Novelist Julie Otsuka draws on her own family history in ‘The Swimmers’ : NPR


That is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. My visitor, Julie Otsuka, is an acclaimed novelist who’s drawn on her experiences as a Japanese American. Earlier than I let you know about her new novel, let me let you know about her first two. “When The Emperor Was Divine” relies on the experiences of her mom, uncle and grandparents once they had been pressured into Japanese American incarceration camps throughout World Warfare II. Her guide “The Buddha In The Attic,” which received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is a historic novel concerning the ladies referred to as image brides. These had been ladies within the early twentieth century who emigrated to America from Japan the one means they legally might, by marrying a person who was already residing right here. Working by way of matchmakers, the would-be husbands and wives knew one another solely from photographs. When the ladies arrived and met their future husbands, they sometimes realized they had been deceived in a technique or one other.

Otsuka’s new novel, “The Swimmers,” begins off in a pool the place individuals go for non permanent escape from their issues. One of many ladies is within the early levels of dementia. Within the second half of the novel, her dementia has progressed to the purpose the place she’s in a facility. Her daughter, who’s in her 40s and has been geographically and emotionally distant, returns to see her mom. Otsuka takes stock of the disappeared and remaining reminiscences, describes life in a facility after residing with a husband for 40 years in a three-bedroom residence and considers the daughter’s sense of guilt. As you may hear, Otsuka has a really distinctive model of writing.

Julie Otsuka, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like your writing, so I am very glad you are right here. I wish to begin with a studying from the primary web page of “The Swimmers,” your new novel, as a result of I need our listeners to listen to your model of writing and the way the buildup of element simply form of retains constructing by way of the guide. So would you learn the opening for us?

JULIE OTSUKA: Certain, I would be joyful to. (Studying) The pool is situated deep underground in a big, cavernous chamber many ft beneath the streets of our city. A few of us come right here as a result of we’re injured and must heal. We undergo from unhealthy backs, fallen arches, shattered desires, damaged hearts, nervousness, melancholia, anhedonia, the standard above-ground afflictions. Others of us are employed on the school close by and like to take our lunch breaks down beneath, within the waters far-off from the tough glares of our colleagues and screens. A few of us come right here to flee, if just for an hour, our disappointing marriages on land. Many people reside within the neighborhood and easily like to swim. Certainly one of us, Alice, a retired lab technician now within the early levels of dementia, comes right here as a result of she at all times has.

GROSS: Speak with us a bit bit about this nearly stock model of writing that you’ve, the place it is nearly like lists and paragraph kind, you realize, simply, like particulars that maintain constructing and constructing into a bigger image. And I discover myself once I learn your writing going, yeah, yeah, that is proper. Oh, I do know that. Sure. Oh, that is so true.


GROSS: It is like this guidelines of issues that I do know, however I have not essentially expressed.

OTSUKA: It is humorous. I do not purpose to be a listing maker, however I feel that my means of apprehending the world is definitely by way of element. I feel that is simply how I put collectively the massive image. I feel that is simply simply what my mind form of naturally desires to do when attempting to determine issues out. So I wasn’t even conscious that that is what I used to be doing. I am probably not a plot-driven author. And my background is within the arts, so I am excited by taking a look at issues as if for the primary time and never understanding which particulars are essentially necessary and which aren’t however simply taking all of them in and form of seeing what the gestalt is.

GROSS: In order we heard within the studying, one of many swimmers, Alice, is within the early levels of dementia. And because the novel progresses, she loses increasingly of her reminiscence till she’s moved to a facility. Your mom died of dementia-related causes. Was it frontotemporal dementia like within the guide?

OTSUKA: It was. And it was Decide’s illness, which is a type of frontotemporal dementia.

GROSS: Yeah. Within the guide, you describe it as being very uncommon. What’s it? How does it examine to Alzheimer’s, simply so we perceive what is going on on?

