Julie Otsuka on Writing From and Into Memories
"These boxes were my inheritance, the stuff out of which my novels are made."
One day in late April, two enormous boxes arrived at my door. Together, they weighed eighty-six pounds. For the last two years, my brothers and I had been renting a storage unit in L.A. so we would not have to deal with our parents’ stuff. This was an arrangement I would have been happy to continue with indefinitely. But now, one of the brothers, the practical one, had unilaterally decided, enough. And so there it was, my share of the clutter: two boxes of inherited junk.
I live in a small apartment in New York City. I do not have an attic or a basement, just a drawer in the kitchen filled with batteries and screwdrivers that I sometimes like to call the garage. I had no place to put these boxes, so they sat, unopened, in my foyer for six weeks. I had an essay to write, a talk to give, friends to see, a novel to research. There was always something else to do.
However, after listening, one night, to a podcast about “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”—the idea being, get rid of your junk now so other people don’t have to do it for you after you die, a philosophy my parents had apparently never heard of—I decided to tackle the boxes.
The first box, the lighter of the two, at thirty-eight pounds, was filled with hundreds of photographs and letters. Most of the letters were addressed to my parents but many, I saw, were addressed to me. Some of this junk was mine.
I found letters from childhood friends and college roommates, aerograms from an old boyfriend, a note from a Yale classmate who later dropped out and took his own life, another from a friend who was last seen living on the streets of Berkeley. There was a photograph of myself and a handsome young man who would later go on to commit a horrific crime when not in his right mind. And my heart grew suddenly heavy.
But I was also grateful, at the same time, that I had come of age, pre-internet, and that I had these letters, physical proof of my friends’ existence, in my hands. It was like unearthing shards of Roman pottery. Artifacts from a distant time, when everyone was still young and filled with promise, and the winnowing had not yet begun.
At the bottom of the box, I found two Ziploc bags filled with letters from my mother to me. The moment I saw her familiar handwriting, I felt a pang in my gut. I opened up the first letter and began to read. It was June of 1986, and she and my father were driving up the coast to Monterey to see the aquarium. They would be staying at the Motel 6 in Salinas. The arthritis in her left hand was acting up again. Her ring finger was swollen and painful, and it hurt to make a fist. She had enclosed a check for $150 dollars, which was all, she said, they could send at the time.
About my brother David, an autocratic dispatcher of boxes in 2023, a sulky teenager in 1986, she later wrote:
“Your letter to David arrived yesterday. (When I asked him if you had said anything interesting, his reply was ‘I haven’t opened it yet.’ However, I had already seen that the envelope was ripped open.)”
I marveled at how lucid my mother sounded, how she delivered the news in her straightforward way, simply, and with good humor. I winced at the thought of her aching hand even though she had been dead now for eight years. I remembered her holding that same hand close to her chest when she was in a wheelchair at the nursing home, foggy with dementia and unable to speak, and I felt bad that I had not realized then, that she was in pain. The arthritis. I should have remembered.
But it was also a relief to hear her speaking to me from a time before the dementia had unsettled her mind. Because for the last twenty years, try though as I might, I had not been able to hear her old voice, the lucid one, in my head, except for once in a lucky while, in dreams. But now there she was, clear as day, on the page.
Mixed in, among these letters and photos, was a folder full of mementos from her youth. A ticket stub to a Cal-Stanford football game, old report cards, a copy of the Berkeley Daily Gazette dated June 19, 1953, the headline on the left announcing the graduation of 6000 UC Berkeley students, one of whom was my mother, the headline on the right announcing that the Rosenbergs would be executed before sundown.
I found a letter written to her from a childhood friend, Joan Marsh, on January 29, 1943, asking my then 11 year old mother, “Do you go to school up there? Is your hair longer now? Have you grown any bigger? Have you gotten any sand in your eyes lately?” “Up there” was Topaz, the concentration camp in the Utah desert where my mother and her family had been sent by train in the spring of 1942. Joan’s letter ended with an enormous drawn heart, and the question, written in all caps, “Will you be my Valentine?” In a later letter to Joan, which was never sent, my mother had enclosed a class photograph—everyone in the picture was black-haired and Japanese American, of course, except for the teacher, who was white. “Try to find me,” my mother wrote. “After you have found me tell me where I am in the picture. Then I will write back and tell you if you are right or wrong. Will you send me a picture of you?”
