Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book #27: Better Than Therapy

“The butcher had come out and smacked his hands together and rubbed them back and forth, and he’d laid a steak on the stainless steel cutting board and turned on the saw, and he’d cubed it for her. Little stiff cubes with frost fibres in the purplish flesh, and this, Helen realizes now, is herself, her own heart, sliding back and forth under the blade.” -Lisa Moore, February

Life is a veil of tears for Helen O’Mara, when she loses her husband in the sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger during a storm off the coast of Newfoundland. Lisa Moore’s latest novel February gives a masterly glimpse of her struggle to hold together some semblance of normal life – taking care of her four kids, cooking fish sticks, trying to make ends meet by taking a crappy job as a cocktail waitress (and being mistaken as a prostitute on her walk home at four in the morning). These ordinary yet absurd moments underscore for Helen that her life will never be the same. For much of the novel, she is emotionally paralyzed just letting this fact sink in.

The tragedy of her husband’s death and its endless ripple effects replay in her mind with an immediacy that doesn’t allow her to assign the disaster to the past. Surely, this is why Moore chooses to narrate many of these memories in the present tense; they are all too vivid at the forefront of Helen’s mind to be told as flashbacks. The most mundane activities, like going to the butcher, risk overwhelming her, flooding her with raw emotion. Yet these moments are strangely beautiful because we see Helen standing outside herself and slowly, painstakingly, finding the resources to heal herself and move on.

Isn’t this the great thing about literature? The novels that I love reading over and over again – Toni Morrison’s Sula, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth – have this deeply therapeutic effect. Although I could never have admitted this in my former life as a lit prof (my colleagues in the English department would have scoffed), the truth is that I’ve never been drawn to literature because I wanted to learn more about a certain period of history, philosophy or theory of any kind. Literature offers a much more primitive kind of experience that consoles and helps me relive the moments when I was so depressed my whole body felt laden with weights.

I remember all too clearly, for instance, my ballet teacher putting her hands on my eleven-year-old hips. Monique her name was. She pushed and prodded my hips into an awkward position and I toppled over, but not before she had felt the imbalance, my imbalance. She told my mother that my spine curves like an S and my mother took me to see the doctor and he referred me to an orthopedic surgeon and thus began a surreal phase of passing from x-ray machines to a fiberglass brace to operating table…. I think I just sort of curled into myself and hid in a closet in my head for those three years…. I recall the struggle to get up and get dressed in the morning, the numb, disjointed feeling as if my body were a marionette puppet, hands and feet hanging limp in midair.

It must have been during this time that I developed a penchant for sadness and sad literature. To identify through reading with another’s grief and triumph over that grief can be a very consoling, beautiful thing. February brought all those extreme emotions back and I fell in love with the journey all over again.

Photo from: here

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book #26: Outlaw Women

"My children were of me alone, of the wild blood boiling along the earth, of me and all that lived; of none and of all.  Then I found I had Jewel."   -William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

I've been sleepless thinking about who my grandmother really was.  You see, I've been toying with writing a section of my novel in her voice.  Over the weekend, I had brunch with my dad and we listened to a tape recording of her talking about her childhood, the war, falling in love in an internment camp....  My dad made the tape during a trip to Cape Cod a few years ago, shortly before her Parkinson's got bad.  The tape intrigues yet frustrates me, because all the while I feel that my grandmother is trying to say what's expected of her.  She's trying to preserve for posterity an image of herself as the good daughter, the self-suffering wife, the devoted mother.

I long to gain access to the other side of her identity - the secrets and unspoken truths she harboured all her life.  The moments when she surprised herself by acting out of character.  What she would say, if she could speak from beyond the grave.

This is the kernel imbedded in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which I was reading over the weekend for the first time (even ex English profs haven't read everything by Faulkner).  It's the story of Addie Bundren on her deathbed and into the afterlife, told from the perspectives of fifteen different narrators, including her four legitimate children and one love child, Jewel.  Before dying, she expresses her wish to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson, Mississippi, and the novel chronicles her family's efforts to honour that wish, dragging her homemade casket by horse and carriage across the brutal landscape.  While all the narrators have their own unique ways of seeing Addie, the section where she reflects upon her life from beyond the grave makes all the other sections pale.  What we get is Addie's scathing denunciation of her marriage (which seems hardly more than a random occurence) and her ambivalent meditation on motherhood.  Motherhood seems to draw out her sadistic streak, and although she is possessive of her children, she is no less repulsed by them, a steady flow of babies who arrive without rhyme or reason.  Ironically, Jewel is closest to her heart, perhaps because he is the only one born of desire.  All these taboos are laid bare - with poignancy and beauty - in Addie's monologue.