OTSUKA: Properly, for one factor, the onset may be a lot, a lot earlier. So I feel for my mom, she might need even manifested signs in her 50s, positively in her 60s, though I feel it was laborious for us to comprehend what was her and what was her illness, particularly within the early years earlier than she was even recognized. However with Decide’s illness, you usually get modifications in persona and the decline may be – for my mom, it was a lot, a lot slower. I feel her decline occurred over a minimum of 20 years. However I feel the persona change might be the primary distinction from individuals with Alzheimer’s.

GROSS: May you inform that it was taking place? As a result of that is one of many questions within the guide. You realize, like, for instance, like, a crack seems within the pool that the swimmers go to. And the individuals surprise, you realize, many people stay anxious as a result of the reality is we do not know what it’s or what it means or if it has any which means in any respect. Possibly the crack is only a crack, nothing extra, nothing much less. Possibly it is a rupture, a chasm. How deep is it? Who’s accountable for it? Can we reverse it? And most significantly, why us? It is no coincidence, I am positive, that these questions are the questions we ask when signs start to seem. Like, does this have any which means? Is it severe? Is it nothing? Am I exaggerating? If it is an issue, like, what or who’s accountable for it? And, you realize, and why me? Why us? Why is that this taking place to us?

OTSUKA: I feel it is typically hardest for the individuals closest to the one that’s affected by dementia to see what is occurring. I feel there’s a number of denial happening, in all probability within the early years. However I bear in mind, truly, the primary time that I spotted one thing was barely off is I feel I went residence if you’re – for Christmas. And my mom was at all times very, excellent together with her fingers. And we had been baking these crescent cookies, and so they simply did not look proper on the baking sheet. You realize, they weren’t neat, little crescent rolls, which is what she would’ve made earlier than. In order that was, like, a really clear visible illustration that one thing was not proper.

However I do not suppose we actually questioned her repeating herself early on. It simply appeared like one in every of her quirks or one thing that perhaps she was even doing deliberately. And I want, truly, that we would realized earlier that the best way she was behaving – it wasn’t one thing that she, you realize, had any actual management over. However, you realize, it took us a very long time to – I feel earlier than we even introduced her right into a neurologist to get a analysis. I feel it took many, a few years.

GROSS: What would have been completely different had you gotten an earlier analysis? It isn’t prefer it’s a reversable…

OTSUKA: Nothing, in all probability. Nothing. Though I suppose the one factor that might have been completely different is that we’d have had a bit bit extra compassion for her early on.

GROSS: That is an enormous distinction.

OTSUKA: It is an enormous distinction. It is tough to reside with someone whose persona is altering and is – you realize, to a sure level, they are not the person who you bear in mind. However they cannot assist it. However I feel it took us a very long time to comprehend that.

GROSS: You realize, within the novel, when so many reminiscences are beginning to disappear, one of many issues the mom remembers is being despatched to a Japanese American incarceration camp when she was younger, when she was a toddler. Did your mom hold on to that reminiscence when others had been disappearing?

OTSUKA: She did. These reminiscences for her had been very sturdy. They they remained together with her until – you realize, until near the top of her life. And I feel it is in all probability as a result of they’re childhood reminiscences, and people are the reminiscences that stick with you the longest. However, you realize, I bear in mind at some point she simply started to inform a narrative about her final day of faculty at Lincoln Elementary in Berkeley.

GROSS: Earlier than being pressured into the camp?

OTSUKA: The day earlier than they needed to go away, yeah. And she or he simply started to inform that story over and time and again. And I hadn’t heard that story earlier than. I imply, maybe my father had. I am undecided. ***

GROSS: What was the story?

OTSUKA: that her instructor requested her to face up after which advised everybody within the class that Haruko – was my mom’s Japanese identify – can be leaving the subsequent day, and would they please inform her goodbye? So the whole class mentioned goodbye to her, which I feel was in all probability an act of kindness, however she felt very singled out and really ashamed and embarrassed.

GROSS: Did the instructor clarify why she was going away?

