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Novelist Julie Otsuka draws on her own family history in 'The Swimmers'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Julie Otsuka, is an acclaimed novelist who's drawn on her experiences as a Japanese American. Before I tell you about her new novel, let me tell you about her first two. "When The Emperor Was Divine" is based on the experiences of her mother, uncle and grandparents when they were forced into Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II. Her book "The Buddha In The Attic," which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is a historical novel about the women known as picture brides. These were women in the early 20th century who emigrated to America from Japan the only way they legally could, by marrying a man who was already living here. Working through matchmakers, the would-be husbands and wives knew each other only from photos. When the women arrived and met their future husbands, they typically realized they were deceived in one way or another.

Otsuka's new novel, "The Swimmers," starts off in a pool where people go for temporary escape from their problems. One of the women is in the early stages of dementia. In the second half of the novel, her dementia has progressed to the point where she's in a facility. Her daughter, who's in her 40s and has been geographically and emotionally distant, returns to see her mother. Otsuka takes inventory of the disappeared and remaining memories, describes life in a facility after living with a husband for 40 years in a three-bedroom home and considers the daughter's sense of guilt. As you'll hear, Otsuka has a very distinctive style of writing.

Julie Otsuka, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your writing, so I'm very glad you're here. I want to start with a reading from the first page of "The Swimmers," your new novel, because I want our listeners to hear your style of writing and how the accumulation of detail just kind of keeps building through the book. So would you read the opening for us?

JULIE OTSUKA: Sure, I'd be happy to. (Reading) The pool is located deep underground in a large, cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual above-ground afflictions. Others of us are employed at the college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below, in the waters far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens. Some of us come here to escape, if only for an hour, our disappointing marriages on land. Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim. One of us, Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia, comes here because she always has.

GROSS: Talk with us a little bit about this almost inventory style of writing that you have, where it's almost like lists and paragraph form, you know, just, like details that keep building and building into a larger picture. And I find myself when I read your writing going, yeah, yeah, that's right. Oh, I know that. Yes. Oh, that's so true.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's like this checklist of things that I know, but I haven't necessarily expressed.

OTSUKA: It's funny. I don't aim to be a list maker, but I think that my way of apprehending the world is actually through detail. I think that's just how I put together the big picture. I think that's just just what my brain kind of naturally wants to do when trying to figure things out. So I wasn't even aware that that's what I was doing. I'm not really a plot-driven writer. And my background is in the arts, so I'm interested in looking at things as if for the first time and not knowing which details are necessarily important and which are not but just taking them all in and kind of seeing what the gestalt is.

GROSS: So as we heard in the reading, one of the swimmers, Alice, is in the early stages of dementia. And as the novel progresses, she loses more and more of her memory until she's moved to a facility. Your mother died of dementia-related causes. Was it frontotemporal dementia like in the book?

OTSUKA: It was. And it was Pick's disease, which is a form of frontotemporal dementia.

GROSS: Yeah. In the book, you describe it as being very rare. What is it? How does it compare to Alzheimer's, just so we understand what's going on?

OTSUKA: Well, for one thing, the onset can be much, much earlier. So I think for my mother, she might have even manifested symptoms in her 50s, definitely in her 60s, although I think it was hard for us to realize what was her and what was her disease, especially in the early years before she was even diagnosed. But with Pick's disease, you often get changes in personality and the decline can be - for my mother, it was much, much slower. I think her decline took place over at least 20 years. But I think the personality change is probably the main difference from people with Alzheimer's.

GROSS: Could you tell that it was happening? Because that's one of the questions in the book. You know, like, for example, like, a crack appears in the pool that the swimmers go to. And the people wonder, you know, many of us remain anxious because the truth is we don't know what it is or what it means or if it has any meaning at all. Maybe the crack is just a crack, nothing more, nothing less. Maybe it's a rupture, a chasm. How deep is it? Who's to blame for it? Can we reverse it? And most importantly, why us? It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that those questions are the questions we ask when symptoms begin to appear. Like, does this have any meaning? Is it serious? Is it nothing? Am I exaggerating? If it's a problem, like, what or who is to blame for it? And, you know, and why me? Why us? Why is this happening to us?

