I first encountered Julie Otsuka—the author and her work—in northwest Pennsylvania in 2009. I had a one-year visiting assistant professorship in fiction at Allegheny College, and Otsuka came through to give a reading. I’d not yet read her debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine (2002), about a Japanese American family’s forced relocation to a US internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Nor had she yet published her follow-up, The Buddha in the Attic (2011), about Japanese mail-order brides in the early 1900s, though that night she read aloud an excerpt.
Her sentences left me spellbound. Otsuka has a thrillingly unique sensibility, one marked by the enumeration of precise, intimate details. I’d never heard anyone parse the first-person-plural point of view as she does, spinning it out into individual lives and then gracefully gathering them back up. Describing the picture brides’ international voyage to the States in Buddha, she writes, “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years.” By illuminating a range of traits and preferences and experiences, Otsuka not only humanizes the women but ensures this group is not seen as a monolith—an easy assumption about any community.
She takes a similar approach in the opening section of her latest novel, The Swimmers, this time to denote a group of regular visitors to an underground pool. “Most days, at the pool,” she writes in the opening pages, “we are able to leave our troubles on land behind. Failed painters become elegant breaststrokers. Untenured professors slice, sharklike, through the water, with breathtaking speed. The newly divorced HR Manager grabs a faded red Styrofoam board and kicks with impunity.” The novel ultimately centers on just one swimmer: Alice, an elderly woman in the clutches of dementia.
While Otsuka’s narratives span locations and generations—The Swimmers is set more than a century after Buddha—she has several points of consistency. A distinct, authoritative voice, for one. A comprehensive descriptive lens. Measured, metrical prose. She also explores the impact of Japanese Americans’ forced imprisonment across books. It’s the focal point of When the Emperor Was Divine, in which we follow a family from their comfortable Berkeley, California, home to the Utah desert. They’re assigned to “a room in a barrack in a block not far from the fence” and surrounded by machine-gun-carrying guards. They’re told they’ve been brought there “in the interest of national security.” They will stay there for years.
Internment is also—spoiler alert—the fate of the picture brides in Buddha, the ultimate betrayal of this promising new world to which they were lured. And in The Swimmers, we learn that as a child, Alice was “sent away to the desert with her mother and brother during the fifth month of that war.” These memories buoy up to the surface for Alice, even as so many others submerge into the pool of dementia. “She remembers the scorpions and red ants,” Otsuka tells us. “She remembers the taste of dust.”
This shameful chapter in American history draws on Otsuka’s personal history. Her grandfather, a Japanese American business leader, was named a dangerous enemy alien and arrested by the FBI on December 8, 1941. Her grandmother, mother, and uncle were relocated to a prison camp. Her grandfather returned in poor health and wasn’t able to work again, while her grandmother, who had been a middle-class housewife, became a maid for well-to-do white families. Otsuka said that her mother only occasionally mentioned the camp, and as a girl, the author misunderstood it as a reference to some kind of summer camp.
Born and raised in California, Otsuka received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, and later obtained an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Her work has garnered significant international acclaim. When the Emperor Was Divine won the Asian American Literary Award and the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. The Buddha in the Attic, which has been translated into twenty-two languages, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and France’s Prix Femina Étranger, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The author and I spoke in February 2023, three weeks after the White House announced an expanded strategy to address anti-Asian hate, and one week after the American Library Association awarded The Swimmers the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. The conversation was conducted via Zoom, our voices pinging back and forth between her apartment in Manhattan and mine in Brooklyn.
I. “I can’t paint, but I can kind of write”
THE BELIEVER: Hi, Julie. Congratulations on the Carnegie Medal. That’s so exciting.
JULIE OTSUKA: Thanks.
BLVR: I thought I’d start by talking about your studio arts background. You attended Yale as an undergraduate. I read that you surprised yourself by majoring in studio art. I also studied studio art as an undergraduate. How would you characterize your artistic style back then?
JO: How would I characterize my style back then… you mean my general artistic style?
BLVR: Yes, your visual arts style.
