Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book #52: What's Historical about the Historical Novel? Toni Morrison's Latest Novel

"I will keep one sadness.  That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me.  Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her."

                                                                                                    -Toni Morrison, A Mercy

Recently, I've found myself craving historical fiction ... perhaps because I'm trying to write an historical novel myself.  Seeking to learn from the master of this genre, I picked up Toni Morrison's latest novel, A Mercy. It's a surprisingly slender novel, but perhaps one of her most ambitious.  It seems as though throughout her career, Morrison has been progressively stepping back in time: beginning with her partly autobiographical first novel, The Bluest Eye; winning the Pulitzer Prize for her masterpiece Beloved, set in the antebellum South; and now receding even further into the historical imagination with A Mercy, set in the 1680s when slavery and the very idea of "America" were still in embryonic form.

The mercy at the core of the story concerns a young slave girl named Florens, born into slavery at a plantation in Maryland.  Yet Florens is not your typical slave girl; since childhood, she was "never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody's shoes," leading her mother to accuse her of putting on the airs of a "Portuguese lady," and she is quick to learn how to write from an old Reverend who secretly teaches her.  When Jacob Vaark, an adventurer from the North, visits the plantation to claim repayment on a debt, he finds the plantation in financial ruins.  In lieu of the debt, Jacob is offered payment in the form of a slave, and although he finds the slave trade distasteful, on a whim, he accepts Florens - perhaps moved by how the girl's mother beseeches him, kneeling on the ground.

But Florens' life on the Vaark farm - particularly after the master dies - proves anything but serene.  She becomes part of a strange survivors' colony of displaced women, centred around the master's wife Rebekka, a woman who might just as easily have been a prostitute back in England, had she not opted for her arranged marriage overseas.  The voices of these eccentric characters are all vividly rendered, but what I found most enticing about this novel is the emotional conundrum at its core.  Uprooted from the only home she knew and torn away from her mother, Florens is stripped of her identity and left flailing to forge a new self in the wild, never able to understand or forgive her abandonment - ironically, the "mercy" that was her mother's greatest sacrifice.

As I thought further about this historical novel, it occurred to me that what makes it so delightfully readable is actually the dearth of historical details.  The history of the period is used very sparingly, more implied than explained.  For instance, as Jacob tours the D'Ortega plantation, the "tobacco odor, so welcoming when he arrived, now nauseated him.  Or was it the sugared rice, the hog cuts fried and dripping with molasses, the cocoa Lady D'Ortega was giddy about?"  These carefully chosen details about what he was served for lunch encapsulate a whole history of conspicuous consumption and plantation culture, which, however fascinating, never overpowers the story.  History does not intrude on the emotions of the characters who drive the narrative.
A couple weeks ago, I was at my writing workshop, where my friend Diane warned me against the pitfalls of using too much historical research and exposition in my novel.  She quoted the author David Gilmour: "It's not what you put into your writing, it's what you take out."  Too true.  Time to read A Mercy again....  So much to be learned from Morrison's pared down aesthetics.

Photo from: here                                                                                                                     

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book #51: Stereotypes and Desire

"Whatever Sam Finkler wanted, his effect on Julian Treslove was always to put him out of sorts and make him feel excluded from something.  And false to a self he wasn't sure he had."
                                                                                  -Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question

This morning after awaking from a turbulent dream, I made myself a double espresso and curled up on the sofa with Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which I've been reading for the past couple weeks.  This novel, which won the Man Booker Prize last year, gives a brilliant and hilarious glimpse into the fantasy life of Julian Treslove, a man who has envied his Jewish friend, Sam Finkler, since childhood days, and at some primal level yearns to be Jewish himself.  Something of an artist manque and failure when it comes to relationships with women, despite years of womanizing - particularly after landing a job as an impersonator of Brad Pitt - Treslove has a love-hate relationship with Finkler, who seems to be everything he is not.  Successful.  Bitingly funny.  Rich.  Centred in his sense of self and heritage.  Married to the late Tyler Finkler, an impressive Jewish woman, whom Treslove was disappointed to discover, after their tryst in the sack years ago, was actually only a converted Jew.

