Monday, May 9, 2011

Book #47: A Detour Through the Family Archives

"Although our material resources were thin, we had achieved something significant: we had reached out and touched the community, we had let them know we were here.  And she had no doubt that people who'd never heard of the hospital before would be beating a path to our door."
                                                                                           -Damon Galgut, The Good Doctor

Now that my memoir is complete, I've started a bit of historical research for my second project, an historical novel.  My great grandfather, Kozo Shimotakahara, was the first Japanese-Canadian doctor, and his life has long fascinated me.  Everyone in our family seems to have revered him.  According to a woman I spoke to at the Kootenay Historical Society, in the town of Kaslo, BC, where he was a doctor during the Second World War, Kozo was so esteemed by the townspeople that when he died, the Board of Trade refurnished the childrens ward of the hospital in his honour.  And my grandmother also waxed lyrical about him in an essay she published in the anthology Issei - extolling his courage for coming to Canada at age fourteen, praising his ambition to go to medical school and set up the first medical clinic in Vancouver's Japantown.

And yet, I know that the man wasn't a saint.  He had a darker side.  I've heard rumours from other family members of his violence and vicious perfectionism - if his wife and children didn't please him, he was likely to throw them down the stairs.  His eldest son he banished to sleep in the shed.  And in conversations, my father has mused about how Kozo truly felt upon moving to Kaslo, a remote ghost town in the interior of BC, during the war.  The truth is that he was sent there.  The government had set up an internment camp for Japanese-Canadians, and Kozo was expected to be the camp doctor - in return for which he and his family members would retain their freedom and property.  Through this peculiar deal that he'd brokered, he arguably assisted in the internment of his own people, and I have often wondered whether he felt any ambivalence or guilt.

It's this doctor - of divided loyalties and ambiguous scruples - that I'm interested in bringing to life.  On the outside, he was a pillar of the community, no doubt, but what did the man truly feel?  What thoughts raced through his mind late at night?

Recently, I've been reading for inspiration Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor, a novel that brilliantly explores the plight of two doctors at a decrepit hospital in rural South Africa.  Although the novel is set in the post-Apartheid era, the past is ever-present.  Billeted together simply because they're the two white doctors in this all black region, Frank and Laurence soon discover that they couldn't be more different in their attitudes and outlooks.  A cynical, seasoned older man used to working the system, Frank doesn't presume to change anything in the new South Africa.  Laurence, by sharp contrast, is fresh-faced and naive - brimming with grand ideas about community medicine and outreach clinics and racial equality.  But what makes this novel so fascinating is the way it subtly reveals deeper similarities between the two doctors and suggests how what it means to be a "good" doctor can only be a murky question in this dangerous, politically charged climate.  In the end, I found myself sympathizing with both doctors and seeing them as locked in their respective struggles for survival.  These two characters gave me a lot to think about in developing my great grandfather's characterization.

Photo from: here    


Naomi said...

Your great-grandfather sounds like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde behind the calm, proud expression on his face in the photo. He sounds interesting and complex.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

You are right.... When I try to picture him, I think of mercurial men from Faulkner's novels, like Thomas Sutpen....


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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.