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?
About the author
Leslie Shimotakahara Bio
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 lured 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, writing her dissertation on regionalist and modernist aesthetics in a record two years. After graduation, she got a job at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, where she taught until 2008. 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 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. Since returning to Toronto, Leslie has worked in a range of communications positions for the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, Deployment forDemocratic Development, and presently at Waterfront Toronto. Over the past year, Leslie was selected as an Emerging Writer in the Diaspora Dialogues program, and invited to give a reading at The Word On The Street. An excerpt from The Reading List manuscript has been published in the anthology TOK: Writing the New City (volume 5). Back in her former life as an English professor, she published a smattering of essays on American modernism in obscure, critical theory journals (but these are best resigned to the annals of dry academe).These days, Leslie is more engaged in writing for her blog, www.the-reading-list.com, and rereading for inspiration the stories she wrote as a kid and self-published in pretty, Crayola-designed covers.
Excerpt: Red Oblivion (by (author) Leslie Shimotakahara)
The last time I saw my father, he seemed all right — really, he did. He was his old self: a tiny, quail-like man with the gleaming eyes of a guy half his age. We were headed to the bank, the sky white and misty, the tropical air touched by a slight chill that people on this side of the world consider freezing; Ba was walking even faster than usual. The sole of his shoe came loose and slapped against the sidewalk like an old flip-flop, while he just continued on, navigating his way through the crowd of pinstripes. “Ba, let’s get you some new shoes.” I tried to pull him into Marks & Spencer, but he shucked off my hand with a fidgety shake of the shoulder.
I followed him beneath the billboards of enigmatically shaped handbags, past the shops on Queen’s Road, a sea of diamonds and metallic objects glinting and floating by on the edge of our vision. A watery reflection came into focus and I barely had time to recognize myself before the crowd jostled me forward. The side- walk seemed to be shuddering, everyone elbowing past, barking into phones. But my wily father had no trouble weaving his way through it all as I struggled to catch up.
After cutting across Grand Millennium Plaza — space opening up enough to breathe, around the ornate fountain — we made our way along Des Voeux into Sheung Wan. Although the neighbourhood had gentrified in patches, it still had the old money exchanges and remittance shops with faded red signs and tarnished gold currency symbols. Dry goods stores here and there, big bins of dehydrated mushrooms, scallops, and shark fins before the open windows. “Where are you going, Ba?” Grabbing his arm, I gestured at a storefront with rows of bright runners and plastic sandals awash in fluorescent light.
Ignoring me, he kept right on walking. We wended our way into the narrow side streets, past the herbal medicine shops.
Once when I was a kid and had a bad cough that wouldn’t go away, even after antibiotics, Ba had taken me to one of these places. We sat at the time-worn redwood counter, the walls decorated with bright paper fans and posters of ox bones and folk legends. After taking my pulse, an old man, who looked like a gravedigger, served me a cup of tea the colour of sewer water and not much better tasting. But my cough had cleared up.
“C’mon, Ba, let’s just get you some shoes. I don’t have all day here.”
His hand slipped into his pocket, fingering the wad of cash always there. Not because he was on the verge of buying anything, not because he was afraid of being pickpocketed. Ba has simply always liked the tactility of money. It’s like satin to his fingertips.
We weren’t far from his old office, so he ought to have known the area well, yet he seemed puzzled, disoriented.
“It’s right around here — I know it is. ”
Probably, the store was long gone. It was a different, older city he was always seeking, remembering.
Finally, we ended up at Wing On department store, where I encouraged him to try on a pair of black Rockports, but they were too expensive, in his view. He picked up a pair of electric-blue sneakers with three gold stripes along each side, similar to the ones my high school boyfriend used to wear, twenty years back.
They were on sale — hallelujah — this being the real reason they’d caught Ba’s eye. And they were comfortable, he claimed. Not that he’s ever put much stock in comfort. His own or others’.
I remember thinking that at least in sneakers, he’d be unlikely to slip.
Or maybe it’s just easier for me to remember things that way. Me, the sweet, caring daughter, patiently cajoling the old guy, impossible as ever, yet strangely endearing in his stubbornness. Electric-blue sneakers and all.
In reality, on that day, I probably saw him as nothing close to endearing. The self-entitled frugality, the insistence on his way or the highway, the past he’s always seeking to resurrect and wear like a badge of honour — all these things would have driven me crazy, his small, inescapable presence casting shadows over my mood.
But in seeing us in a soft, forgiving light, in telling myself these tales that make us seem more like a normal family, I’m doing what my sister’s long accused me of doing. I’m like a child seeking enchantment in repeated stories that take on the weight of truth only through an act of imagination.
A quiet but sharp family mystery filled with secrets and omissions ... I was captivated by the plot and the prose.
Audrey Huang, Belmont Books
Celeste and Jill Lau only begin to learn the truth about their father when they rush from Toronto to his hospital bedside in Hong Kong. Stubbornly silent about his early years in China, their Ba has been receiving threats that allude to a crime in his past, but still refuses to explain. Red Oblivion is one of the most masterful narratives I’ve ever read about a horrific chapter in China’s history, told through an intricate, mesmerizing tale of family and identity. Leslie Shimotakahara’s writing is both beautiful and bruising.
Janie Chang, author of Dragon Springs Road
A contemplation of family and the past in a rapidly changing, internationally important city with its own complicated history.
Red Oblivion is a stirring tribute to Hong Kong and the role it served as a haven for refugees or anyone wishing to make a new start. Shimotakahara's descriptions of the territory are vivid and dreamy in the way that make us all long for a simpler time.
[A] moving—and deeply honest—portrait of a family that desperately needs to let go of its baggage, so that they can move into a better future.
A Bookish Type
The author’s storytelling skills are impressive, painting a vivid image of past and present against a backdrop of complex family dynamics...Fans of literary historical fiction will enjoy this compelling story.
A heartbreaking story in which the past haunts the present and bleeds into the future...She deftly articulates the many ways human beings can justify wrongdoing if it leads to a good outcome, describing the inconceivable with nuance while conveying both shock and banality. Shimotakahara displays virtuosity in this subtle deconstruction of one family's tainted origins.
Haunting and true to life, Red Oblivion will captivate readers. Shimotakahara skillfully weaves history and imagination to tell a story about a daughter’s quest to unravel her father’s complicated past so that others can understand its far-reaching influence on their present lives. A strong narrative voice draws us into a world of secrets, sacrifices, and betrayals, transporting readers from Canada to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China — only to find that the complex truths that bind friendships and families are often universal.
Ann Y.K. Choi, author of Kay's Lucky Coin Variety
Red Oblivion is a beautifully written, gripping mystery which captures the struggles between generations, times, and places. Leslie Shimotakahara skillfully illustrates the internal conflicts of daughters with modern Canadian sensibilities challenged by age-old Chinese familial expectations. Detailed renderings of today's Hong Kong provide a fascinating backdrop for this engrossing tale of the continuing legacy of the Cultural Revolution. A literary page-turner. Shimotakahara's best work to date.
Julia Lin, author of Shadows of the Crimson Sun
A story about life in contemporary Hong Kong as well as the region’s complicated history with mainland China, Red Oblivion feels particularly relevant to read in this current moment.
I started reading Leslie Shimotakahara’s Red Oblivion in an airline waiting room with a storm brewing outside and found myself welcoming a flight delay because I might be able to keep reading for an extra couple of hours. In other words, it’s a very compelling book!
Maria Meindl, 49th Shelf