Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book #35: Looking for Madame Sosostris

"For years she had drifted into fantasy as she lay in bed at night or sat quietly looking at a book without reading it.  Now her fantasies began to serve a more urgent purpose.  It was much more bearable to be a princess getting tortured in a dungeon than a crooked little girl being tortured by doctors."  -Judith Rossner, Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Last week, my boyfriend took me to his office Christmas party, where I had my fortune told.  While mingling over glasses of bubbly, you had the option of slipping off to a table in the corner where an old woman with battle-marked skin and dangly earrings shuffled a pack of Tarot cards.  At first, I was skeptical about going up - I've never considered myself the new agey, occultist type, not since junior high at least - but one of the other guests told me that this woman had discerned all kinds of intimate details about her life and yielded scads of insight.  Curiosity got the better of me.

Whether working from intuition or mystical powers, the fortune teller did draw out a good deal about my life.  She knew (guessed?) that I am a writer and that I'm prone to stress and neck pain (maybe she could tell this just by looking at my posture).  But in any case, some cred had been established in my mind.  So when she said that something - some key ingredient - is missing from my current project, I sat up straight indeed.

Although she couldn't say what exactly it was, I knew what she was getting at.  It's something that has been lurking at the back of my mind, a shadowy territory I've been reluctant to explore in my memoir.

When I was eleven, I was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis, a curvature of the spine of unknown cause.  For two years, I had to wear a fibreglass back brace, and after that treatment failed to do much of anything, aside from giving me breathing problems, surgery was the only option.  Several vertebrae had to be fused and a metal rod was stapled to my spine and I was left with a bright red seam that both tormented and intrigued me for years to come.  (It's like the scar's a zipper into me... a reminder of my ability to become undone).

Since this event was so formative to my identity (my sexuality, my relationship to my body, my "escape" into reading and the life of the mind), it might seem obvious that I should include it in my memoir.  But I haven't, until now.  I haven't wanted to open that closet.  I've said to myself that it isn't important or relevant, but now I sense that just the opposite is true.

Thank you, Madame Sosostris.

So over the past few days, in between eating turkey at Christmas parties, I've been reading for inspiration Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner's 1970s bestseller.  Based on a true story, the novel tells a dark tale about a Catholic school teacher, who suffered from scoliosis as a child, leaving her with a sense of disfigurement that plays out in her games of seduction on the New York bar scene.  While her experience is no doubt different from my own (thank God!  I didn't end up being killed by a psychopath), I have to say that there are certain scenes dealing with memory repression, depression and fantasy that resonate with me all too well.  Now I have to curl up with my notebook and delve into that morass of my own memories.  A little light Christmas reading.

Photo from: here   

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book #34: Atavistic Atwood

"What impressed him that time, he even mentioned it later, cool he called it, was the way I took off my clothes and put them on again later very smoothly as if I were feeling no emotion.  But I really wasn't."  -Margaret Atwood, Surfacing

A few days ago, when I was at my favourite used bookstore, I stumbled across Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing. When it was published in 1972, Atwood was elevated to a new level of literary recognition for her caustic portrait of the Canadian wilderness and the wilderness within one woman’s tormented mind (establishing Atwood’s longstanding fascination with the seamy side of nature). But what I remember most vividly about this old novel – from when I plucked it off my mother’s bookshelf and first read it at age twelve – are the sex scenes. These were my clandestine thrills as an awkward, curious pre-teen – to pull an “adult” novel off my mom’s shelf, one day Atwood, the next day Danielle Steel. The high and the low occupied a level plane on her shelf, but I quickly discovered my own preference for the darkness and power games and animal-like perversion that characterize Atwood’s best novels.

These memories stirred at the back of my mind, as I began rereading Surfacing, reacquainting myself with the boorish quality of the nameless narrator’s lover, Joe. He’s not a bad guy. More skillful in bed than most, and good looking in a rugged way, if you go for a cross between a buffalo and a bear. She and Joe explore the extremes of their relationship during a week long trip to the remote island where she grew up – her crazy father has vanished there. Her search for her father is the ostensible purpose of the visit, but it soon becomes clear that the real purpose is to explore the cryptic nature of her own sexuality. Who is she? Why does she feel such malaise and lack of desire, even as she goes through the motions of seduction and falling in love? What is this mysterious “amputation” within herself she keeps referring to?

Reading Atwood becomes a form of self-exploration. There have been times when I’ve felt so depressed that my own world seemed to be folding back into the atavistic world Atwood depicts so beautifully, where bare animal survival seems a struggle. A few years ago, I found myself trapped in a career I thought I would love but ended up hating, living in a town of 5000 that, although picturesque on the surface, became reminiscent of a Lars von Trier film. I identified all too well with the Atwood narrator and the primitive, archetypal world she conveys so well. The bone numbing cold seeped in on me, and my libido curled inward and died.

But just when rejuvenation seems impossible in Atwood’s novels, nature shows her softer side. The wilderness works in sudden, mysterious ways to reveal unforeseen possibilities. And it’s for these subtle, always ambiguous moments of change and awakened desire that I love reading Atwood.

Hmmm…. Just the inspiration I need to start writing Chapter Nine.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

When My Mother Was My Age

When my mom found out I'm writing a memoir about my relationship with my dad, she was very supportive - partly, I think, because she was relieved I wasn't putting our relationship under the microscope.  But the truth is that I've always found my mother a deeply fascinating woman, and I'm hoping in a future literary work to use her as a source of literary inspiration.  Thus when I found out that Jane Friedman of Writers Digest was hosting a mother-daughter interview series at her blog, called "When My Mother Was My Age," I jumped at the chance to participate.  It seemed like a great opportunity to get to know my mom in a role other than "mother" and at the same time, stash research notes for the future.  As it turns out, she suffered from similar sources of turbulence in her life at my age.  My interview with my mom and my reflections can be read at Jane's blog.


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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.