JO: I was learning, so I think I was too young to even have a style. My first love was figurative sculpture. It was just about learning how to see, how to look. The first thing we ever sculpted was a cow femur bone. It was a bone from an animal that was this really abstract thing. It was a great way to learn how to look, because you have no preconceived idea of what a bone should look like, whereas if you’re looking at a human head, you do, or think you do, have an idea of what it should look like. This bone was such a complex, gorgeous, beautiful structure that had all these complicated twists and turns in space. I didn’t have a style; I was just looking and looking and looking and trying to see. Actually, I think I did have a style without realizing it. I remember my sculpture teacher—he really liked my work and I think he could see, even from the way I sculpted the bone, how I would do the figures, which I went on to do. He could just tell. It’s interesting. I would say my style was kind of pared down, which is kind of the way my writing is. [Laughs] But my painting… I tried so hard for so many years to be the painter I wanted to be, but there was a big gap between what I wanted to do and what I actually could do. I would not say it was a pared-down style. I was interested in color and some of the abstract expressionist painters from the 1950s. It was a completely different world from the world of figurative sculpture. So yeah. I never really arrived at a style. I was just learning and looking.
BLVR: After college you tried to pursue painting in a more serious way—to become a professional painter?
JO: I wasn’t even trying to pursue it professionally; I was just trying to become a better painter. At a certain point I think I realized that I didn’t quite have it. I think there was something holding me back psychologically from being the painter I wanted to be. I know I had a gift for color. I know I had a good eye and a good hand. I just became very self-
conscious at a certain point and it really made it difficult to go on. I was never able to quite work that out.
BLVR: What you’re saying reminds me of what I’ve heard from some aspiring writers who read masterful books, and rather than feeling nourished or inspired, they feel intimidated to the point of, Well, here’s a book that shows me what I can’t do, so I may as well do something else. Right? Self-consciousness, too, can be a real inhibitor for writers.
JO: It can be really paralyzing. With sculpture, early on, it was clear that I was very good. With painting, it was maybe clear to some people but it wasn’t clear to me initially. It was just something I loved, loved, loved doing. I loved working with paint and oils and color—it’s gorgeous, magical stuff. And it’s interesting to hear you say that about writing. With writing, I didn’t have that. I began writing because it was something I just enjoyed doing. I never, ever thought, when I took my first writing classes, that I would end up being a professional or even a published writer. I was doing it because I liked it. I’ve always been very process-oriented, which has served me well in some instances; it freed me up and allowed me to make mistakes. I wasn’t expecting to be great or even very good, especially initially. I had a greater ease with language than I did with paint. It came more easily to me. It was a fallback, you know? It’s like, I can’t paint, but I can kind of write. I guess what you’re saying is that for many people, writing is to them what painting was for me.
BLVR: Exactly. I think if you aspire to be a certain kind of artist and you believe the gap between your abilities and your models is too large, maybe it intimidates as opposed to encourages.
JO: Right. But especially for students, the gap is always going to be huge in the beginning. It takes years to learn your craft. I didn’t publish until I’d been writing for, like, ten years. I think that young people especially shouldn’t be intimidated. Easy for me to say, right? I think you also have to be in love with language.
BLVR: For sure. I met an editor years ago who told me—I’ll never forget this—that for her, language “goes in one eye and out the other.” I was horrified.
JO: I don’t even understand what that means. That she doesn’t really care about the language? She’s only reading for plot?
BLVR: That’s how I understood it. Like you, I think being in love with language is essential to writing a certain kind of book.
JO: Yes. And you also have to be able to be alone. There are many, many months, years, decades, with yourself, in your head.
II. “A once-a-decade novelist”
BLVR: I want to address what you said about it taking ten years before you published anything. There’s a lot of pressure on authors to keep publishing. I think this comes from literary professionals who want to capitalize on art, but also from an eager reading public. When I was on book tour in 2021, I kept being asked—and this will undoubtedly sound familiar to you—what I was working on next. It’s a question that presumes constant productivity. You’ve described yourself as a “tortoise,” someone who works slowly. I’m wondering about the standard against which you’re measuring your own pace. How do you see the relationship between art and speed?
