News and Interviews

The Entitled Interview: March 2020 Writer-in-Residence Leslie Shimotakahara Finds Inspiration Through Family


Reading Toronto-based author Leslie Shimotakahara, you get the sense that family, and history, have always been important to her work.

Her first book, the Canada-Japan Literary Prize-winning The Reading List (Variety Crossing Press), is a memoir of time spent with her father and their shared love of classic literature. Her debut novel, After the Bloom (Dundurn), tracks a Toronto woman's desperate search for her missing mother and the secrets she uncovers about her family's time in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War.

In Shimotakahara's newest offering, Red Oblivion (Dundurn), a woman races from Toronto to Hong Kong upon learning that her father has suddenly fallen ill. While there, she learns of strange photographs which had appeared only days before. Following clues down a chilling rabbit hole, she discovers her father's disturbing past life, and wonders whether the ghosts of history are finally catching up with him.

We're very excited to have Leslie join the Open Book team as our writer-in-residence for March 2020, sharing her thoughts and insights on our WIR page over the course of the month. Keep checking back to see her posts!

Get to know Leslie by reading our interview with her below as part of our Entitled series, where authors discuss the importance of a good title as well as titles they've loved.

She tells us how smart advice from a friend led to the current title of her newest novel, the real-life experience in Hong Kong that inspired her, and the exciting novel she's working on next.


Open Book:

Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.

Leslie Shimotakahara:

During the final few years of my elderly father-in-law’s life, my husband and I spent a good deal of time with him in Hong Kong. This period, when I got to know Mr. Wong for the first time and became acquainted with my husband’s childhood hometown, proved inspirational to this novel, which blurs between fiction and non-fiction. The title Red Oblivion refers to the collective amnesia that surrounds many Hongkongers’ sense of the past — the Cultural Revolution, in particular. This was when, in the late 1960s, the fanatical student group known as the Red Guards rose to power in mainland China under the auspices of Mao. Through my protagonist’s gradual uncovering of her father’s involvement in that turbulent, violent period across the border in Guangzhou, China, she’s brought face to face with that repressed history. 

This title came to me while I was wandering around a used bookstore. My gaze fell upon David Foster Wallace’s final short story collection, Oblivion. I’d been reading a lot of history books about the Red Guards in recent weeks. The title Red Oblivion popped into my mind.


What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?


To intrigue, to entice. Also, to serve as a kind of fragment that intimates the whole.


What is your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?


I like subtle, evocative titles, such as Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But other times, I like titles that aren’t subtle at all, like Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.


Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so, what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?


Yes, I considered the title Piety. In fact, during the first two years of researching and writing this novel, its working title was Piety. At that time, I felt that the theme of filial piety — my protagonist’s conflicted sense of duty and obligation to her elderly, dying father — should determine the title. But then a friend told me that he found this title too serious and heavy, and I realized that he was right.


What quality in a title will consistently make you pick up an unfamiliar book?


Something a little enigmatic or disturbing.


What are you working on now?


I’m working on a novel set during the First World War on the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii). It’s inspired by stories that my maternal grandmother shared with me when I was a child about growing up there. In the 1890s, her father had immigrated from Japan to British Columbia. He worked in the logging industry, which boomed during the war because Sitka spruce trees were desperately needed to build the Allies’ fighter jets in Europe.


Leslie Shimotakahara's memoir, The Reading List, won the Canada-Japan Literary Prize, and her fiction has been shortlisted for the KM Hunter Artist Award. She has written two critically acclaimed novels, After the Bloom and Red Oblivion, published by Dundurn Press. Red Oblivion, released last fall, was The Word On The Street’s Book of the Month for January, included in the 49th Shelf’s “Great Books for the Moment,” and praised in Kirkus Review for showing “virtuosity in this subtle deconstruction of one family’s tainted origins.” Leslie has a PhD in American Literature from Brown University. She and her husband live in the west end of Toronto.


Buy the Book

Red Oblivion

Family secrets surface when two sisters travel to Hong Kong to care for their ill father.

When Jill Lau receives an early morning phone call that her elderly father has fallen gravely ill, she and her sister, Celeste, catch the first flight from Toronto to Hong Kong. The man they find languishing in the hospital is a barely recognizable shadow of his old, indomitable self.

According to his housekeeper, a couple of mysterious photographs arrived anonymously in the mail in the days before his collapse. These pictures are only the first link in a chain of events that begin to reveal the truth about their father’s past and how he managed to escape from Guangzhou, China, during the Cultural Revolution to make a new life for himself in Hong Kong. Someone from the old days has returned to haunt him — exposing the terrible things he did to survive and flee one of the most violent periods of Chinese history, reinvent himself, and make the family fortune. Can Jill piece together the story of her family’s past without sacrificing her father's love and reputation?