That elusive thing Finkler possesses is constantly slipping away from Treslove, eluding his grasp.  For the rest of the morning, this book made me smile as I indulged in the happy-sad, melancholy-ironic ups and downs of Treslove's journey through a world where stereotypes and desire map on to each other, and one can only be experienced through the other.

And might I venture as a personal aside, that this absurd yet real predicament goes beyond Jewishness?  As I was reading this novel, I found myself thinking about all the bizarre moments in my own life, most of them involving ex-boyfriends, when it became clear that my "Japaneseness" somehow made me desirable.  I can recall one or two guys during university telling me that in some strange, inexplicable way they felt Japanese, and dating me was helping to bring this side of themselves out (admittedly a good deal of drinking was involved in these late night confessions).  As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian who doesn't speak the language, and who had a near breakdown when I lived in Japan for a summer several years ago, I myself have never felt very Japanese and have often felt there's something strangely misleading about my Japanese appearance.  But such is the ironic reality of living in an age where stereotypes make people desirable....        

Photo from: here

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Doc Shimo & Other Ghosts of Kaslo

About a month ago, I blogged about receiving a mysterious phone call from a woman who used to know my great grandfather, the late Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara, the dashing older man furthest left in this photo.  (If you'd like, you can here that blog entry here).  Well, over the past month, I have been communicating with this woman quite a bit (for purposes of protecting her privacy - she's an elderly lady who probably values her privacy - I'll call her "Norah").  Emailing back and forth and chatting on the phone with Norah has been very exciting because I'm currently working on a historical novel based on my great grandfather's life during the Second World War, when he was a doctor at the above internment camp in Kaslo, BC.  Getting to know Norah and hearing about her memories of my great grandfather - "the great Doc Shimo," as she calls him - has been a fascinating experience.

First of all, I had no idea that he was so adored by the Kaslo locals, or that he was seen as such an eccentric, trailblazing man.  According to Norah, a teenager at the time of the war, her experience getting to know Doc Shimo utterly dispelled the government propaganda disseminated about Japanese-Canadians.  At first, most people in the community weren't pleased by the prospect of having their little mountain town inundated by 3000 evacuees, who had been labelled as "the enemy," and they were even less thrilled that the internment camp was to be built in deserted buildings right within the town.  Kaslo, being a ghost town, had no shortage of deserted hotels and derelict buildings - relics of the gold rush days.  These buildings were retrofitted into tenement houses, where dozens of Japanese-Canadian families were crowded in.  Not your ideal living conditions.  But once Doc Shimo set up shop as the camp's physician, the locals quickly realized that they could benefit from having a doctor of his sophistication and skill set a stone's throw away.  Norah told me that when her brother contracted a severe case of bronchitis from working at the local mine, Doc Shimo treated him by giving him one of the earliest shots of penicillin.  When the boy asked, "How much?"  Doc Shimo said, "Give me your wallet!"  Peeling out $3, he said, "This'll have to do."

Norah's father, an artist, who had been deaf since childhood, befriended Doc Shimo.  It seems that the two men bonded because Norah's father had also felt discriminated against by certain locals, on account of his disability.  Thus Doc Shimo often drove out to Norah's home by the beach (as the camp doctor, he was allowed special privileges; his car was never confiscated, unlike the cars of other internees).  He sat to have his portrait painted.  Apparently, he told funny stories about his days working as a waiter in Chicago to put himself through med school.  According to Norah, he was a very charming man who could be a bit of a ham.  Upon glimpsing the boats lining the shore, Doc Shimo begged to be allowed to take one out.  Hitching up his pants and climbing into a small life boat, he had a strange way of rowing.  Rather than facing backwards, Doc Shimo faced forward rowing fisherman style (probably a habit acquired from his teenage summers working as a fisherman's apprentice).

Later, when Norah wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life ("there were no school guidance counsellors, back in those days," she informed me), Doc Shimo encouraged her to consider UBC's nursing program.  A few years later, she had the pleasure, as a newly minted RN, of assisting with the birth of a baby, working alongside "my idol ... the good Doctor Shimotakahara."

At the end of our conversation, Norah put me in touch with her friend, a local historian, who kindly provided me with the photograph above.  It's a beautiful, evocative photo....  Who know what my imagination will make of all these memories, but I couldn't resist sharing them right now.

Photo from Langham Cultural Society


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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.