Monday, April 16, 2012

My Grandmother's One Hundredth Birthday

The past couple weeks have been eventful.  I finished writing my novel and delivered it to my agent, who is currently reading it to provide feedback.  So now, I've been feeling kind of on pins and needles, with no project to keep my mind company when I wake up at four in the morning, unable to fall back to sleep ...  To distract myself, I've started reading a hodgepodge of books, not so much novels as much as history books on China, since I'll be travelling to Shanghai and Hong Kong at the end of the week on a long awaited trip to visit my boyfriend's family.  It's my first trip to China - very excited!  More on this later ...

And speaking of family, yesterday we celebrated my grandmother Esther Kayaco Kuwabara's one hundredth birthday at a luncheon for one hundred of our relatives from across Canada at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.  "I have no idea why I am still alive ...  I was the weakest one in my family - why am I the last one living?" my grandmother kept saying, her eyes filled with wonder and amazement.  I have fond memories of my grandmother who has always been a great storyteller and, as the stories told by her children about her at the birthday party attest, has succeeded in creating something of a mythology about herself.  Named after Kayaks River, a tributary of the Skeena in northern BC, close to where she was born, my grandmother Kayaco has often struck me as very much a child of the Canadian wilderness, despite her surface appearance, in some of the black and white photos I've seen, as a Japanese doll with large eyes and a too serious smile.  When she was a young child, a wild cat crept into their house and jumped on her face while she was sleeping, clawing her cheeks, barely missing her eye, leaving her so scarred that she became convinced she would never marry.  Of course, over time, the scars did heal, but her self-image had been forever shaped, not, strangely enough, in terms of a loss of self-esteem, but just the opposite.  Among her six sisters, she would be The Capable One, the one who would be entrusted to run her father's businesses, the logging camp in Prince Rupert and later the two pie shops and restaurant in Vancouver.  In short, she would become the son he never had (though it later turned out that he did have a son, who had been raised in Japan ...)

During the Second World War, when the Japanese-Canadians were interned, my grandmother says that the first thing that went through her mind was, "I have only fifteen dollars in my purse."  In the camp, which was situated in the ghost town Sandon, Kayaco used her prodigious cooking skills to earn money, cooking for (as she tells it) lines of people who went on for as far as the eye could see ...  At the birthday luncheon, the stories that my mother told chronicling their childhood with Kayaco in the 1950s, when she spent a summer as the cook at another kind of camp, a children's overnight camp, brought tears of nostalgia to my eyes because I had been hearing these stories about her chopping wood and killing bats and scaring away drunken old priests who stumbled into the camp kitchen late at night for as long as I could remember.  As my uncle Bruce said in his speech, she is a woman who exemplifies the word "gumption."  In addition to listening to these reminiscences, we had musical entertainment provided by several musicians in the family, one of whom is renowned flutist and composer Ron Korb, who performed some stunning pieces from his new compositions.

I was asked to read a poem.  I chose one that may, in retrospect, have been overly symbolic for the occasion, but it is a serious poem about life, death, art and solitude that in some strange way seems to suit my grandmother perfectly.  The poem is called "On Looking into Henry Moore" by Canadian modernist poet, Dorothy Livesay.  Here is the middle verse, which is my favourite:

The message of the tree is this:
Aloneness is the only bliss

Self-adoration is not in it
(Narcissus tried, but could not win it)
Rather, to extend the root
Tombwards, be at home with death

But in the upper branches know
A green eternity of fire and snow. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book #64: Mixed Feelings

"To tell you the truth," he said, running his hand through his hair, "I've always had mixed feelings about you."  His smile was rueful.  "I think you've aroused more mixed feelings in me than anybody else I know."                                                                         -Elizabeth Hay, A Student of Weather

Over the past couple weeks while I've been off work, taking time off to finish my novel (fingers crossed), I've indulged in some reading as well.  One of the novels I read was Elizabeth Hay’s first novel, A Student of Weather.  After reading and loving Hay’s Giller-winning Late Nights on Air a few years ago, I was curious about how her writing evolved (I often find myself drawn to reading first novels of authors I admire, perhaps because I’m working on my first novel).  Here, in Hay’s first novel, we get a smaller cast than in Late Nights on Air, but one that is comprised of characters no less eccentric and fascinating.  The novel opens in 1930s Saskatchewan, where two sisters living on a farm in the sultry prairies fall for the same newcomer, Maurice Dove, a meteorologist from Ontario, or student of weather, who is doing research in the region.  While Lucinda is the fair, beautiful, older sister who is good to a fault, it is the younger sister, Norma Joyce, who is secretive and deceptive and dark, almost foreign looking, that will go to no ends to snare him.

What is disturbing and riveting about Norma Joyce’s desire is that she feels it at such a young age.  She is only nine the summer she becomes besotted with Maurice, while he is well into his twenties: "She memorizes every inch of him.  Every inch of floppy, thick, brown hair, blue eyes and milky neckline, slender hips and slippered feet, and long, flat, clever fingers.  No matter whether riffling through papers or pulling things out of his knapsack, he holds his fingers the way a piano player isn't supposed to."  While the novel appears at first glance to be a classic love story centred on a love triangle, it ends up veering into much more interesting territory by turning into a kind of love story in reverse.  Neither sister ends up with Maurice, but as their entanglements with him continue over some forty years – through Norma Joyce’s birth of their child out of wedlock, his rise to fame as a writer of popular books about weather, and his marriage to two other women – Maurice Dove’s character is gradually revealed to be anything other than good husband material.  But what I found most compelling about the novel’s portrayal of this relationship is the way that despite seeing all his foibles, Norma Joyce’s desire persists – stubborn and irrational as desire is, like the weather itself.  And when she confronts Maurice about the genuine nature of his feelings for her, years later, when they run into each other at an art gallery in Ottawa, he responds that no one has ever evoked in him more mixed feelings.  Mixed feelings, rather than the more straightforward polarities of love and hatred, are what Hay seems to most enjoy putting under the microscope in this novel no less than in Late Nights on Air.

As I was thinking about how mixed feelings play out in A Student of Weather, I came to realize that many of the novels that stay with me and continually tease my mind are centred on love relationships similarly stymied.  Lily Bart’s and Selden Lawrence’s interminable mind games in The House of Mirth, for instance.  In the end, it isn’t getting together that matters, for they recognize they would be miserable together (Lily craves a level of luxury that he can’t offer her, while Selden treasures his independence), and yet, until the very end, their desire for each other persists, mixed with something bleaker because they know their feelings will always be thwarted.  Mixed feelings, indeed.  In a way, aren’t these the relationships that linger most vividly in our memories, whether we like it or not?  As those of you who have read my memoir will know, I’ve had a few mixed feelings myself over the years and, like Elizabeth Hay, I seem to find them more creatively productive to write about than the simple feeling of being in love. 

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.