Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Fortuitous Connection

When I first started this blog a year and a half ago, I was just experimenting with another form of writing....  I had no idea it was going to lead me to an invaluable source for my new novel.  As I've mentioned before, I’m currently writing an historical novel partly inspired by my great grandfather, Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara’s life as a doctor at a Japanese-Canadian internment camp during the Second World War.  But never did it occur to me that someone with a connection to Kozo would stumble across one of my blog posts and contact me to send me this photograph of my great grandparents taken on their wedding day.

Over the past month, I’ve learned a lot about Kozo’s life from my new online friend, Todd.  Todd came across my blog when he did a Google search on Kozo Shimotakahara’s name – not knowing exactly who the man was.  He’d become intrigued by Kozo upon noticing his signature upon his great grandmother’s and her cousin’s death certificates, so he gathered that Kozo had been a Vancouver doctor before the war.  When he found the above wedding picture in his parents' possession, he figured that the Shimotakaharas might have been old friends of his great grandparents from the old days of Japantown.  It seems that when Kozo first arrived in Canada he stayed at a Japanese Christian Missionary in Victoria, BC, where Todd's great grandfather was a preacher.  The original photo was mottled with dirt and dust specks, so Todd skillfully photoshopped it (thanks Todd!)

As we discussed in our flurry of emails, Kozo and his wife Shin don’t look terribly happy on their wedding day.  Perhaps this is simply due to the limitations of photographic technology at the time: the poser had to remain perfectly still and hold the same expression for a long time, which could be cumbersome.  But I can’t help but read a certain hardness in both their faces – their stone-chiseled lips send chills down my spine.  Clearly, these are two incredibly willful people, as one might expect of a Christian missionary (Shin was one of the first in Japan) and a pioneering doctor (Kozo was the first Japanese-Canadian doctor and also a highly religious man).

Despite all the mythologizing in my family, discrepancies and lacunae about their lives abound.  My grandmother, who was our family historian, used to write hortatory essays based on the stories Kozo had told her.  According to her, Kozo left Kagoshima-ken, Japan at age fourteen  with a mere 5 yen, which his mother had earned by selling eggs, and immigrated to Vancouver where he worked as a houseboy and enrolled in elementary school to learn his ABCs.  Later, he went on to graduate from University of Chicago medical school.  I could never understand how Kozo became a doctor just like that.  Yet Todd has discovered a more textured narrative through some fascinating genealogical research.  He has sent me a border crossing record, photocopied from Vancouver Public Library, stating in the registrar’s slanted, slightly smudged writing that Kozo entered the United States on September 24, 1911, to attend Valparaiso University in Indiana.  He had $50 on him and was 5 feet, 2 inches tall.  A bit of online research reveals that Valparaiso was a Methodist, no frills institute of higher learning that did not have a med school.  So I wonder if Kozo enrolled there and then proceeded to University of Chicago, or whether his journey took a more circuitous route?  And why did he never tell anyone in our family about this interlude in his life?  Although I may never know for certain, these periods of struggle and self-formation when he was a young man tease at my imagination and after a while he ceases to feel like my ancestor – he becomes a character alive in my head.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book #57: Writing Memory

"His skin was warm-toned and Mediterranean and he made her think of Paris when she was twenty-one.  Her honeymoon with Marty, and it was Marty she was thinking about, really, and she didn't want to be thinking about him.  Marty had remarried and had a child on the way and he called her every night when his wife conked out with exhaustion."               -Lisa Moore, Alligator

A few years ago, I took a creative writing seminar and I recall the instructor talking about how important it is for a young writer to read and learn from the early works of the writers she admires.  "Pay attention to how the sentences move," I recall her saying.  "Passages that you find moving you should copy out by hand and always use a pen you really like writing with.  I recommend fountain pen."

In recent days, as I've been pressing on with writing my historical novel, approaching page 130, as of this morning, I've found myself reading and rereading Lisa Moore.  I loved her second novel February when I read it last year (and blogged about it here), so I eagerly went out to buy her first novel Alligator, which I've been luxuriating over for the past couple weeks.  This novel is peculiarly structured for a novel; it reads more like a set of interweaving short stories, where there are no minor characters.  Every character - from Frank, the hot dog vendor, to Colleen, the teenage delinquent and environmental activist - is compellingly rendered and given a unique interior voice and past.  And Moore's imagery is nothing short of stunning, even, especially, in rendering the minute details of everyday life: "The egg white stretched itself into opaque skeins and transparent veils and broke away from the yolk and frothed over the sides of the pot and settled back down."  But more than the sheer lyricism of her images, it's the way that her characters relate to these lyrical moments that makes her writing so memorable and true to life.  Their awareness of the sensuous details of the world around them are constantly taking them on detours into memory, unearthing before the reader all kinds of idiosyncratic facets of their pasts.  

In this respect, Madeleine, the aging film director, is perhaps the character who speaks to me most vividly.  Her aspiration to make an historical film about Archbishop Fleming becomes the driving force of her life.  Although it's never all that clear what the film is about, it's clear that Madeleine envisions her film as something far greater than a local colour documentary about her hometown, St. John's, Newfoundland (Moore's hometown and the setting of her novel).  In Madeleine's mind, "The film was about the desolate, violent landscape and human triumph over nature, but it was also, in a much quieter, private way, about evil.  A community in the grip of some religious fervour that had sprung out of the tyranny of mild, constant hunger and giving over."  But the irony of Madeleine's grand gesture is that her emotions are constantly pulling her away from her historical project and into the recesses of her own memory.  In the end, her film fades into the background compared to her continual reliving of the wreckage of her marriage to Marty and her endless, ineluctable struggle to recapture the early days of their passionate affair, in Paris, at twenty-one.  While her film may never see the light of day, her own life and the intimate details of all the characters whose lives revolve around the making of her film are elevated to near cinematic proportions.  And yet, they always remain wonderfully prosaic and down to earth.

If Alligator is in some ways a novel about the impossibility of telling a straight story about history, in favour of indulging in the digressive pleasures of storytelling and memory, it certainly sparked some thoughts in my mind about how not to write an historical novel.

Photo from: here

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Read an Excerpt

I thought it might be fun to give you a little sneak peak of my memoir, The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again, before it's released in February.  Click here to read an excerpt.  An overview of the book as a whole can be found 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.