Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book #42: In the Waiting Room

"I can't imagine anyone becoming a writer who wasn't a voracious reader as an adolescent.  A true reader understands that books are a world unto themselves - and that that world is richer and more interesting than any one we've traveled in before."
                                                          -Paul Auster, The Paris Review Interviews, Volume IV

Revising my book has been a curious activity.  It's a bit like looking in the mirror and trying to remember how I looked a year and a half ago (when I first began writing my memoir) or better still, three years ago (when I was still trapped in the dreary life of an English professor and having a meltdown in tandem with my father's - our twin breakdowns forming the subject matter of my three hundred pages).  But now, as I look back on that time in my life, I feel weirdly distant from the neurotic, panic-stricken woman I was back then (well, still a little neurotic, I guess).  Such is the editing process.

My publisher's main criticism was that in certain sections, she wanted "more Leslie."  In a few areas, she feels the prose is still a bit too intellectual (the very mousy self I'd come to loathe!)  So that's what I've been working on for the past two weeks - injecting more of my authentic, unfiltered voice.  And the experience has been therapeutic, to say the least.

There's also been a certain amount of traipsing around the city involved in the final stretch of writing my book.  One of the scenes I was reworking is set in the hospital waiting room where I sat for so many hours as a young teenager, chewing my fingernails and awaiting the next round of medieval treatments in store for my scoliosis.  Reading over the scene, I was suddenly overwhelmed by this fear that I'd described the waiting room all wrong - that wasn't at all how I remembered the plastic benches and hyper sanitized surfaces and lame murals of dragons and rainbows.  The feeling lingered, sharp and disorienting, and later that day I couldn't resist my desire to return to that very place, that very waiting room.  I wanted to examine the tiles and breathe the vaguely sweet, antiseptic air and search - once again - for vestiges of my old self.  But it was the end of the day, and the waiting room was completely empty.   

Still, it was oddly moving to be back there and I found myself wandering around the ortho ward for some time.  I paused outside an exam room where I caught a glimpse of a surly, stringy haired girl slouching down in her chair, her arms crossed like her stomach hurt, while a white-haired doctor prattled on.  Ah, yes.  I had her number.  I stood in the shadows of the door, mesmerized. 

It must have been around that time in my life that I turned to the solitary, inward compensations of reading.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book #41: Disaster, Diaspora, Dispersion

"Six months now since she'd been sent away to London.  Every morning before she opened her eyes she thought, if I were the wishing type I know what I would wish."
                                                                                                      -Monica Ali, Brick Lane

Staring at images of the earthquake in Japan has been leaving me nauseous.  To watch fields being swallowed by waters like lava and lonely survivor buildings peaking over the mounds of rubble fills me with a very strange, sad feeling, to say the least.  I'm wondering if we have family there, caught in the chaos.  I emailed my mom to ask, but of course she didn't know - it was my grandfather who faithfully wrote letters to our relatives in Japan, and he's dead now.  Neither my parents nor I even speak Japanese.  So with my grandpa's death, the cord of communication was cut, and I'm left with nothing more than hazy memories of some distant cousins coming to stay with my grandparents when I was a kid.  A couple of teenage boys, dressed all in white.  They seemed to embody the mystery and otherworldliness I'd always associated with my ancestral homeland.

As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, perhaps it isn't surprising that I felt like a tourist when I visited Japan for the first and only time.  Still, it greatly upsets me to see the photos of rubble and ruined land, as if something of my past is again being swallowed up, and simply clicking a button to give a few dollars doesn't do enough to appease my conscience.

How eerie that when all this struck, I was reading Brick Lane, Monica Ali's brilliant debut novel about diaspora and dispersion.  As I read, I was thinking about the parallels between her tale and my own family history.  This novel about two Bangladeshi sisters - one of whom resigns herself to an arranged marriage in London, the other of whom runs off to pursue a "love marriage" to a man who beats and abandons her - reminds me in certain ways of the fates of my grandmother and great grandmother. 

My great grandmother was a picture bride, a woman sent from Japan to marry a stranger in America, strictly based on her photograph.  Well, that's not true exactly.  According to my grandmother, she was actually the matchmaker's secretary.  When my great grandfather proved himself a particularly picky client and turned down all the ladies selected for him, the matchmaker, on a whim, presented his secretary.  "I'll take her," my great grandfather said immediately.  Thus my great grandmother boarded a ship for Oregon, but did not find the life of luxury she'd been promised - her husband, it turned out, was merely a drycleaner.  Putting on a stoic face, she swallowed her desires, until her desires resurfaced through her daughter (my grandmother).  My grandmother, a Japanese-American beauty queen, prided herself on being American, and when the family tried to send her back to Japan through an arranged marriage to a wealthy Japanese businessman, she rebelled.  By this point, she was already in love with my grandfather; he was one of the guys who came to play basketball in the part of Portland, Oregon, where she grew up.  So she got on a ship and came back to America bringing with her only a beautiful Japanese doll as a memento, and married my grandfather.  But her love marriage soon soured.  My grandfather turned out to be a violent, angry man blinded by alcoholism and his own thwarted artistic ambitions. 

