Inching toward the Personal: A Conversation with Julie Otsuka

February 15, 2022
A black and white photograph of author Julie Otsuka
Julie Otsuka / Photo © Jean-Luc Bertini

With the 2022 publication of The Swimmers (Knopf), Julie Otsuka has moved into more personal territory, drawing on her experience as a daughter watching her mother move further into dementia. Her previous two novels focused on the experience of Japanese Americans: When the Emperor Was Divine (Knopf, 2002), based on her family’s history, chronicles the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II; an international best-seller, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf, 2011) is about the Japanese “picture brides” who immigrated to the US in the early 1900s to become wives of men they knew only through photographs. Among Otsuka’s many honors and awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Arts & Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. After studying painting as an undergraduate at Yale University, Otsuka received an MFA in writing from Columbia University. She was born and raised in California and currently lives in New York City.

Renee Shea: You’ve written The Swimmers, a wonderful novel, during such a difficult time. The pandemic even changed your pattern of writing daily at your neighborhood café. How disruptive was that?

Julie Otsuka: Actually, I haven’t traveled outside the city, though I do take long walks, go grocery shopping, meet friends out of doors, etc. But the café’s been open the whole time, and they’re thriving—long lines out the door every day. I spoke to the new owner: he was a young boy when I first started going there, and now he’s grown up and taken over his father’s business. But, no, I would not feel safe working inside the café.

Because of the pandemic, I had to give up the two things I did fairly regularly—going to the café and the gym. I had written all of The Swimmers in the café except for the very last chapter—which I wrote at home. I was amazed at how much time I suddenly had with no distractions, no excuse not to get the work done. But I really miss working in the café. If things ever open up completely and I feel safe, I’d like to go back there.

Shea: This novel is uncharacteristically personal, really raw, in fact. Your previous two novels—When the Emperor Was Divine and Buddha in the Attic—draw on your own cultural background but are considered historical fiction. So one way to look at them is history first, personal story second. The Swimmers seems to flip that to personal first, historical context pretty far in the background.

Otsuka: That’s right. I’ve always shied away from writing about myself, and I still can’t write about myself in the first person. Maybe I’m inching toward that. It was very emotional to watch my mother go through a long and slow decline until she died in 2015.

I’ve never written anything this personal. I wrote the short story “Diem Perdidi” [Latin for “I have lost the day”] a while ago, and that’s when I first touched on the topic of her dementia. But I didn’t know I’d end up going there with the new novel. “Diem Perdidi” seemed like a one-off. But I had a lot of thoughts about what it was like to be a daughter—and not necessarily a good daughter—of a mother who is suffering and approaching her end, what happens when it’s too late to make amends, and how do you just live with that. So it is raw and very close to home.

Shea: Let me backtrack a bit and ask some questions about the two opening chapters: “The Underground Pool” and “The Crack.” Would you talk a little about what swimming means to you? You must be a swimmer yourself to write descriptions like this one: “. . . if you swim long enough you no longer know where your own body ends and the water begins and there is no boundary between you and the world. It’s nirvana.”

Otsuka: I no longer swim, but I grew up in northern and southern California, so I knew how to swim and even did Junior Lifeguards for a couple of summers. I was ten when we moved to southern California, and when my best friend taught me how to jump over or dive under the waves in the ocean, I fell in love with the water. In the summers, we would ride our bikes to the beach and spend all day there.

Starting in my mid-thirties, I was a recreational swimmer, which is a very different experience from swimming in the ocean: very controlled, chlorinated water, it’s the same every day, no weather. What struck me was the community of people who are almost fanatical in their devotion to swimming. And the culture of the locker room—it’s kind of like the women’s room at the office, these gendered spaces we don’t often encounter in real life. I’m fascinated by the conversations that happen in the locker room.

Swimmers is also a little bit about addiction—being addicted to the act of swimming. I was thinking I was addicted to going to the café: the need to be in the space, to see the same people every day. That desire for community in both cases comes from the same place.

There’s something really wonderful about being in the water. You’re a purely physical being—you can forget your troubles . . . because you have to focus on breathing and not drowning, getting to the end of the lane, and paying attention to the people around you. You’re very much in the moment. Even though you’re a pure body moving through space and water, you’re almost unconscious of that act; you’re just doing this thing without realizing it, which is kind of miraculous.

