Last week we chatted with Leslie Shimotakahara on her sophomore novel Red Oblivion, a look into one family’s conflicted history during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, set in Hong Kong. We chatted about the process of fictionalizing personal journals, historical research, and more – below is a transcript of the twitter chat, which you can interact with here. This transcript has been edited for maximum blog-readability.
WOTS: Red Oblivion was inspired by a personal journal you kept while caring for your father-in-law at the end of his life. What was your process while fictionalizing this potentially painful time in your own personal life?
Leslie Shimotakahara: At first, my journal was just geared at capturing details of my daily life in Hong Kong, at this very difficult time in my father-in-law’s life. These notes progressively became less elliptical, as scenes and a skeletal plot structure, based on a thriller, came into focus.
WOTS: Jill’s experience and emotions ring true, thanks to your journal. How did you undertake additional research for this book? What was the most interesting thing you learned as a result that didn’t make it into the book?
LS: Thanks! I read widely on 20th-century Chinese and Hong Kong history. In addition to living in HK for long stretches, I travelled to Guangzhou where the novel ends. Fascinating stuff about HK’s anticorruption drive in the 1970s didn’t make it in, unfortunately.
WOTS: Jill is determined to find out the truth about the mysterious letters that upset her father to the point of illness. Is this excavation of her father’s past compulsion or compassion?
LS: It’s a bit of both. Jill wants to help him come to terms with his past and the terrible things he had to do to flee Guangzhou during the Cultural Revolution. She sees this as the only way he can be freed from his guilt, which also becomes her own sense of guilt, as his child.
WOTS: That definitely came through – in fact, we found themes of guilt, betrayal, loyalty, and family legacy, in Red Oblivion on a variety of levels. What, if any, is the message you would like readers to take from the story?
LS: I see this novel as being more interested in posing questions. To what extent are our identities shaped by our collective pasts? How do individuals carry the burdens of their parents’ wrongdoings? What does it take for children to start afresh and forge their own paths?
WOTS: These feel like rather lonely questions, ones that many diasporic families can relate. As well, Jill seems to have differing opinions from many of the other characters on how to handle the deepening mystery. Why is Jill written as such an isolated character?
LS: This may reflect the sense of isolation I experienced upon first living in HK, which can feel very fast-paced, not quite real, and overwhelming at times. The city may have pushed me into a state of extreme inwardness, which I think works well for my heroine in her struggles.
WOTS: Your previous novel, After The Bloom, also concerns a family’s traumatic and hidden history. What draws you to these narratives of children uncovering the truth of their parents’ origin stories?
LS: Family secrets have long been of interest to me, perhaps because I grew up in a Japanese-Canadian family in which the older generation had experience internment in WW2. Many older relatives didn’t talk openly about this time, so the past appeared veiled in mystery/secrets.
WOTS: Your writing balances that mystery with compelling, truthful characters, and great historical research. We especially love how you use fictionalized* excerpts of primary sources to tie reality to the fictional. What are you working on currently?
LS: Thanks so much! A novel set during WW1 on the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii). It’s inspired by the stories that my maternal grandmother shared with me when I was a child, about growing up on the Charlottes, after her father had immigrated to BC from Japan.
WOTS: We can’t wait to read! Thank you for chatting with us today Leslie! #WOTSauthorchat
LS: My pleasure! I had a lovely time.
* In the original twitter chat, we erroneously assumed that primary sources were not fictionalized, the author has since corrected our assumption. All sources in Red Oblivion that appeared primary were composite fictionalizations of real primary sources.