Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book #56: My Return Trip

“And sometimes in this fantasy I buy the house we used to live in, the rambling house down the highway, in the valley.  I have imagined it as neglected, needing paint, new gutters, perhaps even falling apart, everything around it overgrown and gone to seed.”
                                                                                             -Alice Adams, Return Trips

Monday night was a cool, rainy night, and that seemed fitting.  I attended my great aunt Sachi’s funeral, where the pianist played her favourite song, “Here’s That Rainy Day.”  I came home, exhausted from seeing everyone, made myself a cup of tea and stared at my bookshelf for a long time.  I was thinking about her house as I remembered it from my youth: a fascinating, slightly decrepit, rambling house on Gladstone Avenue, with built-in bookshelves jam-packed with books, and more books in teetering piles on the dusty floor.  Although most people probably remember Sachi for her paintings (she used to be a high school art teacher and had several striking watercolours she’d painted, hanging on her walls), I would always remember her first and foremost for her tastes in literature.  She had been a huge influence on me during my teen years, introducing me to authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami and Alice Adams.  In fact, as my eyes swept back and forth along my bookshelf, they settled on a book that had once belonged to Aunt Sachi.  I would like to say that she gave it to me, but I’m pretty sure she lent it to me some two decades ago, and I’d conveniently forgotten to return it.  And now I never would; tears filled my eyes.  The book was Return Trips, a subtle, evocative collection of stories by Alice Adams.

I curled up on the sofa and began reading the title story and was surprised to discover that I remembered everything about it vividly.  It is a story about the cryptic nature of memory and first passion.  The narrator, a middle-aged history professor, looks back on her youthful love affair with a man named Paul, who was fatally ill with a heart condition, so that “Even love . . . was for Paul a form of torture, although we kept at it – for him suicidally, I guess – during those endless, sultry yellow afternoons, on our awful bed, between our harsh, coarse sheets.”  While their affair appears luminous – the love of her life – compared to her troubled two marriages, she comes to realize that her continual desire to remember their affair is more about a desire to revisit a certain moment, or place, within herself.  In the same way that she obsessively circles back in her memory to Paul, she indulges in imaginative returns to Hilton, the southern town where she lived for a short while during her adolescence and found a surprising, enchanting happiness that stands out in sharp contrast to her otherwise troubled youth.  So much so that she often fantasizes about returning to their old house in Hilton and perhaps even staying there, leaving her husband for good.  But when the narrator finally enacts her dream of going back, she finds that the house has lost its magical quality: far from being in a state of romantic decay, it has been modernized and retrofitted to house a bunch of transient students.

These fantasies of return, however alluring, the book seems to suggest, are best kept as fantasies.  Upon being probed too closely, the past yields nothing more than that it is no longer as you imagined.

I found it strangely moving to read this story, while thinking about Aunt Sachi.  You see, for the past few years, ever since I began writing again, I’ve been harbouring an almost obsessive wish to ask her about our family past.  There were certain family secrets to which she’d alluded when I was a child, and I knew she was the one person who’d remained close to my grandfather right up to the time he died tragically, before I was born (I address some of this material in my memoir The Reading List, being published in the spring).  And besides, Aunt Sachi must have known things about my great grandfather, her father, the illustrious Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara.  After all, she’d lived with him at the internment camp in British Columbia, where he was the camp doctor during the Second World War; she had been right there at the scene that has for so long enticed my imagination.  So I often pictured myself going over to her house for tea one afternoon, and perhaps slyly turning on a small digital recorder, while she would tell me everything that I yearned to know. 

But I never went to see her, because I knew that in reality things would not play out this way.

My father had already tried to talk to her – confronting her about some of the demons in our family closet – and she had completely shut down.  Her face blanched; she excused herself.  It had taken them a few years to repair their relationship.

Rereading Return Trips made me feel that I now understood why; the past is best confronted imaginatively and from a distance.

Photo from: here

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book #55: My Book Delayed (& other things making me antsy...)

"It was October and Isabella felt like she should be going somewhere.  Fall always did that to her.  It made her restless, like she was late getting back to school; like she should be registering for classes, and buying pencils and notebooks and folders that matched."
                                                                                   -Jennifer Close, Girls in White Dresses

Over the past week, three people have asked me when they'll be receiving invitations to my book launch.  Sadly, I've had to tell them that it's now official: my book's publication is being delayed until the spring (February 2012).  I won't bore you with the reasons for the delay - suffice it to say that my publisher promises my memoir The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again will be out this spring, which she sees as a better time to have the book launch anyway.  I can't deny feeling a pang of disappointment when I first heard the news, followed by a whirlwind of anxiety (if publishing a book is a bit like giving birth, the thought of carrying this baby around for an extra few months is disconcerting, to say the least).  But now that I've gotten used to the idea of a spring launch, I'm feeling better and, to be perfectly honest, I'm awash with something strangely akin to relief.