Shea: Maybe I’m being too much of the English professor here, but it strikes me that what you’re describing about being in the water is akin to the primal bond with our mothers—which would make sense for the story you’re telling in The Swimmers.

Otsuka: Actually, I have an early memory of learning to swim with my mother. I think it was in a pool in Palo Alto, evening, and the water was very warm. My mother was there in the water with me. It’s such a pleasant memory. And, yes, it is womblike—whereof we come.

Shea: Those opening chapters read like two closely interrelated short stories, but then with “Diem Perdidi” the novel seems to take a sharp turn in several ways. Am I on track—or have I missed something essential?

Otsuka: You’re right. I wanted it to be a bit of a surprise. I wanted to start almost with an aerial view of the pool and Alice. She’s just a tiny figure, one of many, kind of a peripheral character in the beginning: that’s how I wanted to set it up. Hopefully, the reader does not initially know it will be her story. I like the idea of it being a shock—just like the shock of getting out of the water and returning onto land, when suddenly there’s the blinding sunlight. I wanted it to be a severe swerve away from that kind of warm, wet, very comfortable world of the pool.

Shea: “Diem Perdidi” was published in Granta in 2011, and in The Swimmers it’s the center, the third of five chapters, a sort of pivot. So were these two earlier chapters somewhere in your desk drawer, or did you write them for this novel?

Otsuka: I took a few months off from writing Buddha in the Attic to write “Diem Perdidi” for Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts. I’d had the idea for this story for a while, so I thought why don’t I just try to work it through. I was very happy when I was writing that story—it was almost an ecstatic experience because I felt so connected to my mother.

I’d sketched out a few paragraphs of “The Underground Pool” several years before writing “Diem Perdidi” and actually did put them in a drawer. After I finished Buddha I took them out again and thought, there’s something here. I wanted to see where the story would go—and I liked the premise. The one thing I don’t want to do from book to book is repeat myself. I wanted to go someplace new; I wanted to write something set in the present because I hadn’t done that yet. The pool was such a wild world to write about. After I finished “The Underground Pool” I wrote “The Crack,” and at a certain point I saw how the two stories could connect with “Diem Perdidi.” So, yes, “Diem Perdidi” is like the still center of a turning world that I wrote my way up to, then wrote my way out of. That’s how the shape evolved.

“Diem Perdidi” is like the still center of a turning world that I wrote my way up to, then wrote my way out of.

Shea: I can see that. When I reread the opening chapters after finishing the novel, certain passages seemed to link. The mystery of the crack, for instance—what is it, what’s its source, how bad is it? You wrote: “Although in our darker moments, we cannot help but wonder: Is it a blessing in disguise, or is it just a disguise? And if it’s just a disguise, then what is it disguising?” Couldn’t that also be said of dementia?

Otsuka: I’m glad that you could see connections because sometimes I had to go back and bring up certain details to make the connections between “Diem Perdidi” and the other stories a little stronger. But the crack could certainly be a metaphor for Alice’s dementia and demise. We don’t really know if the crack is real, but then it almost doesn’t matter.

Shea: That’s true—and even if you wrote most of the novel before Covid took over our lives, don’t you think readers will see it now as a metaphor for the pandemic: the sense of helplessness, the profound levels of not knowing, the unpredictability, the way it changes everything? And that comment from one of the swimmers really sums it up: “I’m in a low-grade panic all the time.” Is it unfair (or crazy) to bring those interpretations to The Swimmers?

Otsuka: Not unfair at all. In fact, I love that the crack can be interpreted in so many different ways. It could simply be a crack, or the onset of Covid, or the sudden shock of a dire diagnosis. It’s really a metaphor for the unknown, a violent rupture in the fabric of our everyday world.

Shea: As always with your work, narrative voice is intriguing. Buddha had that first-person plural, a choral or communal voice, and that’s what we seem to get in “The Underground Pool.” But within that first-person plural, we get the stories of so many characters, most notably Alice, who is one of the few named characters, so there’s a kind of omniscience.

Otsuka: I hadn’t really thought of that. I just wrote it! But you’re right, this narrator knows what’s going to happen to Alice, so the narrator is not just one of the pool people.

