Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book #30: The Travelling Life

"But the truth is also that there is an answering impulse of subservience in him, part of him wants to give in, I see shadows thrown up in grappling contortions on the roof of the cave."  -Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room

I was planning on giving this book to a friend for her birthday, but now, a third of the way in, I don't know, I just might have to get her something else.  Even if In a Strange Room weren't a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, I still wouldn't have been able to put it down.  What is it about this dark narrative that immediately drew me in?  The first novella "The Follower" is deceptively simple: a young white South African man named Damon treks through the mountains of Lesotho under the spell of a mysterious German man named Reiner, a philosopher of sorts.  Although Damon claims not be in love with Reiner - preferring to think of their relationship as a "dark passion," an accidental interlude - it soon becomes clear that he's deeply, obsessively in love with this man and his every attempt to maintain emotional distance is bound for failure.

So intense are his feelings that he's devised a strange technique for telling his story.  The story is for the most part told in the third person, but every so often it slips into the first person, as in the passage above.  While this technique at first throws the reader off - for a moment, I thought there were three characters, a menage-a-trois - it's well worth the experiment.  For the technique pays off by opening up meanings and raising questions about what happens to you when you travel and fall in love.  The minimalist prose conveys perfectly the way that life and your identity get pared down to the bare essentials and the feeling of weightlessness can be very liberating at first; it's as if you have the freedom to create yourself anew, be anyone, try anything.  In this sense, it's as if Damon, the narrator-traveller, is watching himself in a film.  (I remember that feeling from my year in Berlin.  Back in grad school, I suddenly sold all my possessions, except my laptop and two suitcases full of books, and moved to Berlin, not knowing anyone, having chosen the place more or less randomly because I'd fallen out of love and I'd overheard some artists talking about how it was easy and cheap for foreigners to rent short-term housing there.  And all the while, I didn't feel like me, I felt deliciously free of me, like a girl in a film). 

This sense of distance, it seems to me, is what Galgut is trying to convey in writing most of the work in the third person.  And yet the "I" surfaces at key moments of passion, memory, betrayal - exposing how the work isn't entirely fiction, it hovers on the cusp of memoir.  

Photo from: here

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book #29: The Art of Impotence

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  -Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Time to buckle down.  My heart still aflutter from the good news of last week, it was time to make headway on finishing chapter seven of my literary memoir.  This chapter focuses on The Sun Also Rises, which was an important novel for me and my dad to read together.  There's something strangely alluring about Jake Barnes' impotence, and I found myself remembering and reflecting on a conversation we had on this topic. 

"You really feel Jake's suffering," Daddy said.  "But he never seems wimpy or unmanly.  I like the guy."

Injured in the First World War, Jake has lost his balls, so to speak, but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with him. I smiled. Daddy was becoming more observant about the text, ever since he took up reading as his new retirement hobby and asked me - his languishing English professor daughter - to put together a reading list.

I had to admit that I liked Jake, too. What is it about Jake Barnes that makes him so likable even though the guy’s a prick? He’s mean to friends who annoy him for being suck-ups, like Robert Cohn, but he’s loyal to a fault to other friends, like Brett Ashley, who walks all over him. Throughout it all, Jake affects an air of solitary cool; he seems the perfect lone ranger. At night, however, his true feelings come out.

After an evening of heavy drinking with his friends at all the hotspots in Paris, he comes home to an empty flat, piss drunk and alone. The waves of loneliness wash over him and the reality of his impotence comes crashing down. Although he tries to find the humour in it, the joke only goes so far and he breaks down in tears. Brett drops by early in the morning and through the haze of sleep, he mistakes her as a prostitute. So it’s fair to say that he doesn’t trust her, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Brett’s demand for intimacy is tantalizing torture.

“What do you think of Jake and Brett’s relationship?” I asked Daddy.

“It’s painful to watch them together,” he said. “Yet they’re clearly so much in love.”

I could remember people saying the same thing about me and Josh, my old boyfriend from undergrad days. All our breakups and tearful reconciliations left our friends and families perplexed.

As I thought back, it occurred to me that perhaps this is the beautiful thing about Jake's impotence.  It allows us as readers to relive that turbulent, thrilling, adolescent feeling of being in love with someone with whom you just can't get it together.  The dynamics of desire and despair take on a life of their own.  Haven't we all been in that excruciating position before? 

Photo from: here

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

At Last ... My Book Has a Home!