JO: [Laughs] I think a book takes as long as it takes. With my books, especially for my first two novels, I did a ton of historical research. I had to know everything about what I was writing about, not before I began to write—I would often research as I was writing—but I was constantly absorbing all this data and keeping notebooks and notebooks filled with facts. It’s very time-consuming. I’m also just a really slow writer. Many of us writers are perfectionists. It’s hard for me to move on until I’ve nailed the paragraph. I think I’m a little looser now in my approach and I’m better able to draft out an arc of something—chapter, story, essay—without having to get every paragraph right before moving on to the next one. But my pace is slow. I always thought of myself as a hard worker, but I stopped going to my neighborhood café when the pandemic started, and I began writing a lot at home, which I had not done for, I don’t know, thirty years. I had gone to this café every day and that was my writing space. I realized I was a lot more productive at home, which surprised me. It’s not what I expected; I love working in public spaces. I was like, Oh, I can work even harder if I stay home!
BLVR: Or faster.
JO: Yeah. I wrote the last chapter of The Swimmers in the first year of the pandemic, which for me is super-fast. I mean, I could spend a couple of years writing a chapter. Recently, I’ve been working on a piece and there’s a deadline, and knowing that I have that deadline has been really good. It puts the fire under me. There have been no deadlines for my novels, so I just take as long as I need to take, but I would like to speed it up a little. [Laughs] I guess at this point, I am a once-a-decade novelist, but I’d be happy with being a once-every-eight-years novelist. I mean, I’m always making wrong turns and then trying to back out and it takes me a while to figure stuff out. I don’t usually begin with a clear idea of where I’m going to end up. I don’t outline. I don’t have plots. I might sometimes have a general idea, but sometimes I don’t; I just need to start writing. It could be a voice that I heard that gets me started and I follow it. There have been times when I’ve been stuck, more so with my previous books. What I’ve learned from twenty years of practice of being a writer is that sometimes if I’m stuck, instead of continuing to work at it, I can skip over the stuck place and move on to whatever comes after and then keep moving forward. At some point, I can go back and fill in whatever wasn’t working. Sometimes a solution has appeared further on down the line, and I can go back and write it then. In the past, I often got stuck polishing sentences, which is not really writing but is a way of faking yourself into believing that you are. I try not to do that as much.
BLVR: I really relate to that. I have friends who don’t re-read what they’ve written the day before, to avoid the urge to polish, but that sounds hard to do.
JO: Oh, I always start from the very beginning and I read up to where I am, which means that the first few paragraphs are really tightly polished. Then the further you get, it’s a little looser.
BLVR: I want to ask about pace more broadly—not just the pace at which you write, but narrative pace. A lot of your stories rebuff conventional plots but still maintain momentum. There’s a rhythm to the prose, a repetition that pulls readers through. I wonder how you think about narrative pacing.
JO: I don’t really. I don’t think about narrative pacing at all. You mean like when things should happen?
BLVR: I think of pace and momentum as cousins, so the speed at which a story moves forward. Your stories aren’t linear or necessarily building toward a climax.
JO: They’re more collage-like. In parts of The Swimmers, there are a lot of flashbacks, a jumping back and forth, which didn’t happen so much with my last novel, although sometimes one of the picture brides would have a memory and flash back to a memory. I just try to keep moving forward in time with each chapter. That’s about as structured as I get in terms of narrative momentum. And I try to keep it interesting. Some part of my brain is always paying attention to the rhythm of the language, which I guess can be propulsive and drive the reader to read on, but that’s intuitive. I do that without realizing I’m doing it. I’m hooked into the rhythm of sentences.
BLVR: I recently read an essay by Haruki Murakami called “Abandoning a Cat,” and there’s an interesting moment in which he speaks about intuitiveness.
JO: I’ve not heard of that essay! I love his work.
BLVR: I do too. The piece is classically Murakami-esque with its curious turns and the way things remain a little mysterious and opaque. I like how his writing plays with a reader’s expectations.