OTSUKA: I think it's sometimes hardest for the people closest to the person who's suffering from dementia to see what is happening. I think there's a lot of denial going on, probably in the early years. But I remember, actually, the first time that I realized something was slightly off is I think I went home when you're - for Christmas. And my mother was always very, very good with her hands. And we were baking these crescent cookies, and they just didn't look right on the baking sheet. You know, they were not neat, little crescent rolls, which is what she would've made before. So that was, like, a very clear visual representation that something was not right.

But I don't think we really questioned her repeating herself early on. It just seemed like one of her quirks or something that maybe she was even doing intentionally. And I wish, actually, that we'd realized earlier that the way she was behaving - it wasn't something that she, you know, had any real control over. But, you know, it took us a long time to - I think before we even brought her into a neurologist to get a diagnosis. I think it took many, many years.

GROSS: What would have been different had you gotten an earlier diagnosis? It's not like it's a reversable...

OTSUKA: Nothing, probably. Nothing. Although I guess the one thing that could have been different is that we might have had a little bit more compassion for her early on.

GROSS: That's a big difference.

OTSUKA: It's a huge difference. It's difficult to live with somebody whose personality is changing and is - you know, to a certain point, they're not the person that you remember. But they can't help it. But I think it took us a long time to realize that.

GROSS: You know, in the novel, when so many memories are starting to disappear, one of the things the mother remembers is being sent to a Japanese American incarceration camp when she was young, when she was a child. Did your mother hang on to that memory when others were disappearing?

OTSUKA: She did. Those memories for her were very strong. They they remained with her till - you know, till close to the end of her life. And I think it's probably because they're childhood memories, and those are the memories that stay with you the longest. But, you know, I remember one day she just began to tell a story about her last day of school at Lincoln Elementary in Berkeley.

GROSS: Before being forced into the camp?

OTSUKA: The day before they had to leave, yeah. And she just began to tell that story over and over and over again. And I hadn't heard that story before. I mean, perhaps my father had. I'm not sure. ***

GROSS: What was the story?

OTSUKA: that her teacher asked her to stand up and then told everyone in the class that Haruko - was my mother's Japanese name - would be leaving the next day, and would they please tell her goodbye? So the entire class said goodbye to her, which I think was probably an act of kindness, but she felt very singled out and very ashamed and embarrassed.

GROSS: Did the teacher explain why she was going away?

OTSUKA: You know, I don't know. It's a really good question. I wish that I'd asked my mother that when she was still lucid. I don't know. I mean, I often wonder, what did that teacher say to her students? Do they wonder why their Japanese classmates were suddenly disappeared? And, you know, I've traveled a lot for - especially for my first novel. And I've spoken to people who were alive in World War II. And I remember one woman - a white woman - who had been, I think, in junior high during World War II. And she just said, you know, one day, her classmate, who was a good friend of hers, was there, and the next day, she was gone. And she didn't know what had happened to her. So I don't know what was told to the children back then. I don't know what their parents told to them, either. It's a good question.

GROSS: In the novel, you write, she remembers to warn her daughter at the end of every phone call that the FBI will check up on you soon.

OTSUKA: Yes.

GROSS: How does the FBI figure into your family's story?

OTSUKA: My grandfather was arrested by the FBI on December 8, 1941, so the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He went to work. He worked for a Japanese-owned mercantile company. And he never came home. So he was sent to a series of detention camps run by the Department of Justice. These were different from the regular camps where, you know - the camp where my mother was sent was a different kind of camp. And he was considered a dangerous enemy alien. And my mother didn't see him for about 2 1/2 years.

GROSS: Was he considered a serious enemy alien because he worked for a Japanese company?

