Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Therapy of Writing, with Leslie Shimotakahara

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Leslie Shimotakahara

Toronto-based Leslie Shimotakahara is the author of The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again, a memoir (Variety Crossing Press). Leslie’s memoir tells the story of how a reading list helped her connect with her family’s past, overcome an emotional crisis and ultimately find happiness. You can find Leslie online at her blog, The Reading List.

As part of Asian Heritage Month, Leslie has a number of readings throughout Toronto:

  • May 22 at George F. Locke Library
  • May 24 at College/Shaw Library
  • May 27 at Pauper’s Pub
  • May 29 at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre

Leslie spoke with Open Book about the origin of her memoir and the cathartic experience of reading and writing.

A few years ago, Leslie Shimotakahara was an English professor at a university in small-town Nova Scotia, her dreams of being a writer abandoned. But the academic life left Leslie feeling burnt out and unhappy. So she packed up her things, left the ivory tower behind and headed home to Toronto in search of a new path for her life. What she found inspired her to write the memoir The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again (Variety Crossing Press).

The Reading List tells the story of Leslie’s relationship with her father during a very rough period in both of their lives. Having returned home to Toronto to address her life’s crisis, Leslie discovers that her father is dealing with his own crisis as well—his mother is dying.

“Looking for some distraction, my father asks me to put together a reading list of my favourite books,” said the author about her memoir. “Through discussions about the novelists on our shared reading list — Wharton, Joyce, Woolf and Atwood, to name a few — I begin to get to know my father on a whole new level, as reading unearths some of his own childhood memories and family secrets about growing up Japanese-Canadian in the aftermath of World War Two.”

Writing this memoir stemmed naturally from Leslie’s desire to be a creative writer. In fact, The Reading List revisited and built on ideas from her short story “The House on St. Clarens,” a story that she developed under the mentorship of author Emma Donoghue. Soon after her story was published in the anthology TOK: Writing the New Toronto Vol. 5 , Leslie met Sam Hiyate, the founder of the literary agency The Rights Factory, and attended his writing workshop. It was during this workshop that The Reading List began to take form.

When asked why she chose to tell her story as a memoir instead of a work of fiction, Leslie responded, “I felt it would be a stronger story if I represented it as distinctively my own, not masked or mediated through a fictional character. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had all the key ingredients simply by drawing upon my own life experiences to write a compelling story about how reading had drawn my father and I closer together, during our mutual crises.”

Leslie found that the most difficult part of writing her memoir was overcoming feelings of self-consciousness. “In writing a memoir, absolute honesty and self-disclosure are of paramount importance,” she said. “It took a while for me to become comfortable writing about my sense of vulnerability and failure in both my career and love life. Since much of the story also has to do with my complex relationship with my father, it was a struggle for me to find a way to write about him honestly, without fear of painting him in an unflattering light.”

But what started out as the most difficult aspect of writing a memoir, turned into the most gratifying. “Working through my feelings of failure and loss and my quest to understand my father and our family past proved highly therapeutic,” said Leslie.

While still in the early stages of writing The Reading List, Leslie also developed a blog with the same name. “Although I was new to the world of blogging, I immediately found it gratifying to connect with readers in a very different way than you can through writing a book,” she said. “The interactive, conversational style that seems to come naturally through blogging is something that I’ve found surprisingly pleasurable.”

Writing The Reading List, both book and blog, has given Leslie the opportunity to reflect on the works of literature that inspire her and those which she particularily relates to. Many of her favourite authors appear in her memoir.

“These writers — ranging from Thoreau to Wharton, from Hammett to Ondaatje — have all influenced my life in different ways and offered up insights at low points in my life,” she said. “If I had to choose just one novelist in particular who has been of especial comfort to me over the years, I would have to identify Edith Wharton. Her novel The House of Mirth [...] resonated with me, particularly while I was writing my memoir.”

“Now that the memoir is finished and I have moved on to other writing projects, I find myself finding inspiration in a whole other set of authors,” said Leslie. “Recently, I’ve been reading more Toni Morrison, whose eccentric, larger-than-life female characters I greatly admire.”

“I have always been fascinated by how literature can intersect with and illuminate my life,” said Leslie. And now she hopes that her book will help readers find similar insights into their lives, the way she did with her reading list.

“In the course of reading and discussing some of my favourite novels with my father, I came to understand him and our family past in a whole new way. That insight proved crucial in my own quest to find happiness,” said the author. “I hope that readers of my book will feel inspired to create their own reading lists and embark on reading and discussing books with their family members and friends. In so doing, they may [...] discover unexpected ways to overcome the emotional obstacles that we all face.”

Danielle Webster is the editorial intern for Open Book: Toronto, with a degree in English literature and a certificate in publishing. She works in a bookstore. When Danielle is not reading kids and teen books, she is blogging about them at Bookish Notions.

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