Julie Otsuka on Writing Memory Loss and the Power of the First Person Plural ‹ Literary Hub

Julie Otsuka has a rare gift for evoking the experience of communities with powerful emotional resonance, while maintaining a keen sense of the individual. By frequent use of the first person plural point of view, she combines the tragic tone of a Greek choir with the intimacy of a confession.

His evocative first novel, When the emperor was divinefollowed a Berkeley family through the harsh and alienating experience of internment after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. (Otsuka drew on her family background; her grandfather was arrested and interned in as a suspected Japanese spy; his mother, uncle, and grandmother spent three years in the Topaz, Utah, internment camp.)

Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, traced the journeys of illustrated brides who sailed to the San Francisco Bay in the early years of the 20th century to marry Japanese men they knew only from their photographs and self-descriptions. All hoped for a better life; most were doomed to bitter disappointment. Otsuka evokes the voices of this generation of Japanese American women over a period of decades.

swimmers is an equally clever and powerful representation of a group – in this case, a community of swimmers doing laps in an underground pool, now facing the destruction of this vessel of daily ritual. She relates this to a swimmer’s experience of the progressive forgetfulness that comes with dementia and how it affects her daughter. It’s a delightfully written novel exploring the routines that bring us joy and comfort, as well as the grief, loss and love that encompasses a lifetime. Our email conversation dove into a few memories from a time before covid.

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Jane Ciabatari: How have you lived these last two years of uncertainty and turmoil? Are you still in New York? In writing? Swim?

Julie Otsuka: I’m fine, I’m used to working from home. The hardest part was not being able to see my old father. He died in January 2020, when Covid numbers were high and there was not yet wide access to the vaccine. It seemed best – for my own safety and his – that I didn’t fly to California to see him. I will always feel bad about this.

So I was in New York all the time. I gave up swimming several years ago in favor of “dry” training on land, at the gym. But I ditched my gym habits during the pandemic. I write, I work on something new.

JC: I remember talking with you about your neighborhood cafe on the Upper West Side during an interview for The daily beast when Buddha in the attic has been published. Have you worked on swimmers the?

OJ: I wrote everything swimmers in my neighborhood cafe – except for the last chapter, which I wrote at home, during the first year of the pandemic, when it no longer felt safe to write in an indoor public space. I was afraid that it would be difficult to work from home, but in fact, it was fine. I suddenly had a lot more free time. But I miss coffee terribly and can’t wait to go back. I love working in public spaces – the general din of voices all around me, the smell of coffee, the occasional dialogue floating my way, chatting with fellow regulars, feeling part of a community wider, it’s all good.

JC: When I asked you what you were working on at the time, you said your next novel would be set in New York. “Something about swimming and dementia,” you said. So here it is, with swimmers. What was the inspiration for your new novel? Is it partly based on personal experience?

OJ: Growing up in Southern California, I spent a lot of time at the beach in the summer when I was a teenager. So I have always been very comfortable in the water. Later, as an adult, I swam recreationally for many years, in a nearby pool, and I was always fascinated by the culture there, all the rules, said and unsaid, the regulars, their quirks and quirks, the scene in the locker room, etc.

And both of my parents had dementia, so I was able to lean on that too.

JC: You told your story in Buddha in the attic from the perspective of a group of newlyweds who sail together from Japan to the United States. In the first section of swimmers, “The Underground Pool,” you return to that chorus of “we” voices to describe the activities from the perspective of swim club regulars at the pool, which is located in an unnamed California suburb. “Some of us come here because we are hurt and need to heal… Others are employed at the nearby college… Some of us come here to escape, even for an hour, from our disappointing earthly marriages. Many of us live in the neighborhood and just love swimming. You describe the jockeys for the lanes, the rules, the camaraderie, the accommodations made for swimmers like Alice, a member for over thirty-five years, who is in the early stages of dementia. What attracts you to this plural first-person point of view? What are the benefits for the story you are telling?

OJ: The first person plural is, for me, the ideal voice to use to describe a community from within. It’s a very vast voice that is infinitely expandable. This allows you to paint a bigger picture than you otherwise would if you were telling the story from a single character’s perspective.

The first person plural is the ideal voice to use to describe a community from within.

JC: The discovery of a crack in the bottom of the pool leaves the group in disarray, obsessed with what it is, if it can spread, what to do. Is there any history or research behind cracks like this? Or was this disturbing detail invented?

OJ: Purely invented! Although I did research pool cracks afterwards, for technical terms, additional details, etc. But “my” crack doesn’t really follow the rules of science. It’s more of a metaphor for breaking up. A brutal break with reality. The unknown.

JC: Your second part, die lost (“I lost the day”), follows Alice from her daughter’s point of view, in a litany of what she remembers, what she forgets. I’m curious to know the details. How did you trace memories from short-term to long-age? Is there a reason some memories linger?

OJ: With Alice, as with most people with dementia, the last memories are the oldest. Thus, her childhood memories remain with her until the very end. I haven’t really traced his short-term and long-term memories, and I can’t really say that I had an organizing principle. I wrote a bunch of sentences starting with “She remembers” or “She doesn’t remember” and then I configured them into coherent groups, which became paragraphs. There was a lot of arrangement and rearrangement of sentences going on – and the organizing principle was just my hunch, which “felt” right.

JC: The “Belavista” section adopts the second person point of view. The opening lines – “You’re here because you failed the test” – usher Alice into a “for-profit long-term memory residence”, the world of end care for someone with a “top-down cognitive trajectory”. You create an emotional arc based on intimate details, sentence by sentence. How did you do that?!

OJ: I have described, in a very factual, almost scientific way, the world of memory residency. The weirdness/cruelty of this world spoke for itself. I felt like I was just capturing reality. And every once in a while I added some intimate details about Alice to remind the reader that she was there. It was actually a very fun chapter to write. I had never taken the voice of a somewhat malevolent (because profit driven) institution before.

JC: The last section, “EuroNeuro”, continues this intimate point of view, but from the point of view of Alice’s daughter. “What, you wonder, first made her forget? You detail a gradual letting go with a lot of patience and objectivity. Did you have a process through which you built those moments?

OJ: Again, no process, very intuitive. I was writing the scenes as they came to me, which wasn’t necessarily chronological, and then – like the sentences in die lost—I rearranged them into what seemed like the “right” configuration. That’s why I suck at teaching. I don’t really know how I do what I do. There is no real method, everything happens at a very unconscious level.

JC: The combination of the crack in the pool and the first moments of oblivion give us the first hints of a terrifying but inevitable disintegration. I’m curious how you found it possible to distill the accumulation of emotions, love and grief, over the years, into fiction?

OJ: I think I’m a distiller by nature, it’s just my natural sensibility.

JC: What are you working on now?

OJ: It is still too early to talk about it. All I can say is that I’m writing something new, I’m not sure what it is, but I’m still working in a more personal vein, turning the camera towards myself.

Scott R. Banks