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 


Mimi said...

How did your grandfather handle being caught between his wife and his stepmother? Sounds uncomfortable!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Yes, you're right about that! My grandfather was always big on duty to family, so he was probably grateful to his stepmother for moving to Canada when she was only 16 to marry his father (a cranky old widower). Still, it must have been terribly awkward when he realized her feelings for him.... And it must have been lonely for her to be in a new country craving affection....


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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.