Very few people have read my book yet (my agent, my publisher, my boyfriend and the sweet authors who wrote endorsement blurbs - thanks Emma, Kerri and Micah!) and I suspect that when my book is out in the world, I'll go through a period of feeling awkward around everyone, even those people who have no interest in reading, much less any interest in my book.  But knowing myself, that's how I'll probably feel.  So there's a part of me that relishes the idea of a few more months of mental peace, allowing me to just immerse myself in writing my next book.

In any case, I've been soothing my frazzled nerves by reading something on the lighter side.  I just finished Girls in White Dresses, Jennifer Close's delightful, humorous debut collection of linked stories.  It's hard to pinpoint what I liked so much about this book, but I have to say it captures a certain mood very well and allowed me to see versions of my earlier selves.  These stories focus on the interlocking lives of a group of friends who move to New York in their early twenties, after graduating from university, but instead of realizing their dreams, they embark on a decade of just kind of stumbling through life, mired in anxiety and self-doubts, while drowning in late-night martinis.  Isabella, the main character, is "surprised to find that she could do her job in a constantly hungover state," unsure whether to be grateful or to take it as a sign of being understimulated in her entry level position at a mailing list company.  Startled by her friend Mary's ability to come up with a "life plan" and apply to law school, Isabella takes the scenic route in searching for her dream job and dream guy - always feeling as if she's somehow falling behind, late at doing everything, like getting married and having kids, envying her friends who seem so much more on track.  But as the author skillfully reveals, these friends who seem on track are actually besieged by other pressures, the fissures all too visible in their seemingly perfect lives.

Ironically, when Isabella finally does come up with a life plan, and claws her way up in the publishing industry, she finds that industry unravelling at her feet.  And worse yet, her boyfriend Harrison - whom she worries she's been dating too long to end up with - is forced to take a job in Boston, presenting Isabella with the dilemma of whether to leave her beloved New York and go with him.  Life in this book is full of these kinks.  In the end, coming up with a "life plan" appears highly overrated; far better to just try to adapt to whatever unexpected turns life throws your way, and wash it down with something strong.  Which is what I'm trying to do (with varying degrees of success) by not over-stressing about my book delay....

Photo from: here 

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Writer's Death

Feeling a bit melancholy this Labour Day weekend.  The weekend got off to a sad start, when I had drinks with some of the other writers in my writing circle at a pub in the queer village.  Normally, when I see them it's to workshop our writing or clink glasses at a book launch.  But this time, we were having drinks because one of the writers in our group recently died in what appears to have been suicide. 

Wendy was a fascinating woman - warm, funny, anxious, vulnerable, fragile.  I recall her sexy librarian glasses and dimpled smile and insistence that she "wasn't a writer," even though we all insisted her writing was improving greatly; she was well on her way to finding her voice.  But what made Wendy particularly fascinating was that despite her fairly normal exterior, she came from a troubled past, to say the least: she'd been a child sex worker.  And she talked very openly about it.  After escaping an abusive home, she aged out of the foster care system and found herself on the street working as a sex worker (Wendy was always careful to use the word "sex worker," rather than "prostitute" - she'd made a career for herself as an activist working to advocate for sex worker protection and child protection, and was even pursuing her law degree at Osgoode, when she died).

The memoir that she was working on chronicled parts of her painful past, which, however turbulent, she captured with a good shot of humour.  I recall her reading aloud scenes of sex and violence that made my own life feel incredibly tame (one scene involved a hermaphrodite), yet the overriding feeling that came through in her writing, I would say, was a sense of horrible loneliness and searching.  Here was a woman who desperately wanted to be loved - because she'd never felt loved - and that made her susceptible to being exploited by a certain man, who occupied a central part of her memoir.

Yet it seemed to all of us that Wendy was at a really positive place in her life, despite the fact that she'd missed the past few workshops, and maybe been languishing in depression.  I was stunned by the news of her death.

One of the writers draped a bright pink feather boa over the chair at the head of the table, and we toasted to Wendy's life.

Although her memoir will probably never be shared with the world, I'm glad she wrote what she did.  Her words will stay with me.

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.