Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book #46: Writing the New Toronto

"The metropolis waits, protects itself from Kafka's prophecy in Arms of the City.  The senselessness of the heaven-reaching tower.  No absoluteness."
                                                                                 -Rishma Dunlop, "Metropolis Redux"

Three years ago, I moved back to Toronto, the city where I was born, after having been away for thirteen years.  My studies had taken me all over - to Montreal, Providence, Paris and Berlin - before my short-lived career as an English professor had landed me in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.  Growing up in Toronto, I never thought there was anything particularly unique about my hometown, but my years on the road had taught me otherwise.  I was homesick - I missed the curry, kimchi, wasabi and all the other flavours of Queen Street, along with the invigorating sensation of jostling up against all these cultures on the crowded streetcar.  (I particularly missed eavesdropping on peoples' conversations, the snippets of varied accents and languages).  I came to realize that I needed these everday experiences in order to feel at home.

Last week, at the Gladstone Hotel, I attended the book launch for TOK: Writing the New Toronto, volume 6, a publication that captures for me this very experience of inhabiting a city as diverse and intriguing as Toronto.  Last year, I was delighted to have one of my short stories published in volume 5, and so I was excited to read this year's volume to see how another batch of emerging and established writers would carry on the tradition.  And I was not disappointed.

These nineteen authors of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry represent an incredible breadth in form and experience, illustrating how varied and textured life in Toronto truly is.  There is no single immigrant experience that emerges from this collection; there is no coherent urban experience; there is only the elusive sense, as Rishma Dunlop eloquently puts it, that "In the empty theatres of the city, small productions are played out.  Rain-slicked streets.  Stories of charred roses, bones of mishap."  Identity emerges in this collection as a kind of collage, where ancestral pasts and all-too-real presents intermingle on the same page, and the authors' backgrounds appear comprised of so many different elements - sexuality, history, race, ethnicity, to name a few.  This collage-like quality is beautifully illustrated by Jo Simalaya Alcampo's "the inviolable heart," where the author writes of how she "grew up hearing stories about how my great-grandmother escaped torture in a Spanish dungeon, how my grandfather's family was murdered by the Japanese army, how our last name was randomly changed by an American soldier and how my immediate family immigrated to Canada in the 1970s to escape martial law."  There can be no simple coming to terms with this past, as the speaker scours the "lesbian of colour community in Toronto" in search of a therapist who can help her unearth a wealth of repressed memories cutting across her body, different times and places.

Although I couldn't begin to comment on all the stories and poems that moved me, I have to mention one that had a personal resonance.  Alicia Peres' story "Grace," which explores the strange friendship that develops in the suburbs of Malton between an old woman, Grace, originally from Karachi, and her Sikh neighbour, as they bond over gardening, stirred memories of my own grandmother, Esther Kayaco, in Hamilton.  The story brought back for me her intense curiosity about human nature - on the bus, when I was little, she always talked to strangers - and even now, on the rare occasions she leaves the house in her wheelchair, strangers are constantly reaching out to her, perhaps because she puzzles them, this gnome-like Japanese woman with big watchful eyes and a booming voice, or perhaps because people sense her spirit.  Grace's spunk - "No cooking - thank God!  After all these years I am frankly sick of cooking" - is exactly the sort of thing my grandmother says, interspersed with recollections of her girlhood on the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Internment camps during the war, and her hilarious mimicry of all the people she's met along the way.

Photo from: here


Naomi said...

All of my elderly relative's siblings have died except for her youngest sister. When asked about getting together, she says: "I had to look after her from age two when I was only six." Like so many women who have looked after others for so long, she is done. Great blog!

cleemckenzie said...

Story about family history resonate very deeply with me. Thanks for blogging about these.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

I'm glad the world is so full of spunky, eccentric elderly ladies in our families!

jola said...

Hi Leslie, thank you for the thoughtful post about the TOK anthology and the kind words about my story. with appreciation, jo


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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.