Monday, February 21, 2011

Book #39: Looking for Diversions

"I often fell asleep on top of my manuscript, then woke with a swollen cheek.  Sometimes, when the wall clock's silver hands pointed past twelve, I would imagine I was hearing things.  Those sounds would recur, like the snoring of the electrical repairman next door, the boom of a crane on a far-off building site in the dead of night, or the hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen." 
                                                                                                     -Wei Hui, Shanghai Baby
After a three day stretch of living in my pajamas, I finished writing the last chapter of my book yesterday.  I stole one of my boyfriend's cigarettes to celebrate and huddled in my bathrobe on our snow-crusted patio overlooking the park, a cold lucidity filling my lungs.

I wanted to feel tranquil and savour the moment, but just the opposite was so.  Editing.  Ugh.  I have one week to edit the manuscript as a whole before turning it over to my editor for her final comments and revisions.

I realized this morning that I definitely prefer writing to editing.  There's something so much more satisfying about putting pen to paper and forming words afresh compared to cutting and moving stuff around.  A few hours of editing simply doesn't make me feel like I've had my dose of writing for the day. 

Seeking some diversion from the task at hand, I picked up Shanghai Baby, which I've been reading intermittently over the past couple weeks, and found myself suddenly engrossed in the final chapters.  It's an autobiographical novel by Wei Hui, a young Shanhainese writer who lives a madcap, near schizophrenic life - caught between waxing lyrical about Henry Miller and Marguerite Duras and lusting after the latest Yves Saint-Laurent wallet.  While writing and secluding herself with her own thoughts - some of which are surprisingly beautiful reflections on the ephemeral quality of twenty-first-century life - she also finds time to engage in games of love and deceit at Shanghai's hot night spots, bringing into focus a city made for film noir, full of old world glamour, decrepit architecture, fast money.  My favourite scenes are almost reminiscent of the films of Wong Kar Wai (speaking of whom I may watch Fallen Angels tonight to reward myself for making some headway with this editing business).

Photo from: here

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Friend's Funeral

Over the weekend, I attended a friend's funeral.  Jean's death was sudden and tragic - after a long battle with cancer, she appeared to be in remission.  The last time I saw her for dinner over the Christmas holidays, she was laughing and quaffing wine and showing off her new shawl.  She told me about her most recent trip to Argentina where she'd bought five pairs of boots (she had extremely long, narrow feet and usually had to get boots custom made, she said, but Argentinian women had her kind of feet).

A woman who fears being on the cusp of death doesn't buy five pairs of boots, I thought at the time, with a sigh of relief. 

At her funeral, I found myself thinking about those unworn boots and how naive my assumption had been.  Her show of living life to the fullest and carrying on in her delightfully showy manner was a means of trying to put others at ease, as she always did.

Before the eulogy, her best friend - also named Jean - read Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman."

I came home from the funeral and stared at my bookshelf for a long time.  I pulled out a book that Jean had given me a couple years ago, My Maasai Life.  Tears filled my eyes as I realized I'd never even bothered to read it and now I never would be able to read it and discuss it with her.  It was a memoir written by her friend whom she'd met while doing volunteer work for Free The Children.

Jean, see you back in Kenya one day??! read the handwritten note above the author's signature.  (Had she  meant to give me her own copy?  Perhaps she'd only been lending it to me and I'd misunderstood?)

Last year, when I'd told her I was writing my own memoir I recalled how excited she'd been, and a couple years before that, I recalled how supportive she'd been when I told her I was leaving academia to do my own writing.  "So creative writing's your passion," she'd said somewhat quizzically (an Iowa farm girl by birth, and an entre preneur at heart, she was amazed by how little pay writers will work for). 

I could write more about Jean, for she certainly continues on in my imagination - her candid advice on men, her funny stories about travelling home and running into her old high school boyfriends, her incredible ability to draw others out and make an impression.  Maybe one day I will write more about her.  But right now writing more would be too sad.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

Book #38: Room's Unique Perspective

"I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that's nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus.  I choose Meltedy Spoon with the white all blobby on his handle when he leaned on the pan of boiling pasta by accident.  Ma doesn't like Meltedy Spoon but he's my favorite because he's not the same."                                                      -Emma Donoghue, Room

I met Emma Donoghue a couple years ago when I had the fortune to have her as my mentor in the writing programme, Diaspora Dialogues.  I had just moved back to Toronto the year before after a failed stint in academia, desperately wanting to return to my first love, creative writing.  Emma was wonderfully incisive and encouraging in her advice on how I could improve a story I'd been struggling with (it was later published in the anthology TOK: Writing the New Toronto).  I recall her advising me, in an email I read many times, to pay careful attention to perspective and which character I wanted the reader to sympathize with at any given moment.

Little did I know that at the time, she must have been putting the finishing touches on her own masterly experiment in perspective, RoomAs I said when I saw her at the book launch, had I known I was being mentored by a Man Booker nominee (fingers crossed for you, Emma!), I would have probably been too overwhelmed to write.  A couple weekends ago, I read Room straight through - unable to put it down except to shower and eat.  I was utterly mesmerized by the freshness of the narrator's voice. 

Although the premise of the novel is horrifying - five-year-old Jack has spent his entire life in captivity, born to a sex slave - the tale is strangely uplifting.  And I don't think this is simply a matter of the novel's narrative arc, as we follow Jack on his escape.  Particularly in the first half, when Jack's entire world consists of Room, I found myself falling in love with how his imagination brings to life the most stripped down environment so that all things appear charged with unique properties and wonder.  Meltedy Spoon, Plant and Spider spark the most delightful reflections in the child's mind, as his language itself appears something malleable and one-of-a-kind.  I loved the experience of entering his world and perversely, I have to admit, I felt a twinge of sadness when he escapes into the "real" world and is compelled to take on the life of a normal little boy.  But Jack will always retain something of his unique perspective, and this is the beauty of Room......

It occurred to me as I was sitting in a room by myself, staring at the white wall, trying to get started on the twelfth chapter of my book, that Room also offers an intriguing metaphor for the writer's life.

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.