OTSUKA: He was a leader in the Japanese American community, a business leader. So he was fairly prominent. So those were the men who were rounded up first, you know, just as a way, really of, I mean, all the leaders of the community were taken away. So the Japanese American community was really kind of emasculated and left leaderless. So he was one of many who were taken away in that first roundup.

GROSS: Did you get to meet him or your grandmother?

OTSUKA: You know, he died when I was 8. And grandmother, she lived to be almost 101, so I knew her for many, many years. And my memories of him are as a very, very gentle man. He never talked about what had happened to himself during the war. But I think I was too young to even know what my mother had gone through at the age of 8. So I remember he was always reading. He was always - he had these Japanese English dictionaries, and he would just underline words in red pencil. He was always learning.

And my grandmother, she had, you know, she had more stories to tell, but I couldn't - her English was all right, but as she got older, it degraded. So I wasn't always able to communicate with her as well as I would have wanted to. She was a tough lady. She went through so much. I mean, she really kept the family together after the war when they came home to Berkeley. And she just went through a lot. She's just - she's a survivor.

GROSS: Was your grandfather able to work after being called a traitor?

OTSUKA: No.

GROSS: Is traitor the right word? And an enemy alien, I think, is what you said.

OTSUKA: Yeah. No. They're synonymous, I think, or at least in the eye of the government. Well, he was not - the reason that he was not able to work after the war was not necessarily because of what he'd been labeled, but it was because he really lost his health. We don't know exactly what happened to him in the camps where he was imprisoned, but he had three strokes when he came home. So he was just - he was not in good health, so he was unable to support the family. So my grandmother went to work as a maid for wealthy white families up in the Berkeley Hills and supported the family. And she - up until then, up until right before the war, had been, you know, a fairly well-off, middle class housewife. She didn't have to work, so - but they lost all their money, so they really had to start all over again.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Julie Otsuka. Her new novel is called "The Swimmers." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Julie Otsuka, author of the novels "The Buddha In The Attic," "When The Emperor Was Divine" and the new novel "The Swimmers."

So there wasn't much you were able to learn from your grandparents. What about your mother? How old was she when she was incarcerated? And what stories did she tell?

OTSUKA: Actually, I want to say one thing I did learn from my grandfather, but years later, after he died, was that we found this cache of letters that he'd written to his wife and children during the first year of the war in my grandmother's fireplace that she wanted to burn the day before we were moving her out of her house and into a residence for the elderly. And so that was the first time that I learned a little bit about what it was that he'd gone through during his experience of imprisonment during the war.

But my mother, she would occasionally mention camp, but when I was very young, I didn't know what kind of camp she was talking about. I actually thought she was describing some sort of summer camp because that was really my only point of reference. But there were objects around the house from camp. So I remember we had these old forks that we kept in the back of the silverware drawer. And on each handle, there was my family's government-issued ID number. And so we only used those forks when all the good folks were dirty and in the dishwasher. And we never used those forks with company. And it wasn't till I was a little bit older that I began to want to know more about what it was that my mother had gone through. And when I actually began to write my first novel, she was in the early stages of her dementia, and because her childhood memories were fairly accurate for a while, I could ask her a lot of questions, and then at a certain point, I could not.

GROSS: So why did your grandmother want to burn her husband's letters?

OTSUKA: I think that she might have felt that they were dangerous to have around. She might have felt shame that he had been labeled a spy, basically a dangerous enemy alien. Or she could have treasured them because he was her husband. I mean, the other things that we found - actually, it was my aunt and uncle who found these things in the fireplace. Shoved up into the flue of the fireplace, they found my mother's white wedding veil and a pair of white silk gloves that she'd probably worn on her wedding day. And she was going to burn all these things. So it could have also been an act of rage, that she was being forced to leave the house that she had lived in very happily for many, many years. So she had a temper. So I don't really know what was going on in her mind.

GROSS: What do these artifacts mean to you - the letters, the bridal veil?

