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.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review of My Book on CBC

I just found out that Priscila Uppal, whose own writing I greatly admire, gave my memoir The Reading List a really insightful review on CBC.  The podcast can be listened to here (it starts at about the 33:40 minute mark).

May is Asian Heritage Month!  I will be quite busy over the next couple weeks giving a series of readings from my memoir.  If you live in the Toronto area, I hope you will be able to come out to some of the following events:

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm at George F. Locke Library (3083 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON)

Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 2:00 pm at College/Shaw Library (766 College Street, Toronto, ON)

Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm at Plasticine Poetry Series (Pauper's Pub, 539 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 7:00 pm at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (6 Garamond Court, Toronto, ON)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Book #65: China Diary

Apologies for my blogging hiatus . . . just got back to Toronto.  For the past couple weeks, I've been travelling with my boyfriend in China.  Although I wasn't able to blog during my trip (limited computer access), here are a few excerpts from my photo diary.

This is a picture of me hanging out in Soho, the neighbourhood in Hong Kong where my boyfriend grew up.  The picture was taken right after I'd gotten off the plane, after twenty-four hours without sleep, so everything is kind of swimming before my bleary eyes: the fluorescent yellow leggings that many of the girls in this fashionista city are wearing, the multi-tiered escalators cut into the mountainous terrain carrying people past the colourful cafes, bars and shops (one upper level boutique reputedly used to be the apartment where part of Chung King Express was filmed, bringing the area to life all the more vividly in my mind's eye).
A few days later, we have tea at the elegant Repulse Bay Hotel, which is of particular interest to me because I'm currently reading Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City.  This novella by one of China's preeminent writers of the early twentieth century is partly set at this very hotel, during the Second World War.  It tells the story of Bai Liusu, a beautiful but disgraced divorcee in her late twenties, who has been forced to live on the charity of her Shanghainese family.  As money becomes tight during the war, her family makes clear that they'd just as soon send her back to her loathesome in-laws or let her beg in the street.  But when the matchmaker Mrs. Xu takes an unexpected interest in her situation, Liusu agrees to be offered up to one of the biggest playboys in China, Fan Liuyan, the orphaned son of a wealthy, property owning family - gambling that she'll be able to snare him into marriage.  Travelling with Mrs. Xu to the Repulse Bay Hotel where she is set to meet Liuyan, Liusu's first impression of the hotel still holds true today: "Soon cliffs of yellow-and-red soil flanked the road, while ravines opened up on either side to reveal dense green forest or aquamarine sea.  As they approached Repulse Bay, the cliffs and trees grew gentler and more inviting.  Returning picnickers swept past them in cars filled with flowers, the sound of scattered laughter fading in the wind."
Liusu and Liuyan soon become caught up in an intense game of dangerous liaisons, he trying to seduce her and compromise her reputation, she trying to discern whatever feelings may be forming beneath his slick exterior.  But in the end, it's the war - Japan's invasion of Hong Kong, along with Pearl Harbor - that forces the couple to confront their true feelings.  Struggling to find enough to eat, Liusu and Liuyan find themselves taking care of each other, as they return to the Repulse Bay Hotel, this time to seek refuge.  By the time they arrive, however, the hotel is under siege: "By this time, Liusu wished that Liuyan wasn't there: when one person seems to have two bodies, danger is only doubled.  If she wasn't hit, he still might be, and if he died, or was badly wounded, it would be worse than anything she could imagine.  If she got wounded, she'd have to die, so as not to be a burden to him.  Even if she did die, it wouldn't be as clean and simple as dying alone.  She knew Liuyan felt the same way.  Now all she had was him; all he had was her."

Wandering along the beach, staring at the vanishing horizon, brought these characters to life all the more immediately in my imagination.

The following week, we departed for Shanghai where we spent the next few days eating, drinking and touring the galleries of Shanghai's truly impressive art scene.
One of the more interesting exhibits we visited reconceptualizes what it means to read and write a book.  Artist Xu Bing puts on display his rough drafts and process work that went into writing a book comprised entirely of icons common in our contemporary experience - no alphabet, no complex grammar required at all.  According to the artist, "Book from the Ground is a novel written in a ‘language of icons’ that I have been collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life."  The project makes you think about what it means to inhabit a fluid, cosmopolitan universe, where so much of our time - particularly when we're travelling and don't speak the language - is spent looking for universal icons, like the stick figure of a woman on the washroom door.  To think that a whole novel could be written using these icons is indeed a provocative idea.  I spent much time staring at the pages on display, delighting as I managed to piece together - or construct - the narrative.

From Shanghai, we took the train to Suzhou, a smaller city known historically as a centre of poetry and the arts, landscape architecture in particular.  The gardens of Suzhou are delightful for strolling, contemplation and just letting your imagination wander.  I can't think of a better form of rejuvenation.


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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.