Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Challenge of Memoir

Over the past couple weeks, I've been taking time off from my day job to indulge in the life of a full-time writer.  I've been loving it, I have to say, though it's been surprisingly busy.  Not as many days of pure contemplation as I'd expected.  I've been working around the clock to make revisions to my novel in progress, based on my agent's feedback, and taking breaks by giving a series of readings from my recently published memoir, The Reading List, as part of Asian Heritage Month.  Last night, I read for a very warm audience in the gallery of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, while earlier in the week I read at two of the Toronto Public Library's branches and at the Plasticine Poetry Series at Paupers Pub.  (Unfortunately, I seem to have left my camera at one of the events ... so no photos for now).

One of the most interesting, invigorating aspects of giving readings, I've discovered, is taking questions from the audience afterward.  Many people asked insightful questions ranging from the writing process to my personal life and I was intrigued to find out that one audience member, who lives in the vicinity of my parents' neighbourhood, had even gone on a stroll to check out my childhood house.  One question that came up repeatedly was: how have people depicted in your memoir responded, after reading your book?  I think this is a question that a lot of readers probably have not only about my memoir, but memoirs in general, yet memoirists may find difficult to address, because the truth in my experience is that most people depicted feel varying levels of ambivalence.  While my family is proud that they now have a writer among them, some family members have expressed a certain degree of disenchantment about the exposure my book brings to our family and family secrets in particular, while others seem terrified that in a future book I'll turn my pen to them.  It might seem obvious that a memoir like mine - one that explores a turbulent period in my life, as it intersects with my father's own struggle with his mother's imminent death - would create some ripples.  But while I was writing it, I tried to bracket the whole question of audience response and simply focus on telling the most honest and authentic story, from my perspective.  Although I initially struggled with feelings of self-consciousness (that sinking sense of I can't write this ... for what would my family and friends think?), the deeper I got into the project, the more I found that feeling had vanished and my writing or creative process had taken on a life of its own.              

One nice, unexpected thing is that I've managed to reconnect with "Josh" (my ex-boyfriend from undergrad days, who plays a central role in my book).  When he was in Toronto on business, we had brunch at a place on Ossington and caught up on the past decade.  Of course, he did let me know that he had read my book and it had disrupted his sleep patterns a bit.  He took issue with a certain scene where he is depicted sipping cognac (apparently scotch is his drink), while perusing the internet, wearing a wifebeater (this inspired him to go get some new undershirts).  He was his usual entertaining, eccentric self and we reflected on the passage of time.  Glad we've become friends again, which I didn't think would happen through my memoir.   

If you're interested in reading more about it, you can click here to read my interview with Open Book Toronto earlier this month.


Fay St. Lawrence said...

Great response to the question about how family members have reacted to the exposure of some of their family secrets. I can only imagine how your father must feel. It takes courage to write so honestly and disclose so much about your own darkest moments. Your book may inspire others who are struggling. Bravo!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks, Fay - hearing from readers like you makes the journey feel worthwhile!


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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.