OTSUKA: I mean, the letters, to me, they were like gold. It was like opening a window into my grandfather's past and just seeing a side of him that I'd never seen before. And I used them when I began to write my first novel, but my mother had also not read the letters before, and she read them first, and she told me afterwards it was like reading a story. And I could read the letters because they were written in English. His English was actually quite good. And I think he knew that if he wrote in English that it'd be easier to get past the censors because all the letters were censored by the government. So I remember my grandmother once making the snipping motion and laughing, so some of the letters that she had received while she was in camp had been just, you know, cut to shreds by the censors, so she couldn't read them. But if you wrote in Japanese, they would - the letters would have to be translated when it - it would just take much longer, the whole process.

And, you know, he was just a good man. I think he was such a good man, very patient, very kind. I later also learned that he - because his English was very good, he helped translate some of the Geneva Convention rules for the prisoners that he was with in the camps, so they could assert their rights. But I'm sorry that I didn't know him better.

GROSS: When your family came back after the war was over, did they still have their home?

OTSUKA: They did. They were very fortunate because most Japanese could not own property by law. So - but my grandfather, I think he bought his home in his children's name, and they were American born and, therefore, U.S. citizens. So I think the deed was in their name, and then maybe when they turned 18, they could pass it over to him. And the house had been paid for, so they actually had - unlike most families, they had a home to return to. I mean, there was a - you know, there was a housing shortage after the war, so many Japanese Americans who returned from the camps just had no place to live. So they would live in hostels, or there were these makeshift trailer camps. It was just - it was very, very difficult. But they had their home. But it had just been completely trashed. Many things had been stripped from that house. But it was theirs.

GROSS: People had broken in and stolen things?

OTSUKA: There was a kindly reverend (laughter) who had promised to rent out the house for them while they were away, but he was a crook, and so they never saw any of the rent money. Many people lived there, obviously, while they were gone. So the place was just - I think it was just a mess.

GROSS: So I want you to read another paragraph from your book, and this is about, you know, wondering what caused the dementia. Was it something in the environment, something we did? And this is also written in the style that you have become known for, which is an accumulation of details that paint a larger picture and are very just kind of revealing in their specificity. So if you could read this paragraph for us.

OTSUKA: (Reading) What was it, you wonder, that first made her begin to forget? Was it the chemical in the hair dye that once turned her scalp bright red for two weeks? Was it something toxic in the hair spray Aqua Net that you used, too, and sometimes three times a day for more than 30 years? Hold your breath, she'd say, as she pressed down on the nozzle and disappeared beneath a cloud of cold white mist. Was it the Raid that she sprayed all over the kitchen counter the minute she saw an ant? Was it sporadic, genetic, a series of mini-strokes, something in the drinking water, the aluminum-laden antiperspirant? Too little sleep? She had been complaining about your father's snoring ever since the day they got married. Too much TV? A dearth of hobbies? Hobbies, she once said to you, who has time for hobbies?

Should she have eaten more blueberries, less butter, read more books, read even one book? You don't remember ever seeing her read a single book, although there was always, piled high on her nightstand beside the mountain of stray socks, a stack of books she meant to read. "I'm OK - You're OK." "How To Talk To Your Teenager." "Teach Yourself French In One Week." Was it the hormone replacement after menopause? The estradiol? The Provera? The high blood pressure? The medication for the high blood pressure? Her undiagnosed thyroid condition? The deep and lingering depression she fell into the year after her mother died, three days shy of 101? Now what am I supposed to do? She'd said. Was it you?

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. That's Julie Otsuka reading from her new novel "The Swimmers." Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Julie Otsuka. Her new novel is called "The Swimmers." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Julie Otsuka. Her new novel, "The Swimmers," is about a woman losing her memories and her life to dementia and about her relationship with her daughter, who has been geographically and emotionally distant. Otsuka is the author of two previous novels. "The Buddha In The Attic" is about Japanese picture brides, women in Japan in the early 1900s who came to America the only way they legally could, by marrying a man already living here. These marriages were arranged with the help of matchmakers based on photos that the would-be bride and groom were shown of each other. "When The Emperor Was Divine," based on her family history, is about Japanese Americans who were forced into Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II.