I often wondered, as I discovered pieces of her life through conversations with my father, whether she ever regretted her decision to come back to America.  It's haunting to think about the other set of descendents she would have had, had she decided to marry the Japanese businessman, and I sometimes dream about the woman I would have been.  My ghostly alter ego......

Photo from: here

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lovely Blog Award

This morning, to take my mind off awaiting my editor's comments, I've been indulging in quite a bit of social networking.  Diaspora Dialogues asked me to do a guest blog about my participation as an Emerging Writer in their mentorship programme, which really helped me gain confidence as a writer.  They've already posted my blog entry, which can be read here.

And thanks so much to Anglers Rest for awarding me One Lovely Blog Award!  It was such a nice surprise, as I'm still quite new to the world of blogging.  I had no idea that in starting my blog about my favourite novels and the book I'm writing I would meet such a warm and embracing community of other bloggers, readers and writers.  What a pleasure to be drawn into this world.

Here are the rules for accepting the award:

Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award and their blog link.

Pass the award on to 15 other blogs that you've newly discovered.

Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

This is a great way to be introduced to lots of new blogs and their authors. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Book #40: The Risk of Writing Honestly

Diana Athill: A sort of shudder of guilt still goes through me about being so - not indiscreet - but about myself.  I shouldn't be doing it.  But if you're trying to write about something because you're trying to get to the bottom of it, whether it's your own life or something else, there is no point in doing it unless you try as hard as you can to do it honestly, and to say how it really was.

Alice Munro: Well, I got things right, but it didn't always please the people I got it right about.  I can remember really hurting people.

                                    -A Conversation between Diana Athill and Alice Munro, Finding the Words

A couple weeks ago, I went with some friends to the book launch for Finding the Words, an anthology of personal writings by various writers who support PEN Canada.  Although I went to the event not knowing much about this non-profit literary organization, by the end of the evening I'd learned a bit about its work defending freedom of expression in Canada and abroad, and I was sufficiently intrigued to buy the book (from which all profits go to supporting the organization).

Last night, when I couldn't sleep, I began reading a transcribed conversation between Diana Athill and Alice Munro - two great writers interviewing each other.  I don't know why I began reading in the middle of the book, but their conversation instantly grabbed me.  Their frank discussion about the risks of writing honestly - the emotional risks of hurting others, the writer's own paralyzing sense of self-exposure - struck a chord indeed. 

I suppose it must have something to do with the fact that yesterday I finished editing the final chapters of my own book and sent the manuscript off to my agent and publisher for their feedback.  So later that day, I was left lying on the sofa, feeling bored and antsy, and my mind started wandering to the fateful prospect of how my writing would be received.  I'm not talking about the requests for revisions that Sandra and Sam are bound to throw at me, I'm talking about the more terrifying question of how the people depicted in my memoir will respond.  My parents, my surgeon (now deceased, it turns out, according to Google), a smattering of ex-boyfriends some of whom I'm still friends with (and all of whose names have been changed, don't worry), a cast of dead relatives who come alive in my imagination, et cetera.  How will these people and ancestral ghosts respond to their afterlives on the pages of my notebook?

It came as something of a relief to discover via Athill and Munro that I'm not the only one to feel awkward and embarrassed about having undertaken this unabashed exercise in narcissism in writing a book at all.  While I was immersed in writing it, I was simply luxuriating in the freedom to write and I felt it was important to allow myself to write in a way that felt authentic and uncensored, as I journeyed back through my defection from the Ivory Tower, my breakdown, my sense of failure, the toll that my career blues took on my love life and all the rest of the emotional turbulence stirred up during that miserable period.... 

Paradoxically, while writing, I wasn't thinking about the eventuality that others would read my words.  But I'm thinking about it now.

Fortunately, just as I was prepared for a night of insomnia, I discovered another essay, "The First Time," by Stacey May Fowles, who reflects at length on the beehive of neuroses presented by publishing her first book.  Plenty of alcohol and cognitive behavioural therapy, she recommends. 

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.