OTSUKA: You realize, I do not know. It is a actually good query. I want that I would requested my mom that when she was nonetheless lucid. I do not know. I imply, I usually surprise, what did that instructor say to her college students? Do they surprise why their Japanese classmates had been all of a sudden disappeared? And, you realize, I’ve traveled quite a bit for – particularly for my first novel. And I’ve spoken to individuals who had been alive in World Warfare II. And I bear in mind one girl – a white girl – who had been, I feel, in junior excessive throughout World Warfare II. And she or he simply mentioned, you realize, at some point, her classmate, who was a great good friend of hers, was there, and the subsequent day, she was gone. And she or he did not know what had occurred to her. So I do not know what was advised to the youngsters again then. I do not know what their dad and mom advised to them, both. It is a good query.

GROSS: Within the novel, you write, she remembers to warn her daughter on the finish of each telephone name that the FBI will inspect you quickly.


GROSS: How does the FBI determine into your loved ones’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 labored for a Japanese-owned mercantile firm. And he by no means got here residence. So he was despatched to a collection of detention camps run by the Division of Justice. These had been completely different from the common camps the place, you realize – the camp the place my mom was despatched was a unique form of camp. And he was thought of a harmful enemy alien. And my mom did not see him for about 2 1/2 years.

GROSS: Was he thought of a severe enemy alien as a result of he labored for a Japanese firm?

OTSUKA: He was a pacesetter within the Japanese American group, a enterprise chief. So he was pretty distinguished. So these had been the lads who had been rounded up first, you realize, simply as a means, actually of, I imply, all of the leaders of the group had been taken away. So the Japanese American group was actually form of emasculated and left leaderless. So he was one in every of many who had been taken away in that first roundup.

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

OTSUKA: You realize, he died once I was 8. And grandmother, she lived to be nearly 101, so I knew her for a lot of, a few years. And my reminiscences of him are as a really, very mild man. He by no means talked about what had occurred to himself through the struggle. However I feel I used to be too younger to even know what my mom had gone by way of on the age of 8. So I bear in mind he was at all times studying. He was at all times – he had these Japanese English dictionaries, and he would simply underline phrases in purple pencil. He was at all times studying.

And my grandmother, she had, you realize, she had extra tales to inform, however I could not – her English was all proper, however as she obtained older, it degraded. So I wasn’t at all times in a position to talk together with her in addition to I might have wished to. She was a troublesome woman. She went by way of a lot. I imply, she actually saved the household collectively after the struggle once they got here residence to Berkeley. And she or he simply went by way of quite a bit. She’s simply – she’s a survivor.

GROSS: Was your grandfather in a position to work after being referred to as a traitor?


GROSS: Is traitor the precise phrase? And an enemy alien, I feel, is what you mentioned.

OTSUKA: Yeah. No. They’re synonymous, I feel, or a minimum of within the eye of the federal government. Properly, he was not – the explanation that he was not in a position to work after the struggle was not essentially due to what he’d been labeled, but it surely was as a result of he actually misplaced his well being. We do not know precisely what occurred to him within the camps the place he was imprisoned, however he had three strokes when he got here residence. So he was simply – he was not in good well being, so he was unable to help the household. So my grandmother went to work as a maid for rich white households up within the Berkeley Hills and supported the household. And she or he – up till then, up till proper earlier than the struggle, had been, you realize, a reasonably well-off, center class housewife. She did not need to work, so – however they misplaced all their cash, in order that they actually needed to begin over again.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you right here. In case you’re simply becoming a member of us, my visitor is novelist Julie Otsuka. Her new novel is named “The Swimmers.” We’ll be proper again after a brief break. That is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: That is FRESH AIR. Let’s get again to my interview with Julie Otsuka, writer of the novels “The Buddha In The Attic,” “When The Emperor Was Divine” and the brand new novel “The Swimmers.”

So there wasn’t a lot you had been in a position to be taught out of your grandparents. What about your mom? How outdated was she when she was incarcerated? And what tales did she inform?