JO: I remember when I read one of his first short stories in The New Yorker many, many years ago. It was called “Sleep.” It blew me away. Amazingly, he inhabits the mind of this housewife who is extremely agitated and unable to sleep. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before, and it was one of the first stories of his ever to have been published in this country. It was quite amazing.
BLVR: Ooh, I want to read it. “Abandoning a Cat” is about his father and their difficult relationship—how essentially they became estranged. Murakami’s mother used to tell him, “Your father’s very bright.” The author writes, “How bright he really was I have no idea. Frankly, it’s not a question that interests me much. For somebody in my line of work, intelligence is less important than a sharp intuition.”
JO: Oh, that’s interesting. Did he mean an intuition about people and how the world works, or did he mean an intuition about what naturally serves the narrative of his story?
BLVR: I took it to mean some kind of narrative intuitiveness.
JO: I’ve never taught writing, but intuition is something that would be very hard to teach.
BLVR: I also think intuition is its own kind of intelligence.
JO: Well, Murakami’s being falsely modest, because obviously he’s intelligent. But you don’t have to be brilliant to write. You don’t. You don’t have to be a genius to write, though some writers are geniuses. You do have to be a hard worker. If I start something, it’s usually a mess in the beginning, but I’m willing to go back again and again and again. I guess I can understand what he’s saying about intuition in terms of how I just know when I’ve nailed something—when a paragraph finally sounds right. It really has to do with sound. It sounds right.
BLVR: Do you read aloud as you write?
JO: I did a lot with The Buddha in the Attic. With The Swimmers, I thought, it’s kind of like polishing: it’s a way of faking yourself into thinking that you’re doing work when you’re actually wasting half an hour reading out loud. [Laughs] I know that when I’m reading silently in my head, I’m still hearing the rhythm, so I don’t necessarily need to read aloud. I might at the very end, and also sometimes when I have trouble focusing and I can’t hear the language in my head as I’m reading. There are times when I can’t hear the thing—then I will read it out loud so I can literally hear it. I need to be able to hear it in my head.
BLVR: Are endings intuitive to you or do they pose a challenge? Does the absence of a conventional plot make the final sentiment harder to locate?
JO: It depends. I knew when I started writing The Buddha in the Attic what that last chapter would be. It was a piece of unfinished business that I hadn’t dealt with in my first novel. I always wanted to know: What did the mostly white folks in these towns think after their Japanese neighbors suddenly disappeared overnight? I never had a chance to deal with that, really. I wanted to explore their point of view, so I knew that would be my ending point. I also like a twist at the very end of a novel, like suddenly shifting from the point of view of the Japanese picture brides to the point of view of this white town. So I knew that. With my first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, I didn’t know how I would end the book. I knew I wanted to account for the father’s voice in some way, but I didn’t know what form his voice would take, and it took me a while to figure that out. And with The Swimmers, I think I found the ending. It was more like a reshuffling of scenes. I suddenly saw this scene and I thought, Oh, this would actually be great at the very end—I could have it at the end as a flashback. I knew it was an emotionally moving, hot moment to end on, so that’s why I put it there as opposed to tucking it somewhere in the middle of the chapter.
IV. Conditional Presence
BLVR: Your work illuminates hostility toward Japanese Americans before, during, and after the Second World War. You describe internment and dramatize it, but you also consider a variety of ways our society devalues or rejects immigrants. You and I are speaking amid an enormous surge in anti-Asian violence in this country, which may be attributed to the pandemic’s purported origins in China. I’m wondering how you square the kind of racism you explore, some of it a century old, with what is happening today.
