Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Interlude: The Drifting, Travelling Mind

Just got back to Toronto after spending the past couple weeks travelling with my boyfriend in Spain.  (This is why I've been sadly neglectful of my blog - the guest computers at countryside inns in Andalusia are positively ancient and me, being a technophobe, I found it quite difficult to navigate the Spanish key board).  But my hiatus from blogging aside, the trip was delightful, and I can definitely see why so many writers have found Spain a source of literary inspiration - from Washington Irving's lyrical musings about the Alhambra (this stunning Moorish palace in Granada, which we toured) to Hemingway's deep appreciation for bullfighting.  Btw, we did not see a bullfight, for much as I might appreciate how Hemingway describes its unique artistry and rituals of violence, there are limits to what my stomach can take - not to mention the cruelty to animals.  We did, however, spend a marvellous, boozy evening at a flamenco club, where the passion, the stomping and pure anguish of the bullfighting aesthetic seem to be perfectly captured in this extraordinary style of dance.

In between gorging on tapas and visiting museums (I loved seeing Goya's "Black Paintings" at the Prado), I managed to do a little reading at sidewalk cafes here and there.  I did not do any writing, but instead I just let my mind drift and sooner or later it of course veered around to my writing.  This historical novel I've been struggling to get started on.

You see, something strange and exhilarating happened the day before I left on my trip.  I was having lunch in the food court of the sleek office building on Bay Street where I work (like most writers, I have a day job), when my phone suddenly buzzed.  The place was so noisy that at first, I could hardly make out what this woman was saying through the equally noisy static.  Finally, she shouted, "I'm calling from Kaslo, BC."  My heart skipped a beat.  As you may recall from my blog entry a few weeks ago, I'd contacted the Kootenay Historical Society, on a whim, enquiring whether they might have any information about my great grandfather, Kozo Shimotakahara, who was the doctor at the Japanese-Canadian internment camp established at Kaslo during the Second World War (this family history is part of what I want to explore in my novel).  Well, as luck would have it, it turns out that this woman was one of the nurses who worked with my great grandfather, and by the excitement in her feeble voice, I could tell she was just as pleased to have found me as vice versa.  "The stories I could tell you about Dr. Shimo...." she cackled.  "After he arrived in our little town and quickly dispelled all the government propaganda against the Japs, you have no idea what he did...."  But the hustle and bustle of businessmen rushing by with their lunch trays was so great I could hardly make out what she was saying.  After telling her I'd be away in Spain until the end of the month, she promised to call me one evening in June so we could talk more.  I'm crossing my fingers that she will. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book #48: Murakami On My Mind

"Strange and mysterious things, though, aren't they - earthquakes?  We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary.  We even talk about people being 'down to earth' or having their feet planted firmly on the ground.  But suddenly one day we see that it isn't true."
                                                                                  -Haruki Murakami, After the Quake

Two months after the earthquake in Japan, I'm not hearing much about it in the media anymore.  It's strange how an event can appear larger than life for so many days - earth-shattering, literally - and then just fade away, as other more current current events take over.  Perhaps this is what I find so unsatisfying and unsettling about reading the newspaper and watching the news.  But fiction, on the other hand, provides a whole other way of seeing the world, where the everyday details surrounding an event are carefully dissected.  And so, lusting after this kind of reading experience, I picked up Haruki Murakami's After the Quake earlier this week.

In this collection of short stories, Murakami writes about how the 1995 earthquake in Kobe transformed the lives of ordinary people in Japan forever.  What I found so moving about these stories is the way that they don't focus on the most dire instances of suffering; there are no torn limbs or people trapped under crumbling buildings in these stories.  No, Murakami's art is a much more subtle, startling form of grief.  A doctor attending a conference in Thailand curses her estranged ex-husband - half wishing that he died in the earthquake - only to learn from a fortune teller that he is still alive, bringing an unexpected relief to her tormented mind.  A crazy man dreams that a giant frog has saved Tokyo from being destroyed from a quake.  And in my favourite story, a writer comforts the young daughter of the woman he's secretly been in love with for years by telling her whimsical stories about "Masakichi the bear" to distract her from her nightmares about "Mr. Earthquake."  Strangely, the earthquake pulls them all together into a new kind of improvised family.

Although Murakami was writing about the Kobe earthquake, I can't help but see these stories as illuminating the more recent earthquake, too.  And late at night when I, like several of the characters, also cannot sleep, it's comforting to pick up Murakami and get a sense that life in even the most disastrous circumstances carries on, and people manage to find new forms of happiness, however fragile.

Photo from: here 

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    

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


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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.