OTSUKA: Truly, I wish to say one factor I did be taught from my grandfather, however years later, after he died, was that we discovered this cache of letters that he’d written to his spouse and kids through the first 12 months of the struggle in my grandmother’s hearth that she wished to burn the day earlier than we had been transferring her out of her home and right into a residence for the aged. And in order that was the primary time that I realized a bit bit about what it was that he’d gone by way of throughout his expertise of imprisonment through the struggle.

However my mom, she would sometimes point out camp, however once I was very younger, I did not know what sort of camp she was speaking about. I truly thought she was describing some form of summer time camp as a result of that was actually my solely level of reference. However there have been objects round the home from camp. So I bear in mind we had these outdated forks that we saved behind the silverware drawer. And on every deal with, there was my household’s government-issued ID quantity. And so we solely used these forks when all the nice people had been soiled and within the dishwasher. And we by no means used these forks with firm. And it wasn’t until I used to be a bit bit older that I started to wish to know extra about what it was that my mom had gone by way of. And once I truly started to put in writing my first novel, she was within the early levels of her dementia, and since her childhood reminiscences had been pretty correct for some time, I might ask her a number of questions, after which at a sure level, I couldn’t.

GROSS: So why did your grandmother wish to burn her husband’s letters?

OTSUKA: I feel that she might need felt that they had been harmful to have round. She might need felt disgrace that he had been labeled a spy, principally a harmful enemy alien. Or she might have treasured them as a result of he was her husband. I imply, the opposite issues that we discovered – truly, it was my aunt and uncle who discovered these items within the hearth. Shoved up into the flue of the hearth, they discovered my mom’s white wedding ceremony veil and a pair of white silk gloves that she’d in all probability worn on her wedding ceremony day. And she or he was going to burn all these items. So it might have additionally been an act of rage, that she was being pressured to go away the home that she had lived in very fortunately for a lot of, a few years. So she had a mood. So I do not actually know what was happening in her thoughts.

GROSS: What do these artifacts imply to you – the letters, the bridal veil?

OTSUKA: I imply, the letters, to me, they had been like gold. It was like opening a window into my grandfather’s previous and simply seeing a aspect of him that I would by no means seen earlier than. And I used them once I started to put in writing my first novel, however my mom had additionally not learn the letters earlier than, and she or he learn them first, and she or he advised me afterwards it was like studying a narrative. And I might learn the letters as a result of they had been written in English. His English was truly fairly good. And I feel he knew that if he wrote in English that it would be simpler to get previous the censors as a result of all of the letters had been censored by the federal government. So I bear in mind my grandmother as soon as making the snipping movement and laughing, so among the letters that she had acquired whereas she was in camp had been simply, you realize, lower to shreds by the censors, so she could not learn them. However in case you wrote in Japanese, they might – the letters must be translated when it – it could simply take for much longer, the entire course of.

And, you realize, he was only a good man. I feel he was such a great man, very affected person, very type. I later additionally realized that he – as a result of his English was excellent, he helped translate among the Geneva Conference guidelines for the prisoners that he was with within the camps, so they may assert their rights. However I am sorry that I did not know him higher.

GROSS: When your loved ones got here again after the struggle was over, did they nonetheless have their residence?

OTSUKA: They did. They had been very lucky as a result of most Japanese couldn’t personal property by regulation. So – however my grandfather, I feel he purchased his residence in his youngsters’s identify, and so they had been American born and, subsequently, U.S. residents. So I feel the deed was of their identify, after which perhaps once they turned 18, they may cross it over to him. And the home had been paid for, so they really had – not like most households, they’d a house to return to. I imply, there was a – you realize, there was a housing scarcity after the struggle, so many Japanese People who returned from the camps simply had no place to reside. So they might reside in hostels, or there have been these makeshift trailer camps. It was simply – it was very, very tough. However they’d their residence. But it surely had simply been fully trashed. Many issues had been stripped from that home. But it surely was theirs.

GROSS: Folks had damaged in and stolen issues?

OTSUKA: There was a kindly reverend (laughter) who had promised to lease out the home for them whereas they had been away, however he was a criminal, and they also by no means noticed any of the lease cash. Many individuals lived there, clearly, whereas they had been gone. So the place was simply – I feel it was only a mess.