JO: I never thought I would see what I’m seeing now in my lifetime. I was born in the 1960s and the demographics of this country were different. It was a very, very white country back then. I don’t want to get into the details of immigration history, but there was a 1965 immigration act, which allowed many more people from Asia to come over. Just a handful of Asians could come in every year after 1924 until 1965. When I was growing up, there were not many people who looked like me or my family—I grew up in Palo Alto—but we were treated well. As I grew older, there were more and more people who looked like me, because there were more and more immigrants coming over from Asia. The visual landscape really changed. I guess I’m saying I never encountered a lot of racial hostility. I was teased as a kid in the schoolyard, but that’s totally normal, I think. I was able to brush that off. I remember on my first day of school, my mother said, “If anyone teases you, just ignore it.” And I did, basically. I don’t know. I think I had a strong sense of self. I think that’s something my mother instilled in her kids. If somebody said something to me or teased me, I kind of wrote it off. I was able to tell myself, It’s their problem.
BLVR: You mean if someone teased you in a racist way?
JO: Yeah. You know, making “slant eyes” or just saying stuff on the playground. I didn’t let it bother me. I never felt less than and I always had a lot of friends. I didn’t feel bullied. It did happen, but I don’t feel traumatized or anything by it. Generally, I felt very accepted by my classmates. I never felt that I was in danger until the pandemic started. It was shocking to see this sudden upsurge of anti-Asian hate. I was glad, in a way, that my mother wasn’t around to see this. If something had ever happened to my parents… it would have just killed me, even just to see them mocked. I don’t know what I would do. It would just really, really—that would hurt. I feel I could take it, but to see something happen to my parents, especially my mother, after everything she’d gone through, that would have been hard to take.
BLVR: Because she was in an internment camp during the war.
JO: Right, right. I just would not want anyone to mess with her. It makes you realize how conditional your presence is in this country. You can think you’re doing fine, you’re blending in, whatever, you’re one of us, and then something like the pandemic happens and suddenly the rug is just pulled out from under you. In the first days of the pandemic, I remember walking out of my building and I’d never felt so self-conscious about being Asian. It was the weirdest thing. I was aware of looking like someone who could possibly be carrying the virus and not knowing what people would think. That was very odd. It’s very weird. I’d never experienced that before.
BLVR: I’m sorry. I can’t imagine. When the Emperor Was Divine resurfaced in the national news this past summer, when a Wisconsin school board in the Muskego-Norway district banned it from being taught to a tenth-grade English class. I read an article in which school board members supposedly called the book “too sad,” and also claimed that it lacked an “American perspective.” Of course, so many of the families relocated to internment camps were American citizens. I wonder what this banning has meant to you and your work.
JO: Well, it was a shock, for one thing. I travel across the country speaking to college students mostly, and mostly about that book. I had never encountered any sort of pushback at all. I was really surprised initially. And it made me very angry. It made me even more determined to get this story out there. I still meet so many young students who’ve never heard anything about the Japanese American incarceration—even now. Twenty years ago, I thought, Well, twenty years from now, everybody will know, but so many young kids still don’t know. I thought there would be more fiction written about the camps, but there isn’t a lot out there. Still. I’m not sure why.
BLVR: I was going to ask how you understand this.
JO: I don’t know if it’s because Japanese Americans are not writing about this? There have been a lot of documentaries, but I don’t know. Or is it the publishing houses? I don’t have an easy answer. It made me realize it’s more important than ever to keep this story out there. My book is one way of keeping the story alive. But I never thought it would come to this. I just didn’t. What was amazing, though, was to watch these local townspeople, parents, teachers, and students rally around the book in support of it, against the ban. That was an amazing and beautiful thing to watch, because this is a very conservative town. It was unusual in that most book bans are initiated by parents in the community. This ban was initiated by school board members, not by the parents in the town, and there was a rally where I think 150 people showed up. Former students from this high school spoke out in defense of free speech and I thought, This would not have happened eighty years ago, when the evacuation orders were first posted on signposts telling the Japanese Americans they had to leave. Nobody came to our defense then.
BLVR: It’s double-edged.
JO: Yes, it is. I mean, the rally gave me hope, but also just, What?! I mean, I know it’s part of this nationwide movement to erase certain histories from the official record. I understand that. I don’t know why, but I didn’t think it would happen to my book. Until it did.
BLVR: America behaving badly seems to be a common denominator among book bans. Ugly history.