The return address on Joan’s envelope was 3036 Dohr Street in Berkeley. My mother’s was Block 28-3-F, a shared room in a tar paper barrack behind barbed wire that she called home for three years.
I was struck by how very ordinary these letters sounded. Two schoolgirls writing to each other, asking the questions that young girls do—Is your hair longer? Guess which one is me?—even in the midst of a terrible war.
And it is exactly these very quotidian details that I look for, when doing my own research, to write my novels. The aching hand. The Motel 6 in Salinas. The graduation announcement. The message in all caps. The juxtaposition of these ordinary details against the larger events of human history—the execution of the Rosenbergs, the forced removal of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent—is what fascinates me and makes me want to write.
What does it feel like to lose your mind, to spend your childhood in a camp, to never hear back from your Valentine?
In the second box, I found two of my mother’s Topaz yearbooks from 1944 and 1945, a couple dozen old still life paintings I’d made at Yale, and hundreds of photographs of my father’s relatives in old Japan. These photos were from the early 1900s, and were glued to thick card stock, often with the name of the photographer’s studio printed in English on the back: Watanabe, Fukuda, Suzuki.
Some of the photographs were covered with delicate sheets of tissue paper, which I carefully lifted to take a closer look. I saw dozens of men and women, posing, unsmiling, before the camera, dressed in their finest kimonos, the women with elaborate hairdos and upswept buns, several of the men with wide handlebar mustaches.
Occasionally, I’d see someone I recognized—my father’s father, a banker, whom I’d only ever met once—dressed in a dapper western suit. But most of these people were unknown to me, their presence strange and spectral and hauntingly other, and yet these were my father’s people, the people from which I’d come.Perhaps out of these scavenged remnants I will write something interesting.
I had no knowledge of my mother’s people, no pictures of them, no letters from old Japan. All of these things had been destroyed in what I call, in The Swimmers, that “first frenzy of forgetting, right after the start of the war.” If the Japanese Americans on the West Coast had not gotten rid of all of their Japanese possessions after Pearl Harbor, who knows, perhaps four boxes would have arrived at my doorstep, instead of two.
Tucked in among the photos of my father’s ancestors was a more recent photo of him as a young boy in Japan holding one of his beloved homing pigeons, which he’d trained to return to the roost. Every once in a while he’d lose one and my father, many years later, now an old man in America, still wondered, on occasion, what had happened to the birds that got away. Did they learn how to find food on their own? He hoped that they were okay.
I found another photograph of my father as a young man, slipping an engagement ring onto the finger of a woman who was not my mother—who was this woman, and had he thought of her often over the years? Of the life that could have been? Of the life, of course, that would not have led to me standing here before you tonight? You make a left turn after a sentence, instead of a right, and you arrive at a completely different, but equally plausible, ending.
And I thought what a mystery our parents are, how unknowable every person is. Why had this classmate—the boy genius—succumbed to mental illness, and not that one? What happened to all the kimono-clad people in the photographs? Why had my father never shown me their pictures? Why had he always refused to speak Japanese? Who was my mother, the tiny old woman in the wheelchair unable to express her pain? The young girl in the desert staring, unsmiling, into the camera for her class picture? The middle-aged woman looking at the fish in the Monterey Aquarium? All three? None of the above? And why had she never mentioned Joan Marsh?
I’d never known my mother had a white childhood friend. Or perhaps Joan was Black, I had no idea. You google Joan Marsh, and up comes Joan Marsh, the blonde bombshell, a 1930s Hollywood actress. Wrong Joan.
Did my mother see Joan when she returned to Berkeley after the war? And why had she never sent Joan her letter?
As I unpacked the two large boxes, I sorted through their contents and put them into smaller boxes, boxes that could fit into the unclaimed spaces in my closets and cupboards. I would save almost everything, the Swedish death cleaners be damned, because these boxes were my inheritance, the stuff out of which my novels are made: old photographs and letters, unanswered questions, ticket stubs, report cards, the unremarkable detritus of ordinary human lives. Material, for me, junk, to anybody else.
Perhaps out of these scavenged remnants I will write something interesting, something that will make you want to rip open the envelope and read my next message to you.
This speech was given at the awards ceremony for the 2023 Carnegie Award for The Swimmers.