GROSS: So I need you to learn one other paragraph out of your guide, and that is about, you realize, questioning what brought about the dementia. Was it one thing within the atmosphere, one thing we did? And that is additionally written within the model that you’ve develop into identified for, which is an accumulation of particulars that paint a bigger image and are very simply form of revealing of their specificity. So in case you might learn this paragraph for us.

OTSUKA: (Studying) What was it, you surprise, that first made her start to overlook? Was it the chemical within the hair dye that when turned her scalp vivid purple for 2 weeks? Was it one thing poisonous within the hair spray Aqua Internet that you simply used, too, and typically 3 times a day for greater than 30 years? Maintain your breath, she’d say, as she pressed down on the nozzle and disappeared beneath a cloud of chilly white mist. Was it the Raid that she sprayed everywhere in the kitchen counter the minute she noticed an ant? Was it sporadic, genetic, a collection of mini-strokes, one thing within the consuming water, the aluminum-laden antiperspirant? Too little sleep? She had been complaining about your father’s loud night breathing ever because the day they obtained married. An excessive amount of TV? A dearth of hobbies? Hobbies, she as soon as mentioned to you, who has time for hobbies?

Ought to she have eaten extra blueberries, much less butter, learn extra books, learn even one guide? You do not bear in mind ever seeing her learn a single guide, though there was at all times, piled excessive on her nightstand beside the mountain of stray socks, a stack of books she meant to learn. “I am OK – You are OK.” “How To Speak To Your Teenager.” “Train Your self French In One Week.” Was it the hormone substitute after menopause? The estradiol? The Provera? The hypertension? The medicine for the hypertension? Her undiagnosed thyroid situation? The deep and lingering melancholy she fell into the 12 months after her mom died, three days shy of 101? Now what am I purported to do? She’d mentioned. Was it you?

GROSS: Thanks for studying that. That is Julie Otsuka studying from her new novel “The Swimmers.” Properly, let’s take one other brief break right here. In case you’re simply becoming a member of us, my visitor is novelist Julie Otsuka. Her new novel is named “The Swimmers.” We’ll be proper again after a brief break. I am Terry Gross, and that is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: That is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let’s get again to my interview with Julie Otsuka. Her new novel, “The Swimmers,” is a few girl dropping her reminiscences and her life to dementia and about her relationship together with her daughter, who has been geographically and emotionally distant. Otsuka is the writer of two earlier novels. “The Buddha In The Attic” is about Japanese image brides, ladies in Japan within the early 1900s who got here to America the one means they legally might, by marrying a person already residing right here. These marriages had been organized with the assistance of matchmakers based mostly on photographs that the would-be bride and groom had been proven of one another. “When The Emperor Was Divine,” based mostly on her household historical past, is about Japanese People who had been pressured into Japanese American incarceration camps throughout World Warfare II.

Your novel “The Buddha In The Attic” is concerning the Japanese ladies referred to as image brides. Are you able to describe what made someone an image bride? Like, who had been the image brides?

OTSUKA: They had been younger ladies, usually of their teenagers, who usually lived in very, very poor villages. Japan, again then, was a – it was a really poor nation.

GROSS: That is the early 1900s.

OTSUKA: Appropriate. Yeah, yeah. And the inhabitants had exploded, and so emigration was truly inspired by the federal government. These had been simply – you realize, they had been younger ladies who – they had been actually in search of a greater life. And, you realize, famine was pretty routine again then. So individuals had been hungry. Folks had been struggling. And I feel that they noticed America as only a actually – you realize, the golden land, a spot they wished to go to.

So, you realize, marriages again then had been organized. So I do not suppose the follow of those image brides marrying males that they’d by no means met is unusual because it truly – it is not as unusual because it appears as a result of it was simply form of the frequent follow on the time. However – so they might change letters and images with these males who had been Japanese immigrants who had come to America earlier within the century. And by regulation, these males couldn’t marry white ladies. In the event that they did, the white girl would lose her citizenship. So there was no person for them to marry, so they might ship over for these brides to come back over.