Your novel "The Buddha In The Attic" is about the Japanese women known as picture brides. Can you describe what made somebody a picture bride? Like, who were the picture brides?

OTSUKA: They were young women, often in their teens, who often lived in very, very poor villages. Japan, back then, was a - it was a very poor country.

GROSS: This is the early 1900s.

OTSUKA: Correct. Yeah, yeah. And the population had exploded, and so emigration was actually encouraged by the government. These were just - you know, they were young women who - they were really looking for a better life. And, you know, famine was fairly routine back then. So people were hungry. People were suffering. And I think that they saw America as just a really - you know, the golden land, a place they wanted to go to.

So, you know, marriages back then were arranged. So I don't think the practice of these picture brides marrying men that they had never met is strange as it actually - it's not as strange as it seems because it was just kind of the common practice at the time. But - so they would exchange letters and photographs with these men who were Japanese immigrants who had come to America earlier in the century. And by law, these men could not marry white women. If they did, the white woman would lose her citizenship. So there was nobody for them to marry, so they would send over for these brides to come over.

But they often misrepresented themselves in their letters and in their photographs as well. They often sent photos of themselves when they were much younger - you know, sent their good-looking friend's photo (laughter) in place of their own. So often, you know, the women were shocked to see the man who stood in front of them when they got off the boat.

GROSS: And I think the women were only allowed to emigrate to the United States if they married somebody who was already living here.

OTSUKA: Correct. Yeah, they could not just leave on their own without a husband on the other end.

GROSS: There's a lot of hardship in that book that the women face after they've come here. They are expecting a better life, and most of them face real hardship. What are some of the things you learned about the conditions faced by women who were picture brides?

OTSUKA: Yeah, it was really - for many of them, it was just a life of really, really harsh, physical labor. I mean, two or three days after arriving in America on the boat - you know, there was no honeymoon. They would just be, you know, picking lettuce in the fields and just - you know, in extreme heat. And - or if they weren't in the countryside, you know, working on farmland, you know, they were - ended up in the city where they would, you know, be working in laundries or working as maids. And this was not the life that most of these women had expected, but they just - they really used their bodies hard. And I think many of them, you know, wore out their bodies. But it was just an unrelenting life of just hard, physical work.

GROSS: And for some of them, it was very sexually hazardous, too.

OTSUKA: Yeah, some of them ran away. You know, not a lot, but some of them did run away from their husbands and became prostitutes. And, you know, many of them were not happy with their husbands. And yet most of the marriages lasted. You know, they - most of these people stayed with their husbands and had often many, many children. The more children you had, the more workers you had to help out in the fields. But, you know, I don't think that love was really what marriage was necessarily about back then. It was really, you know, almost an economic arrangement at times.

GROSS: When you were writing "The Buddha In The Attic," did you meet the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of picture brides?

OTSUKA: You know, when I was on book tour for my first book, "When The Emperor Was Divine," I was touring a lot on the West Coast, and I would give readings. And afterwards, people would come up to me in the audience - Japanese Americans. And they would just start telling me these stories, you know, about their grandmother or their great-aunt who had come over as a picture bride, you know, but, you know, she was shocked to see that her husband was so short or so dark or so ugly, you know, and - or so poor. And so I heard many iterations of this same story, and that's actually where I got the idea to write "The Buddha In The Attic." I just thought, it's just such a - it's kind of all about fate, right? I mean, you're assigned a mate almost at random, and then - and you cross an ocean to meet him, and then you live your life with him.

GROSS: For some of these women, after coming here and living this really hard life and getting a foothold in America, then during World War II, they're put into Japanese American, you know, incarceration camps. I'm thinking of how crushing it must be to come to this strange place with the hope of a better life to face, like, really hard work, really tough conditions, not understanding the culture or the language and then to be incarcerated as the enemy.

