereading The English Patient, which is no doubt at the top of my list, along with a few others like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! History looms large in these novels – war history, to be precise. You learn a lot about bomb disposal during the Second World War by reading Ondaatje, just as you can pick up some interesting facts about southern Confederate history through Faulkner. But what ignites these novels on an emotional level is the love plot, wrapped around the secret of one lover’s mysterious identity. The English patient is burned beyond recognition. Charles Bon’s sophisticated, urbane appearance masks over a past that turns out to be far more southern and primal.

These lovers are lost souls caught in the revolving blades of historical change. While it would be nice to think that love provides salvation, just the opposite is true. Their passion for certain women turns into full-blown obsession, which in the end proves destructive and violent. Yet, as the reader, I always feel some inexplicable hope, some utopian horizon just around the corner….

I was mulling this over while thinking about my grandfather’s life. Kaz. He died in the 1960s, following a mental breakdown, long before I was born. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve got it in my head that his unraveling began during the Second World War, when the Japanese-Canadians were interned. I never met Kaz. But I can picture him in the midst of the dusty barracks, falling in love with my grandmother in those cramped quarters, the fury in his hot-tempered brain finding its only outlet in her seduction.  Her violent seduction?  Kaz, from all accounts, was a man who took what he wanted. 

The way that Kaz met my grandmother, Masako, was strange to say the least. Unlike most Japanese immigrants, Kaz wasn't forced into internment, because his father (my great grandfather) was a well known doctor who was put in charge of providing medical services at the camps. Yet, ironically, for reasons that remain fuzzy, Kaz chose captivity. He was free - on a road trip touring the West Coast -when he met Masako. She was a beauty queen who’d won a competition for Japanese-American girls, so perhaps Kaz saw her at a pageant, as she was walking on stage and slowly turning in her rented kimono. In any case, she must have made quite the impression. He became obsessed with her and after the war’s outbreak, followed her to the internment camp.

I will never know my grandfather, yet a vestige of him grows in my imagination every time I read….

Photo from: here

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Redesigning My Blog (& Life?)

Last weekend, I was strolling with my boyfriend through Grange Park, beside the Art Gallery of Ontario, enjoying the warm, leafy afternoon.  While he was taking photos, I was sitting on the steps of the Grange reading the novel that's always in my purse (that day, it happened to be The English Patient.  More on this soon).  On a whim, Chris took a picture of me.  Later that evening, he pointed out that it might make an interesting banner for my blog, which I'd been wanting to redesign.  I wanted to give my blog a more personalized look, but I'm not sure what my "personality" is at the moment....  Recently, I've been feeling less like a coherent "self" and more like a collage made from those ripped up magazine photos (wasn't it fun to make collages back in kindergarten?)  Whenever I get this feeling, it's a sure sign that another transition period is around the corner....     

In any case, it was lovely to have the photo before me.  I had a moment of pure recognition. 

Chris was very sweet in taking the time to photoshop it and even change the background -unfortunately, cherry blossoms do not in reality grow in Grange Park!   But the cherry blossoms seemed appropriate since they remind me of Japan and my long-lost Japanese heritage.  Ten or twelve years ago, I spent a summer in Osaka and I remember arriving during cherry blossom season.  The petals were falling all over the place, like streamers after a birthday party.  I was both excited and terrified to be in the country my ancestors had left over a hundred years ago.  Yet as the weeks wore on, I became increasingly melancholy.  It depressed me that I don't speak Japanese, while everyone there assumed I was a native.  Rather than confronting the cleft in my identity, I retreated into a shell.  I sat in noodle shops and cried all the time and rainy season went on forever.

Now, once again, I find the Japanese side of myself beckoning to me, mysterious murmurs.  But no longer do I want to visit Japan so much as I want to recreate the imaginary landscape of my ancestors.......

Photo from: here

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book #20: True Gumption

"We walk a few steps further down the path, and there, almost hidden from sight off the path, is a small grey hut with a broken porch camouflaged by shrubbery and trees.  The colour of the house is that of sand and earth."    -Joy Kogawa, Obasan

Obasan isn't an easy novel for me to read.  Usually upon reading an historical novel, I feel a kind of fascination - the luxury of reflecting upon events from afar.  But in reading Obasan, no such distance is possible.  The events are all too intimate and painful.