However they usually misrepresented themselves of their letters and of their images as nicely. They usually despatched photographs of themselves once they had been a lot youthful – you realize, despatched their handsome good friend’s picture (laughter) instead of their very own. So usually, you realize, the ladies had been shocked to see the person who stood in entrance of them once they obtained off the boat.

GROSS: And I feel the ladies had been solely allowed to to migrate to the US in the event that they married someone who was already residing right here.

OTSUKA: Appropriate. Yeah, they may not simply go away on their very own with no husband on the opposite finish.

GROSS: There’s a number of hardship in that guide that the ladies face after they’ve come right here. They’re anticipating a greater life, and most of them face actual hardship. What are among the stuff you realized concerning the situations confronted by ladies who had been image brides?

OTSUKA: Yeah, it was actually – for a lot of of them, it was simply a lifetime of actually, actually harsh, bodily labor. I imply, two or three days after arriving in America on the boat – you realize, there was no honeymoon. They’d simply be, you realize, choosing lettuce within the fields and simply – you realize, in excessive warmth. And – or in the event that they weren’t within the countryside, you realize, engaged on farmland, you realize, they had been – ended up within the metropolis the place they might, you realize, be working in laundries or working as maids. And this was not the life that almost all of those ladies had anticipated, however they simply – they actually used their our bodies laborious. And I feel lots of them, you realize, wore out their our bodies. But it surely was simply an unrelenting lifetime of simply laborious, bodily work.

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

OTSUKA: Yeah, a few of them ran away. You realize, not quite a bit, however a few of them did run away from their husbands and have become prostitutes. And, you realize, lots of them weren’t pleased with their husbands. And but a lot of the marriages lasted. You realize, they – most of those individuals stayed with their husbands and had usually many, many youngsters. The extra youngsters you had, the extra employees you had to assist out within the fields. However, you realize, I do not suppose that love was actually what marriage was essentially about again then. It was actually, you realize, nearly an financial association at occasions.

GROSS: If you had been writing “The Buddha In The Attic,” did you meet the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of image brides?

OTSUKA: You realize, once I was on guide tour for my first guide, “When The Emperor Was Divine,” I used to be touring quite a bit on the West Coast, and I might give readings. And afterwards, individuals would come as much as me within the viewers – Japanese People. And they might simply begin telling me these tales, you realize, about their grandmother or their great-aunt who had come over as an image bride, you realize, however, you realize, she was shocked to see that her husband was so brief or so darkish or so ugly, you realize, and – or so poor. And so I heard many iterations of this similar story, and that is truly the place I obtained the concept to put in writing “The Buddha In The Attic.” I simply thought, it is simply such a – it is form of all about destiny, proper? I imply, you are assigned a mate nearly at random, after which – and also you cross an ocean to fulfill him, and you then reside your life with him.

GROSS: For a few of these ladies, after coming right here and residing this actually laborious life and getting a foothold in America, then throughout World Warfare II, they’re put into Japanese American, you realize, incarceration camps. I am pondering of how crushing it should be to come back to this unusual place with the hope of a greater life to face, like, actually laborious work, actually robust situations, not understanding the tradition or the language after which to be incarcerated because the enemy.

OTSUKA: I feel it was actually crushing for that era. It was like life was form of over for them. And I feel that a number of them put all their hopes into the lives of their youngsters, which might be my mom’s era, you realize, the youthful individuals, which is a number of stress, I feel, to hold. You, ultimately, are to make up for what your dad and mom didn’t have.

However, you realize, and but, the Japanese are very – you realize, there’s this expression, (talking Japanese), there’s nothing that may be accomplished. It is nearly a really Buddhist means of taking a look at life, you realize, that is – form of destiny (laughter), that – you realize, that is what occurred, and also you simply – and you progress on. So, you realize, we’re probably not complainers.