I probably mentioned some time ago that I've been working on a book.  It's called The Reading List and it's a memoir about my miserable career as an English professor and search for a new career, which pushed me to the brink of a breakdown three summers ago, and all the while I was seeking distraction from my career blues by looking for love in all the wrong places, drowning in the Grey Goose.  My father, grappling with his own demons, decided to take up reading as his new hobby and who better to recommend a reading list than his erudite daughter?  Except I wasn't feeling very erudite at the time. 

Still, we bond over literature in other - unexpected - ways and this opens a whole new dimension to our relationship....  (More on this later).

Anyway, a few months ago, I sent my book proposal around to a few publishers and then waited.... and waited.... and faced some perfectly diplomatic rejection emails, which pointed out its merits and drawbacks, but no matter how many times I read them amounted to the same thing.  I pretended that I was fine with it - really, I was, I wasn't grinding my teeth at night more than usual, despite my throbbing jaw - and I could accept that my memoir (half written) might never see the light of day.  At the urging of a friend, I began work on another project, an historical novel, and half convinced myself that I'm a novelist at heart, not a memoirist after all.   

All this changed the other night, when I was at a friend's birthday party (my agent actually) and he introduced me to a lovely young woman, Sandra, who turned out to be a publisher.  She runs a small press that focuses on next generation multicultural literature. 

"She wants to publish your book," my agent whispered to me. 

I blinked and the room began to spin gently, even though I hadn't had a drop of wine (I was on cold medication, feeling very uncool to be at a party not drinking), but yes, my cheeks were getting hot, as if I might have quaffed an entire bottle.

"I've read your manuscript and I love it," Sandra said, smiling warmly.  "Let's do it!  Let's publish your book."

Sandra and I stood by the wall chatting in our high heels for the next four-and-a-half hours and we exchanged many giddy emails last week and this morning we signed a contract.  She and her father, who founded the press, shook my hand and hugged me and the room was filled with good karma, if I may say so myself, and I'm not the kind of person who usually says things like "karma."

Ever since I was six years old, you see, I've wanted to be a writer.  Much more than I ever wanted to be a professor.  That first godawful career was just a detour (which, ironically, has given me something to write about).

So now the clock is ticking.  I have until April to complete the second half of the book.

Photo from: here

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book #28: Like Jewels and Stones

“The words, hard and bright, are like jewels within her. But they’re also like stones.” -Dawn Promislow, Jewels and Other Stories

I met Dawn Promislow about a year ago in a program called Diaspora Dialogues. It fosters the creation of diasporic literature by pairing established writers with emerging writers of various multicultural backgrounds. Dawn and I were both “emerging writers” and we gravitated to each other at a poetry reading. We started chatting about this and that – our favourite writers’ use of dialect, the colonial tragedies of places we know (I used to live in Trinidad and Dawn grew up in South Africa), among other lighter topics of conversation, like “following” Virginia Woolf in our heads…..

Last week, I was delighted to attend the book launch at Type Books for Dawn’s first book, Jewels and Other Stories. It’s a beautiful weaving together of such a variety of stories, all set in South Africa: a doctor takes an unexpected risk to draw his black servant’s son into the family; a young white girl tries to give her nanny the contents of her piggy bank, not realizing the wedge she’ll drive into the family; a receptionist and drug dealer’s love affair gone awry yields a strange kind of insight about love and chance. These are just a few of the vivid characters you meet in the fourteen stories, which flew by so quickly, too quickly. Now I feel I must go back and read them again.

The resistance movement gathering momentum in the 70s forms the backdrop of many of the stories, although the stories always remain focused on the characters themselves – ordinary people’s desires, fears, hopes. I felt they were all people whom I already knew in some way from my own life, and “Isn’t that the way we would react?” I kept thinking to myself, if we were caught up in violent upheaval and change.

I was struck by what Dawn said by way of introducing her book at the book launch; she said that some years ago she had wanted to write about South Africa, but felt ambivalent and paralyzed because so much had already been written. So she said that she decided simply to “create voices” and see where they would take her, and at the end, she’d found no answers. No answers at all. I thought about what she’d said and it dawned on me that this is the very thing about literature: it doesn’t need to deliver grand answers, it doesn’t need to judge. Indeed, my favourite stories have a kind of openness that teases the mind by providing a slice of life that, the more you think about it, contains a world that glimmers beyond the present. Gestures to more to come.

Btw, since completing Jewels, Dawn has a written a very beautiful, evocative story published in the online journal MTLS.  You can read her story here.

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.