Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book #41: Disaster, Diaspora, Dispersion

"Six months now since she'd been sent away to London.  Every morning before she opened her eyes she thought, if I were the wishing type I know what I would wish."
                                                                                                      -Monica Ali, Brick Lane

Staring at images of the earthquake in Japan has been leaving me nauseous.  To watch fields being swallowed by waters like lava and lonely survivor buildings peaking over the mounds of rubble fills me with a very strange, sad feeling, to say the least.  I'm wondering if we have family there, caught in the chaos.  I emailed my mom to ask, but of course she didn't know - it was my grandfather who faithfully wrote letters to our relatives in Japan, and he's dead now.  Neither my parents nor I even speak Japanese.  So with my grandpa's death, the cord of communication was cut, and I'm left with nothing more than hazy memories of some distant cousins coming to stay with my grandparents when I was a kid.  A couple of teenage boys, dressed all in white.  They seemed to embody the mystery and otherworldliness I'd always associated with my ancestral homeland.

As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, perhaps it isn't surprising that I felt like a tourist when I visited Japan for the first and only time.  Still, it greatly upsets me to see the photos of rubble and ruined land, as if something of my past is again being swallowed up, and simply clicking a button to give a few dollars doesn't do enough to appease my conscience.

How eerie that when all this struck, I was reading Brick Lane, Monica Ali's brilliant debut novel about diaspora and dispersion.  As I read, I was thinking about the parallels between her tale and my own family history.  This novel about two Bangladeshi sisters - one of whom resigns herself to an arranged marriage in London, the other of whom runs off to pursue a "love marriage" to a man who beats and abandons her - reminds me in certain ways of the fates of my grandmother and great grandmother. 

My great grandmother was a picture bride, a woman sent from Japan to marry a stranger in America, strictly based on her photograph.  Well, that's not true exactly.  According to my grandmother, she was actually the matchmaker's secretary.  When my great grandfather proved himself a particularly picky client and turned down all the ladies selected for him, the matchmaker, on a whim, presented his secretary.  "I'll take her," my great grandfather said immediately.  Thus my great grandmother boarded a ship for Oregon, but did not find the life of luxury she'd been promised - her husband, it turned out, was merely a drycleaner.  Putting on a stoic face, she swallowed her desires, until her desires resurfaced through her daughter (my grandmother).  My grandmother, a Japanese-American beauty queen, prided herself on being American, and when the family tried to send her back to Japan through an arranged marriage to a wealthy Japanese businessman, she rebelled.  By this point, she was already in love with my grandfather; he was one of the guys who came to play basketball in the part of Portland, Oregon, where she grew up.  So she got on a ship and came back to America bringing with her only a beautiful Japanese doll as a memento, and married my grandfather.  But her love marriage soon soured.  My grandfather turned out to be a violent, angry man blinded by alcoholism and his own thwarted artistic ambitions. 

I often wondered, as I discovered pieces of her life through conversations with my father, whether she ever regretted her decision to come back to America.  It's haunting to think about the other set of descendents she would have had, had she decided to marry the Japanese businessman, and I sometimes dream about the woman I would have been.  My ghostly alter ego......

Photo from: here


Vi said...

What a great story! You should write a book based on your grandmother. I would love to read such a book.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

I'd love to! Thanks so much for the encouragement!


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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.