So though – I imply, individuals had many, many alternative responses, I feel, to being despatched away to the camps. Some had been offended until the top of their lives. Some had been in a position to get on and lead, you realize, very fulfilling lives or a minimum of might see their youngsters lead very fulfilling lives. I imply, my grandmother, you realize, she labored as a cleansing woman, however she was in a position to put her two youngsters by way of school, which I feel meant quite a bit to her. They had been in a position to, you realize, reside some type of the American dream, the dream that she couldn’t.

GROSS: What have you learnt about how your grandparents first got here to the U.S.?

OTSUKA: Properly, my grandmother, her father was a Methodist minister in Japan. So he got here to America in, I feel, 1927 for the World Sunday College Convention. And my grandmother was one in every of, I feel, six daughters, however she was the youngest. So she was anticipated to remain residence, by no means marry and maintain her father. And she or he wished no a part of that.

So she requested if she might include him to America to provide a discuss training. She by some means obtained a visa to come back to America. I feel that she might need bribed the, you realize, authorities officers. I feel I bear in mind her saying that she despatched them a bag of brown sugar, which was very worthwhile again then. However she obtained a visa to journey together with her father. After which at a sure level, she bolted and knew that she didn’t wish to return together with her father, however she needed to discover a husband.

So she gave a chat in a Japanese American Methodist church. And I feel it was about training. She was a instructor again in Japan, after which she put the phrase out on the QT to among the ladies within the viewers that she was in search of a husband. And she or he was launched to my grandfather. And so they had, I feel, a really whirlwind courtship and had been married shortly thereafter. He’d come over years earlier, first to review. I feel he studied English and regulation at UC Berkeley, however he by no means was in a position to end as a result of he – I feel at a sure level, he needed to go to work to ship a refund residence, I feel, to his household.

However so she – her father was enraged that she wouldn’t return to Japan with him. So she was actually estranged from her household. She by no means went again to Japan once more. She had no communication together with her dad and mom. And, you realize, even years later, when she might’ve returned to Japan, she simply refused to. She would at all times say until the top of her life that America is the very best, you realize? I imply, she was in a position to carve out a life for herself in America, not at all times a contented life, but it surely was – you realize, it was her personal life. She did not have to remain residence and maintain her father.

GROSS: It feels like she defected from the household.

OTSUKA: She did. She bolted.

GROSS: After which, after all, like we mentioned, you realize, she spends – what? – three years in a Japanese American incarceration camp. However she nonetheless appreciated America after that.

OTSUKA: She did, a lot to, you realize, our shock. She – you realize, she did not sound bitter. I imply, she was simply robust. You realize, life was – I imply, life – I imply, she was born in 1900, proper? So, you realize, life was not anticipated to be straightforward again then. I imply, individuals had been hungry. You realize, in Japan, you realize, volcanoes erupted. I imply, life was tough. So I do not suppose she anticipated life to be straightforward. And in America, she simply form of met, you realize, no matter obstacles had been put in her means.

And, you realize, and I feel she was additionally – individuals actually preferred her. I bear in mind one story that she advised, like, daily. The bus driver would drop her off when she was coming residence from her house-cleaning jobs. And her home was not a cease on his route, however he would make a particular cease in entrance of her home so she might get off there, you realize? You realize, she had delight in what she did, I feel. Even when she was, you realize, scrubbing individuals’s flooring, I feel she had a really, very sturdy sense of self.

GROSS: Julie Otsuka, thanks a lot. It has been a pleasure speaking with you.

OTSUKA: Thanks a lot, Terry. It has been fantastic talking with you.

GROSS: Julie Otsuka’s new novel is named “The Swimmers.” After we take a brief break, Maureen Corrigan will evaluate the brand new novel “Vladimir” about sexual politics on the faculty campus. That is FRESH AIR.


Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Go to our web site phrases of use and permissions pages at for additional info.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This textual content is probably not in its ultimate kind and could also be up to date or revised sooner or later. Accuracy and availability could differ. The authoritative file of NPR’s programming is the audio file.

Leave a Reply