Shea: Then, in the later chapters, it’s second person, that unusual narrative voice of “you.” Sometimes second person can be jolting to a reader, as though there’s a scolding finger-wagging voice. But here it seems as though the narrator is talking to herself, an inner voice, maybe a dialogue of self and soul?

Otsuka: When they were recording the audio book, the producer asked me if the narrator in the “you” sections is you the writer addressing this character (the daughter). I said no, but maybe it is. I’m not really sure. You could be right—the narrator, the writer is looking at herself in the mirror, but it’s one step removed because everything’s reflected.

Shea: The chapter on “Belavista”—wow. The very name drips with irony, and the whole chapter seems an indictment of the so-called care center, but also of a social system that privileges moving away, moving on, so that families are fragmented—and care of young children, the elderly, anyone who’s not “productive” really becomes a burden.

Otsuka: I didn’t start out with an agenda. I just wanted to describe this world very factually, but stating the facts themselves painted such a damning picture. Yet that was not my intent. I was trying to stand back and describe what was there—the business end of it fascinated me, the pure profit motive of so many of these chains of nursing homes. I guess we really saw that with nursing homes in the pandemic.

Shea: Your mother was in a care facility?

Otsuka: Yes. It became far too difficult for my father to take care of her, too physically draining. So we had to put her in a nursing home. The one lesson we learned from that is that it was what we did not want to do with my father. With the help of 24/7 care, we kept him at home until he died last January at ninety-four of non-Covid pneumonia. We worked hard to keep him at home—which is exactly what he wanted.

My mother was a very devoted daughter to her own mother—which is in the novel. My father was an only child, and he left his parents in Japan shortly after the end of the war. In Japanese culture, it’s the son who’s supposed to take care of his parents, so even at the end of his life, he felt guilt.

Shea: The character of the father in The Swimmers is so tenderly drawn. I assume he’s based on your own father.

Otsuka: Yes—and he’s very Japanese in a way. The Japanese are much more conversant with death throughout life and a little more accepting that death is inevitable, whereas westerners medicalize death. We don’t want to look at it, but Japanese are not so squeamish about dealing with death as part of life. I wanted him to be very Other to Americans and westerners; there’s something in his character that’s a little bit Zen.

Shea: A number of reviewers have described The Swimmers as a social satire, one even called it “a tart social comedy.” I certainly see a critical lens, but I don’t agree that it’s a satire. Is it?

Otsuka: A satire of what? No, not satire exactly, but I like that it’s read as comedy because I think I always write from a place of humor. I strongly felt that when I was writing Emperor and Buddha, but I think that sometimes because of the subject matter, it’s hard for people to see—or they are afraid to laugh because it would seem impolite given the subject. I wrote comedy before I began writing historical fiction, so that was my starting point. I like that the humor is coming across more in The Swimmers than in my other books.

I remember when I wrote the first chapter of Buddha, I thought it was very funny. But when I heard it read out loud at Symphony Space, nobody laughed at all. I realized that it was actually quite sad. But, then, I think humor and sadness are flip sides of the same coin.

I think humor and sadness are flip sides of the same coin.

Shea: When we talked some years ago, you said that Emperor came to you in images, Buddha through language. How did The Swimmers originate?

Otsuka: That’s a good question. Swimmers came to me as an idea—the idea of the world of the pool seemed delightfully fun. I hadn’t really seen any other novels describe what now seems an obvious subject to me. It seemed a fascinating world to explore—and it came to me in terms of scenarios, ideas for scenes I wanted to write—flip turns, that’s a great topic so let’s go there, or what happens when you meet your fellow swimmers on land and don’t recognize them with their clothes on. It wasn’t visual—the pool is the same every day—it’s not a changing landscape. And it didn’t come to me as sound. I read a lot of Buddha to myself out loud as I was writing it. But with Swimmers, I thought, it takes too much time to read out loud, though at some level I’m always obsessed with the sound of language, even without realizing it. But I can hear the sound when I’m reading in my head—I don’t need to read out loud. I wanted to write this book more quickly, though ironically this one took me the longest to write.

Shea: What did you learn from writing The Swimmers? As a writer, daughter? Did this novel allow you to lay to rest at least some of the guilt or grief?

