Tuesday, June 29, 2010
This tale of an upper crust family in 1930s Shanghai - where the daughters wear "complementary cheongsans to show harmony and style" - has an exotic appeal, no doubt. But what really draws me in is the fact that, despite the far-flung setting, I can identify with the thoughts, feelings and deepest aspirations of the heroine, Pearl. She is an independent, yet secretly insecure woman, who has always been a little too tall and clever to be considered beautiful in conventional terms. Especially compared to her cute-as-a-button, flirtatious sister, May.
Pearl doesn't understand men at all. The man whom she has secretly been in love with for years - an artist who paints her and her sister for calendars and soap ads - doesn't seem to care when she arrives on his doorstep in tears. Her father has sold her and May in arranged marriages to Chinese-American men in order to cover his gambling debts. Contrary to her expectation that this man will save her, his Bohemian airs melt away, and he reminds her of her obligation to filial piety. Devastated, Pearl and May attempt to resist the arranged marriages on their own, but then their father disappears, the Japanese attack the city and the girls suddenly find themselves refugees on the run, vulnerable to attack and rape. As their situation gets increasingly dire, it becomes clear that their best hope for survival is to get to America to their would-be husbands. Pearl reflects:
"Many people wish to go to America. Some will do anything to get there, but going to America was never my dream. For me, it's just a necessity, another move after so many mistakes, tragedies, deaths, and one foolish decision after another. All May and I have left is each other. After everything we've been through, our tie is so strong that not even a sharp knife could sever it. All we can do now is continue down the road we're on, wherever it takes us."
These passages capture the essence of how it feels as Pearl's girlish longings and desire to find love curl inward and die stillborn. Now, she's in survival mode and finding the man of her dreams seems as frivolous and unreal as a soap opera. I have never experienced losing everything in war and being uprooted (as my grandmothers have). Shanghai Girls gives me a glimpse of how it might feel by magnifying 100 times the experiences that are vividly real to many readers - deception and desertion by an old lover, drifting through life with no place to go, feeling like an outcast who just can't go on.
But Pearl does go on. Her strength and resourcefulness in the face of adversity are inspirational.
Photo from: here
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
While this memoir yields scads of insight about the history and romance of wine, this isn't its true kernel. At the core of the story is the author's fraught quest to become closer to her dad and the other men in her life, too. (Not to get overly Freudian ... but I couldn't help but think of the adage that a father is a girl's first love object and as such, he sets the tone for subsequent lovers). All too aware of her complex dynamic with dad, Borel also puts under the microscope her conflicted feelings for Matthew, her most recent romance gone awry. Despite everything, she still feels that he is the only one really gets her:
"I described to him my allergy to the present. Matthew nodded patiently when I stomped around, detailing how I could not exist within or enjoy the present (even though he was in mine), and how it had pressurizing and irritating effects on the contents of my skull (which, at the time, included him). He abided this allergy, which was at once an itch and a fear, an itch that could be scratched only by getting on with it, moving onto the next thing, satisfying the curiosity that there is something beyond this place, this annoying purgatory that is holding up my trajectory to the other place - the other place, of course, being much better and more stimulating than this infernal place."
As I was reading, I found myself identifying with Borel's sense of being forever caught in a waiting zone, hovering on the fanciful brink of tomorrow, my life will begin. The small university town where I used to teach American Literature - Antigonish, or "Antigonowhere," as we outsiders liked to call it - left me awash in that horrible, anxious feeling so vividly, so unforgettably. Following my bad breakup with the town planner (more about this later) I was caught in a paralyzing cycle of reminiscing about my first love, Josh. If I were Clarissa Dalloway, then he was my Peter Walsh. The acrobatic sentences of Mrs. Dalloway ran through my head, as I power-walked past the dingy storefronts on Main Street, the wind burning my cheeks.
I'd missed my one chance at happiness. I wanted to press the fast forward button on my life.
Photo from: here
Thursday, June 17, 2010
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.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
This morning, reading The New Yorker, I came across Jeffrey Eugenides “Extreme Solitude.” A wave of nostalgia hit my chest. The story is set at Brown, my alma mater, and written from the perspective of a hyper-self-conscious Semiotics student, Madeleine, who hangs out at all my old haunts (the Ratty, the Blue Room, Level B in Rockefeller Library where “the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold”). Perhaps “nostalgia” is the wrong word, for I don’t deny feeling a good deal of ambivalence, too. But the story actually made me miss academic life. That fragile, convoluted, cut-off-from-reality life that pushed me to the brink of despair.