I'm reminded of something Toni Morrison once said in an interview: "Outlaw women who don't follow the rules are always interesting to me, because they push themselves, and us, to the edge.  The women who step outside the borders, or who think other thoughts, define the limits of civilization, but also challenge it."  (No coincidence that Morrison wrote her master's thesis on Faulkner).

Listening to the tape of my grandmother, I find myself listening not so much to what she's saying as much as to her stammers, repetitions and evasions and I wonder what repressed "outlaw" possibilities they mask over.

Photo from: here

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book #25: That Accident Which Pricks Me....

"This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole - and also a cast of the dice.  A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)."   -Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Since my father retired, he has been digging into family history.  The other day while I was at work, he sent me the above photo, which he found upon googling "Minidoka" - the camp where my grandmother was interned during the Second World War.  "I think your grandmother is in this photo," his email read.  "Third girl from the right, in profile.  Zoom in."

And there she is. 

A whoosh of gratitude came over me - had the camera caught her a moment before or after, her face might have been obscured, like the girl on the far right.  Quelle chance!  Then weird thoughts started rushing through my mind.  I found myself looking at the styling of her hair and wondering how, while living in an internment camp, she could manage to keep it freshly curled and glossy (while I, from the comfort of home, can barely make the effort to blow dry).  But imprisoned and made to rake mud, my grandmother would not let herself go and, though I knew that should make me happy, it made me feel sad.  Her dress remains smartly pressed, despite everything.  And while the other girls are working, she appears to me to be only pretending to work - something about the whimsical tilt of her head.  She's caught in a moment of fantasy or denial, her mind a thousand miles away.

The frailties and defenses of her personality seem to be encapsulated in that image....  For the grandmother I knew some fifty years later was a complex, cryptic woman.  She was often cool and remote in person, but had a penchant for florid language (I recall receiving a postcard that said "the stars are like chrysanthemums" and thinking, Huh?).  She shied away from talking about the past, even when my father would press her, until the very final days of her life when she began to give in.  She was a woman who seemed ill prepared to be a mother or grandmother, preferring to play the role of a younger aunt, dressing half her age.

It was as if she always wanted to remain a girl - as if some beautiful moment in her adolescence had been stolen away.

Looking at this photo makes me think of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, which I read years ago (back in my geeky, academic days).  At the time, I thought I understood what Barthes meant in coining the terms punctum and studium to describe two different and opposed kinds of experience upon looking at photographs.  By studium, he means the cultural and political dimensions of a photograph, all the ways in which it can be rationally discussed and made comprehensible to an audience.  By sharp contrast, punctum refers to a viewer's private experience of a photo - a purely subjective response.  To experience punctum is to feel idiosyncratic details jump out and grab you with such emotional force that you feel pierced, wounded. 

At the time of reading Camera Lucida, I had been deeply moved by certain photos which I'd viewed in various museums, galleries and books.  But I cannot say that I'd felt pierced.  Until now.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book #24: Impounded Images

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had archive fever. I’ve been reading a pile of history books on the Japanese Internment. I’m looking to gain insight into what my grandparents experienced as internees as part of my attempt to write an historical novel, centred on a secret romance in one of the camps. The idea is loosely based on snippets of stories and half-disclosures that my grandmother let slip over the years, giving me certain ideas (fantasies, really) about how she met my grandfather. The beginning of their strange, turbulent marriage.

But the problem with reading history books, I’ve come to realize, is that “facts” only get you so far as a writer. They’re full of quotations by politicians and statistical data, whereas I’m interested in accessing the taste (or lack of taste) of the camp food, the sounds and smells of the barracks, the feel of the floorboards against our heroine’s bare feet as she sneaks out at night.

So I decided to read something different. Or not read at all. The other day, I came across a collection of photographs by Dorothea Lange, who is best known for her portraits of U.S. migrant farmworkers and sharecroppers during the Depression. What is not so well known about Lange’s career is that she was commissioned by the U.S. government to document the Japanese Internment. She toured many camps in California and took a slew of stunning photographs: bewildered, beautiful girls clinging to the slip of shade outside a mess hall; the Inyo Mountains rising pale and ghostly behind the camp at Manzanar, barely visible through the dust haze; and internees gardening with the materials at hand – to describe just a few of Lange’s moving images.

More than simply documenting the group’s degraded condition, Lange’s photos distill a timeless, universal sadness to their plight. There appears something almost mythic about their suffering. Since these images were seen as so obviously sympathetic to the internees’ perspective, they were impounded by the U.S. government and not published until recently.

These photos are a wonderful source of inspiration. Looking at them, I’m able to imagine how the dust would feel sticking to my skin and mixing with my sweat and from there … the thoughts of my heroine start to come alive in my head. I can feel her yearning for some escape and becoming susceptible to the advances of a certain stranger who pushed his way into her life.

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.