V. California as Landscape
BLVR: The Swimmers features an underground pool in an unnamed California suburb. The Buddha in the Attic opens with a boat ferrying picture brides to San Francisco Bay. And When the Emperor Was Divine dramatizes the experience of a Japanese American family who were forcibly removed from their home in Berkeley. Artists often use California as a metaphor for the American dream—it was the site of the Gold Rush, et cetera. But as you alluded to earlier, you were born and raised there. Can you speak to how place informs your work? Does California as an idea or an ideal ever factor into your thinking when you set a story?
JO: You know, I don’t even think of California as an idea. I think of it visually, as a landscape. It’s the landscape that imprinted upon me as a child. It’s a beautiful place—just gorgeous. I have very fond memories of growing up there. It was a great place to have an outdoor, kind of free-range childhood. So there’s that. But I guess it is where my ancestors came to begin their new lives, so it was for them a state of promise. I haven’t lived there for thirty-five years, but it’s still the landscape that is most vivid for me, and the place that I just keep going back to.
BLVR: Do you miss living there?
JO: You know, I love living in New York City. I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else. My father died in 2021 and then the house was sold and it’s very weird to realize, Oh, there’s no home to go back to. It’s very, very final when your parents are gone and your childhood house is gone. I still have family out there, and I miss things like the smell of the ocean. I mean, I know there’s an ocean on the East Coast too…
BLVR: It’s not the same.
JO: It’s not. And the light out there, it’s just gorgeous. So yeah, I think I miss it, but not enough that I need to move out there and leave New York City.
BLVR: I have another question about a potential metaphor or idea. When a crack appears on the pool floor in The Swimmers, there are all these theories around its origins and implications. You’ve said that you invented this crack as a metaphor for a rupture, a sudden break in reality, and the theme is echoed in the novel’s subsequent section with Alice’s disappeared memory—a personal rupture. I wondered if cultural or political circumstances also informed your desire to explore this break in reality. I couldn’t help but think that when the novel discusses the “crack deniers.”
JO: [Laughs] I wrote that chapter before the pandemic. And I don’t think I began writing about the crack as a metaphor. I began writing it as this unexpected interruption on the bottom of this community pool. I began writing about it in a literal way—it was a literal presence initially. But then things kind of spun out of control. [Laughs] I realized, Wow, I could really go to town with this crack.
BLVR: That’s the best. I feel the fun you’re having on the page.
JO: It was fun. In some places, things even got a little silly. It’s funny, some of the foreign translators of the novel will say things like “There is no Ivalo mutation” [a condition one patient at Alice’s memory care facility suffers from]. And I’m like, That’s because it’s fiction; there isn’t one. I just made up that mutation. That’s one thing that stands out, but a lot of the science in The Swimmers is completely invented. These studies are things I made up.
BLVR: Ah, to be a fiction writer.
JO: Right! [Laughs] But, yeah, the crack deniers. I’m sure that whatever was going on at that current moment in politics was somehow seeping its way into what I was writing. But it was definitely pre-pandemic.
BLVR: I read that you don’t own a TV. True?
JO: That’s true.
BLVR: Do you watch anything on your laptop?
JO: I do, yeah. [Laughs]
BLVR: Do you have a favorite show?
JO: I love The Americans. Did you see that?
BLVR: I didn’t. I should.
JO: It’s some of the best TV I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s amazing. And that they could keep it going for seasons and seasons and seasons. It’s really stunning. And I love The White Lotus. I thought it was great.
BLVR: It’s so good. So juicy.
JO: Yes, yes. And the last season ended with that perfect operatic arc.
BLVR: Literally, an arc right off the boat!
JO: Exactly! It was a great ending. So yeah, I watch some TV.
BLVR: Well, I appreciate your time and thoughtfulness—and your work. Per the earlier question about pacing and the time it takes to write, anyone should be so lucky to write a book as beautiful as one of yours.
JO: Oh, thank you.
BLVR: I mean, what’s ten years? A blip!
JO: [Laughs] Yeah, but then the blip’s up and suddenly it’s all over and it’s like, What did I do with my time on this earth? You know?