Talk to Me #11: Leslie Shimotakahara

Apr 10, 2017 by

Talk to Me #11: Leslie Shimotakahara

Where you learned to love. 

The first two years of my life were spent in Trinidad, where my parents moved shortly after I’d been born. The engineering company my father worked for was building a steel plant there, and my mother planned to take a couple of years off from her speech-language pathology career in order to stay at home with me. The thrill of living in tropical paradise soon wore off and my mom found herself isolated and under-stimulated, while dealing with everything from daily power outages to food shortages to the threat of break and entries. Nurturing me and taking interest in my language development became her main focus. It was in this environment of being rather doted upon that I must have learned to love and bond, while being aware at some level that the threat of danger was ever-present. One of my earliest memories is a jittery neon band of orange. I would learn years later that this sunset image had been imprinted on my memory after our car broke down on the side of an unpaved road and my father had to push me in the stroller for over an hour.

Your first cut – was it the deepest? 

When I was younger, I was often fascinated by older men. There was a teacher – one of those dressed-in-beat-up-jeans, laid-back types, taking a subtle amusement in stressed out, keener girls like me – who let me know that he thought I’d be attractive when I got older. “The kind of woman who wears a lot of black and enjoys a good martini,” I believe were his words. Although this seems slightly creepy in retrospect, it didn’t strike me as creepy at the time. I was the sort of bookish girl whom guys my own age looked right past. Like a character out of an Alice Munro story, I kept waiting to see if anything more would happen with the teacher. Of course, nothing did (and this was a good thing, of course I can now say). But at the end of the school year, I recall feeling oddly devastated.

Your love who got away. 

For years, I felt that my first serious boyfriend from undergrad days was the one who got away. His idiosyncrasies really appealed to me, for some reason: his penchant for reading obscure philosophers, his insecurities about having lost touch with his Jewish heritage, his fascination with Asian languages and cultures, his worries about cultural appropriation issues, and the list goes on. We had some memorable times together and I probably learned more about Japanese culture from him than anyone else, an irony that amused me. But at some point, many years ago, the feeling that he was the one who got away just kind of fell away (probably because I’d become a lot happier in many aspects of my life). When the ex was in town a couple of summers ago and we had brunch together, I sensed that the fondness and nostalgia were still there, but it was nostalgia for our younger, unsettled selves, rather than nostalgia for what could have been. We both knew we wouldn’t have worked out together.

Your “type” – and why. 

In terms of physical attributes, I don’t really have a “type.” My partners have ranged greatly in their looks. Some have not been good looking in conventional terms, but I nevertheless found myself pierced by desire. In terms of mental attributes, there may be more to work with. Although some of these guys might seem on the surface to be social and have lots of friends, deep down they are loners and introspective, with a slightly tragic outlook on life. I find it easiest to relate to and fall in love with people who understand sadness and suffering (and in the face of it all, find moments of happiness and beauty, and take pleasure in the absurdity of life).

Your favourite literary romance. 

The Line of Beauty by Allan Hollinghurst. Something about this novel captures perfectly the anticipation, the vulnerability, the exposure and devastation of one’s first encounter with love (told through a gay coming-of-age story set in 1980s London). Brilliant satire of the Thatcherite era, too.

Your thoughts on friends being lovers. 

Of course, friendship is a key element of any lasting relationship. But if you mean the friends-with-benefits thing, I think that tends to be more nebulous territory. If I’m drawn to someone as a lover, I cease to think of him as a purely or primarily a friend. So it seems a bit of a contradiction in terms. At least, I’ve never been able to master this balletic dance.

Your thoughts on the net amounts of pleasure and pain. 

These days, I’m all for pleasure. Cliché as this may sound, life is painful enough. Love should act as a kind of pleasure supplement to help us all get through the night.

Your story about unrequited love.

During grad school, I became friends with a guy in a different department, who wanted me to go out with him. I resisted because I wasn’t entirely certain that I was attracted to him and I liked that we were purely friends (while growing up, I never had much experience being friends with guys, so this relationship felt kind of novel and unique to me). Over the ensuing months, we spent a great deal of time together and I did – not surprisingly – fall for him. Then, a few weeks after we’d started dating, he inexplicably and unceremoniously dumped me, the day before we were set to drive two days to a conference together. There was no time to make alternate travel arrangements, so we endured the awkward, largely silent, devastating car ride. I never did find out whether the whole thing had been a bizarre challenge to him or whether something about me had made his desire suddenly sour.

Your favourite author/artist on love.

Wharton, Nabokov and Ishiguro all strike a chord with me. I suppose the common thread is that they write about love in tragic terms, as a possibility that slips beyond their protagonist’s grasp. (In literature, but not in life, I’ll take more pain than pleasure, I guess!)