Otsuka: I think I learned that maybe it’s okay to turn the mirror toward myself. It’s really the first personal thing I’ve written. It’s too early to say what it is yet, but I’m working on something new that also feels very personal. So perhaps Swimmers was a way of slowly turning the camera on myself as a subject. I was wary of looking too closely at myself in the first two books. People say they’re autobiographical, but I don’t see them as being my story, especially Buddha. Parts are drawn from my family’s story but not my own personal story. Swimmers very much draws on my own life. And no, writing this novel has not allowed me to feel any less guilt or grief. But I suppose that’s just part of being a daughter.

Perhaps Swimmers was a way of slowly turning the camera on myself as a subject.

Shea: I was reading through the number of schools (more than seventy) and communities (over thirty and counting) that chose Emperor or Buddha as their shared read. What does that mean to you? You’ve won so many prizes and prestigious awards, but these are huge audiences—and influences.

Otsuka: I had no idea what would happen when Emperor was first published. Things started slowly. It was a couple of years before I got the first invitation from Simmons College in Boston, and I didn’t know there would be more schools . . . and more and more and more. I’m really grateful. You just don’t know what the life of your book is going to be. I feel fortunate to be able to tell the story of what happened to the Japanese Americans. In the first few years after the book came out—in Seattle, for instance, which was the first city to choose the book as its Community Read—a lot of Japanese Americans who were in the camps showed up at my readings. I got to talk to them, and that was a real gift to me as a writer. Most of those folks are gone now—that generation is leaving us. I got the idea for Buddha in the Attic from some of them telling me their stories about their mother or their great aunt who came to America as a “picture bride.”

Shea: Here comes the question every writer gets asked and probably dreads! In the Granta interview you said that your third book would be about swimming and dementia, but “people have asked me . . . if I’m going to write a book about the post-war experience of the Japanese Americans—their lives after they came back from the camps (and this, in my opinion, is where the real hardship began). Maybe that’ll be book four?” “Where the real hardship began” sounds intriguing. So ten years from now, will we see that novel?

Otsuka: I don’t think so, but it might work itself into what I’m working on—I don’t know—all I have now is this beginning, but I have no idea where it’s going to go.

Shea: And you’re okay with that?

Otsuka: Yes, I always start from a point of not knowing. I’m very process-oriented. That’s how I was when I was sculpting and painting too. I like being in the middle of something big and messy and inchoate. I like slowly giving things form, but I don’t start from a place of a clear idea. I never outline. I don’t know at all where I’m going to end up.

Shea: That’s interesting because the precision of your language is at such a high level, so to think that you don’t do meticulous planning, you must trust yourself intuitively. Maybe that is your training as an artist, a painter, though I didn’t realize you had studied sculpture.

Otsuka: In college, before I began to paint, I studied figurative sculpture with Erwin Hauer, who died in his early nineties a few years ago. I learned literally how “to see” in this man’s class. The first sculpture we did was not of a head or a bust of a human figure; instead, we spent about six weeks looking at a cow femur bone—which is this most abstract thing. You don’t have a preconceived idea of what a bone looks like, and then you actually look at a bone. It’s so complicated with these twisting surfaces that move through space—it’s very beautiful. Yet you don’t know what it is that you’re looking at. It was a great way to learn to look, to literally look at something, to turn it and rotate it in space. That was my introduction to an artistic way of thinking and apprehending the world.

February 2022

Editorial note: This interview is based on conversations via Zoom and email correspondence in February 2022. Renee Shea previously published a profile of Julie Otsuka in Poets & Writers: “The Urgency of Knowing” (September/October 2011).

Renee H. Shea, formerly professor of English at Bowie State University in Maryland, interviews contemporary authors for World Literature Today. She frequently contributes to Poets & Writers, most recently a profile of Camille Dungy (May/June 2023) and “Dreaming up Her Own Salvation: A Profile of Safiya Sinclair” (November/December 2023). She is currently doing a series for the American Book Review on “The Laureates.” The initial interview with J. Drew Lanham, poet laureate of Edgefield County, South Carolina, appeared in the fall 2023 issue. She also coauthors English language arts textbooks for Bedford, Freeman & Worth.