Yesterday evening I saw my grandmother at my mother's birthday dinner.  My grandmother is a half-deaf, gnomish woman with a habit of blurting things out at the most inopportune moments.  Right as we're about to serve dessert, she doesn't hesitate to butt into the conversation: "At the prison camp, there was this guard named Aidan who called us all lazy...."

What prison camp, Granny?  When I was a child, I had no idea what she was talking about.  As I got older, I realized that her life, typical of Japanese-Canadians of that generation, had been full of hardship and dispossession, the very story told by Joy Kogawa in Obasan.  Published in 1981, her novel broke new ground by telling a story long repressed in Canadian history - the story of the Japanese-Canadian Internment.  Like the narrator, my grandmother would often reminisce about the big white house on Gravely Street in Vancouver where she grew up and had tea parties in the garden by the rabbit hutch out back.  Later, she ran her father's two restaurants on Hastings and Powell Street.  But following the outbreak of World War Two, the government took it all away and put the Japanese-Canadians in internment camps.  "They assumed we were traitors," my grandmother says, her eyes flashing, as if she still can't get over her astonishment.

Never could she forget the shock of arriving at the camp, located in the desolate interior of British Columbia, in a ghost town named Sandon.  All the internees were crammed into log cabins, two families expected to inhabit each shack, and all the women had to cook at a communal kitchen.  My grandmother makes a hula hoop with her arms to show me the size of the vat in which she made stew for all the people who came to depend on her cooking - extended family, friends of her in-laws, hangers-on.  Constant labour, fatigue, the endless grey sky and the extremities of hot and cold - these memories and sensations come alive in her voice.  And even though it hurts, I can't help but want to know more.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book #19: Memories of War

"In recalling your past there is precious little knowledge, which remains our most difficult quarry. In memory there are simply shapes that appear before the eyes of who you are now, and who you might've been, the shapes as incomplete and changeable as the times."     -Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden

What would be the most extreme, life changing experience you could have?  Losing half your face to disfigurement from the atomic bomb surely ranks at the top of the list.  In The Ash Garden, Dennis Bock explores this predicament from the perspective of a Japanese woman named Emiko.  An innocent child when defaced during the war, she is now a celebrated filmmaker who looks back on her life using her scars as a kind of lens for trauma and memory. 

But the fascination and beauty of this novel is that Bock never lets it descend into an all too easy tale of victimization.  For as much as Emiko has been hurt by history, we discover that her trauma bears a striking - ironic - resemblance to that of the man responsible.  Anton Boll, the inventor of the atomic bomb, provides the other half of the novel, told from his peculiarly guilt-ridden perspective.  I say "peculiarly" because guilt for him is no simple matter of confessing to a horrific act.  When he and Emiko are brought face to face, she asks, "Do you believe you need absolution?"  All he can reply is, "That is what my wife believes."

As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that the Second World War is no less muddled for my own family.  "They rounded us up," my grandmother would blurt out at Christmas dinner, "and put us in Hastings Park, where the horses were usually stored."  She made no bones about the fact that we - and all Japanese-Canadians living in BC - had been imprisoned and dispossessed.  She would tell her story to anyone who would listen.  Shopkeepers, strangers on the bus.

I love my grandmother and identify with her rage and sorrow, but in recent years I've discovered that there is another more complex side to our family history.  I don't understand this aspect and so it haunts my mind.  It turns out that my father's side of the family was never interned because it seems that my great-grandfather agreed - in exchange for their freedom - to be the camp doctor.  He uprooted himself and his family from Vancouver and moved to Kaslo, a ghost town in the interior of BC, where he provided medical services to the internees, who must have both revered and resented him.  He was free, where they had lost everything.  I don't know whether a sense of guilt got under his skin, but I've heard from certain relatives that he was regarded with jealousy and gratitude in equal measure. 

Perhaps this is why decades after the war had ended, he returned to Kaslo as an old man.  Disoriented and probably in the early stages of Alzheimer's, he crashed his car and was found wandering on the side of the road.  It seems that he had dreams of returning to Kaslo and starting his medical practice anew.  I picture him mumbling about wanting to making amends for something he'd never managed to accomplish.  But shortly after he died of a heart attack.

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