No doubt, my short-lived career as an English prof was a debacle (if my therapy bills are any gage). Still, grad school was fun. Undergrad even more so. There’s something delicious about spending one’s days lounging around seminar tables discussing concepts like “subalterity,” “coevalness” and “queer theory.” Sitting at a sidewalk café with Althusser propped on a bookstand, Moleskin notebook open. Not a bad day’s work.
But ultimately – as Eugenides brilliantly illuminates – too much thinking and theorizing is a killjoy, especially when it comes to love. Madeleine is having a tryst with a classmate, Leonard, debating whether it’s mere sexual attraction or something more. When she reads Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, she’s struck by how the text casts light on her own predicament:
“The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.”
attente / waiting
Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns). . . .
Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move.”
The more Madeleine reflects on it, the more she understands “that extreme solitude didn’t only describe the way she was feeling about Leonard. It explained how she’d always felt when she was in love. It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it.”
It’s the anticipation of love and rapture that becomes alluring in itself. Put simply, Madeleine only wants him if she can’t have him. Some barrier to fulfillment is necessary – such is the perverse structure of desire. She would rather be burying herself in a book, thinking about him, longing for him, luxuriating in pure solitude, than getting it on.
I recall having a conversation with my therapist about my own need for distance. It was curious, to say the least, why I always gravitated, for the longest time, to lovers who lived in different cities, boyfriends on the other side of the continent. Rather than face-to-face contact and flesh-and-blood intimacy, I craved love letters, witty emails, kinky text messages…. spelling out a kind of scenario that followed the formula of: if you were with me now, I would do X…. It was sexier in my mind.
Photo from: here
Thursday, June 10, 2010
I made a resolution to put together Daddy’s reading list by the end of the week. Just because I was initiating my practical-to-a-fault father into the world of high literature, while desperately investigating every possible alternative career to being an English prof, didn’t mean I had to lose my mind. I was giving myself the summer to get my shit together. If I hadn’t figured out by August how to reinvent myself – flight attendant? speech pathologist? librarian? esthetician? – then I’d be condemned to the gulag of academia for another year.
Ugh. The lecture podium. The thought turned my stomach.
Daddy was trying to snap me out of my malaise by drawing on his life experience. “Remember the two years we spent in Trinidad? That was no picnic.”
He was talking about the job he’d accepted in Port of Spain in the late 70s, shortly after I was born. The company had been building a steel plant there and the opportunity to live in a tropical paradise had struck my parents as a grand adventure.
The first few months were the honeymoon phase, but then reality set in. Power outages. Cultural isolation. TV programming for only one hour a day. The supermarket rarely had onions, cheese and diapers.
Daddy’s point in raising Trinidad was obvious: everyone has to pay career dues. I was paying mine teaching out in the boondocks of Nova Scotia. Things would get better. Think positive.
I dug up an old photo album. “You didn’t have it half as bad as me.” I pointed at a photo of him lounging on the beach, eating a shark bake sandwich. Mommy was sunbathing in a turquoise paisley bikini.
“Oh, you have no idea what was going on behind the scenes,” Daddy said. “I was losing my hair.”
“No you weren’t.” I pointed at the photo, at his peculiar 1970s hairstyle. Long bangs brushed forward, layers falling over the ears.
“Trust me – the place was a gong show.”
Yet deep down I didn’t believe him.
Later that day, I was surfing the New York Times online archives and I stumbled on Susan Sontag’s brilliant 1974 article on photography. Each sentence hit me with a new insight, illuminating my reaction perfectly:
“Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.” “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” “Photographs furnish evidence.”
This illusion of utter transparency, as Sontag explains, is a frank difference between photography and writing. Where writing is assumed by its very nature to be an interpretation, photography has the guise of being an immediate representation of reality, a window on fact.
Although I understood on a rational level that this effect was photography’s sleight-of-hand, the photo still asserted its visceral force.
Photo from: here
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Thursday, June 3, 2010
“For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter and his were dry as sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?”
I put down Mrs. Dalloway and blew my nose.
My first boyfriend Josh reminded me of Peter Walsh, Mrs. Dalloway’s childhood sweetheart. There's something about the way Mrs. Dalloway never forgets “his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished – how strange it was! – a few sayings” that was all too familiar. Had Josh been a British gentleman, like Peter, he might have headed to India for the empire's last hurrah. They were eccentrics who loved their travels, sword collections and foreign women. Their larger than life personalities splashed into conversations at parties, made outrageous claims, got everyone riled up, started fights, and then, at the height of it all, slipped out the back door.
Years ago, when I was reading Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, I told Josh that he reminded me of Peter. He eagerly began reading it. But the depiction left him incensed. “You're mean. Is this your way of saying we're not going to end up together?”
- Leslie Shimotakahara
- 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.