OTSUKA: I think it was really crushing for that generation. It was like life was kind of over for them. And I think that a lot of them put all their hopes into the lives of their children, which would be my mother's generation, you know, the younger people, which is a lot of pressure, I think, to carry. You, in some way, are to make up for what your parents did not have.

But, you know, and yet, the Japanese are very - you know, there's this expression, (speaking Japanese), there's nothing that can be done. It's almost a very Buddhist way of looking at life, you know, that's - kind of fate (laughter), that - you know, this is what happened, and you just - and you move on. So, you know, we're not really complainers.

So even though - I mean, people had many, many different responses, I think, to being sent away to the camps. Some were angry till the end of their lives. Some were able to get on and lead, you know, very fulfilling lives or at least could see their children lead very fulfilling lives. I mean, my grandmother, you know, she worked as a cleaning lady, but she was able to put her two children through college, which I think meant a lot to her. They were able to, you know, live some form of the American dream, the dream that she could not.

GROSS: What do you know about how your grandparents first came to the U.S.?

OTSUKA: Well, my grandmother, her father was a Methodist minister in Japan. So he came to America in, I think, 1927 for the World Sunday School Conference. And my grandmother was one of, I think, six daughters, but she was the youngest. So she was expected to stay home, never marry and take care of her father. And she wanted no part of that.

So she asked if she could come with him to America to give a talk about education. She somehow got a visa to come to America. I think that she might have bribed the, you know, government officials. I think I remember her saying that she sent them a bag of brown sugar, which was very valuable back then. But she got a visa to travel with her father. And then at a certain point, she bolted and knew that she did not want to go back with her father, but she had to find a husband.

So she gave a talk in a Japanese American Methodist church. And I think it was about education. She was a teacher back in Japan, and then she put the word out on the QT to some of the women in the audience that she was looking for a husband. And she was introduced to my grandfather. And they had, I think, a very whirlwind courtship and were married shortly thereafter. He'd come over years earlier, first to study. I think he studied English and law at UC Berkeley, but he never was able to finish because he - I think at a certain point, he had to go to work to send money back home, I think, to his family.

But so she - her father was enraged that she would not go back to Japan with him. So she was really estranged from her family. She never went back to Japan again. She had no communication with her parents. And, you know, even years later, when she could've returned to Japan, she just refused to. She would always say till the end of her life that America is the best, you know? I mean, she was able to carve out a life for herself in America, not always a happy life, but it was - you know, it was her own life. She didn't have to stay home and take care of her father.

GROSS: It sounds like she defected from the family.

OTSUKA: She did. She bolted.

GROSS: And then, of course, like we said, you know, she spends - what? - three years in a Japanese American incarceration camp. But she still appreciated America after that.

OTSUKA: She did, much to, you know, our surprise. She - you know, she didn't sound bitter. I mean, she was just tough. You know, life was - I mean, life - I mean, she was born in 1900, right? So, you know, life was not expected to be easy back then. I mean, people were hungry. You know, in Japan, you know, volcanoes erupted. I mean, life was difficult. So I don't think she expected life to be easy. And in America, she just kind of met, you know, whatever obstacles were put in her way.

And, you know, and I think she was also - people really liked her. I remember one story that she told, like, every day. The bus driver would drop her off when she was coming home from her house-cleaning jobs. And her house was not a stop on his route, but he would make a special stop in front of her house so she could get off there, you know? You know, she had pride in what she did, I think. Even if she was, you know, scrubbing people's floors, I think she had a very, very strong sense of self.

GROSS: Julie Otsuka, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

OTSUKA: Thank you so much, Terry. It's been wonderful speaking with you.

GROSS: Julie Otsuka's new novel is called "The Swimmers." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "Vladimir" about sexual politics on the college campus. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA GARDIER'S "FJORD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.