I can’t think of many artists on love whose work resonates with me, but in general I prefer art on the more abstract side, where love might be one of the many emotions evoked but one would be hard-pressed to say that the work is explicitly about love. Is a Rothko painting about love? It probably has more to do with death, and that final surge of light – and possibly love – one experiences before everything fades to darkness.

Your reconciliation of the domestic and the erotic.

The two are not always opposed. Sometimes, there’s nothing more erotic than spending an evening at home together – particularly if you haven’t seen each other for a while. From time to time, my partner has to go away to Asia on trips for his architectural practice. This can be lonely in the dead of winter, when I find myself trudging along with my grocery bags through a snowstorm by myself. But there’s something I always enjoy about being overwhelmed by longing for him, luxuriating in yearning and the thought of him on the other side of the world. And when I accompany him on these trips, that infuses excitement into our relationship in a different way. The sense of dislocation can make everything appear more vivid and striking, and enable me to get out of my own skin.

Love changes when you have children. 

That I can only imagine. We don’t have kids.

Your thoughts on resisting temptation. 

This might be more of a problem if I’d, say, married my childhood sweetheart at age eighteen. But by the time I met my partner I was already thirty-one, having spent most of my twenties in sundry relationships (some of which were so fleeting that, to be frank, they barely merited the word “relationship”). I’d experimented with the pleasures of transience and lived in Berlin for a year-and-a-half during grad school, where I got little done on my dissertation but enjoyed hanging out at galleries, theatres and used bookstores and befriending other drifting ex-pats and artist types. And that was an interesting, formative phase for me. But by the time I fell in love with my partner (of eight years now!), I was very much ready for something different. There’s something to be said for that old adage: the more you travel, the more every place starts to look the same. The real adventure lies in intimacy – the long game – with a lifelong partner.

Your advice on breaking up. 

Definitely do it in person. I once made the mistake of doing it over the phone, because the guy was on the other side of the country. A few years later, I received a long, long email from him – written in the middle of the night, probably with a bottle of bourbon for company – quoting lyrics from brooding songs about heartbreak, deception and madness. Since then, I’ve paid better attention to break-up etiquette.

The influence of love on your work.

Writing in the romance genre isn’t my thing (though I confess to having read my share of bodice ripper novels when I was a kid). That said, in the two books I’ve written to date, a love plot is certainly one of the key ingredients in the narrative. Writing about love and desire is one of the most animating, enjoyable aspects of the writing experience for me. By providing a vivid sense of a character’s erotic life, you can raise the stakes emotionally, create intrigue, and reveal hidden aspects of the character, among many other things. For me, it’s never about bringing the protagonist to some place of ideal happiness with the perfect mate – how boring would that be? In fact, thwarted or failed love aspirations are often the most interesting kind in literature, because they can illuminate – tragically – unrealized possibilities.

Your lessons from love. 

Go with your initial gut instinct. Don’t overthink things. If you feel that irreducible flare of attraction, explore it, pursue it. I believe in taking attraction as the starting point, rather than, say, taking a logical approach by making a list of all the attributes you’re looking for in a partner and then seeking someone who more or less conforms to those criteria. At least, the logical approach has never worked for me. Being startled and unmoored by my own capacity to fall for someone I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be drawn to is one of the most liberating, transformative aspects of love.

Your greatest regret in love. 

My greatest regret in love is the same as my greatest regret in life. I regret that I wasn’t happier when I was younger. During my pre-adolescent years, I suffered a debilitating scoliosis (curvature of the spine), which compelled me to wear a back brace from age eleven to thirteen. At fourteen, I had a back operation which wasn’t terribly successful and left me in pain (which I have in recent years managed to neutralize through restorative yoga and meditation). In any case, I can now see that I clung on to my misery for far longer than was necessary and let it overshadow years of my life, impacting my relationships.

Your thoughts on infidelity – one night stand, fling, or affair.

I’m never judgmental when friends tell me that their relationships have headed in this direction. I think every relationship probably has its own unique set of dynamics and some can absorb more than others. For me, though, infidelity doesn’t work because I am actually very prone to guilt, in an almost child-like way.    

Your feelings about the existence of a soulmate.

I don’t believe that there’s only one person in the universe who’s compatible with or ideal for each individual, if that is what’s meant by “soulmate.” But I do believe that there’s probably a smallish subset of people with whom each individual will be uniquely well matched and therefore happiest. The more peculiar and particular you are, the smaller the subset. Thus I feel very lucky to have met my partner.

Your ideal love: madness or redemption? 

In literature, I’ll veer toward madness, but in life, I’ll take redemption.

Your advice on making love last. 

Be playful and imaginative, and avoid pettiness. Revel in each other’s strangenesses and idiosyncrasies. Approach the relationship like an anthropologist, seeking to learn – through your encounter with the other – something about yourself.

Leslie Shimotakahara’s memoir The Reading List won the Canada-Japan Literary Prize, and her debut novel After the Bloom is available April 15, from Dundurn Press.

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