Julie Otsuka on Writing Memory Loss and the Power of the First-Person Plural
The Author of The Swimmers Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Julie Otsuka has a rare gift for evoking the experience of communities with powerful emotional resonance, while maintaining a strong sense of the individual. Through a frequent use of the first-person plural point of view, she combines the tragic tone of a Greek chorus with the intimacy of a confession.
Her evocative first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, followed one Berkeley family through the harsh and alienating experience of internment after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. (Otsuka drew upon her family background; her grandfather was arrested and interned as a suspected Japanese spy; her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years at the Topaz, Utah internment camp.)
Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, traced the journeys of picture brides who sailed to San Francisco Bay in the early years of the 20th century to marry Japanese men who they only knew through their photographs and self-descriptions. All hoped for a better life; most were doomed to bitter disappointment. Otsuka conjures up the voices of this generation of Japanese American women over a span of decades.
The Swimmers is an equally artful and powerful depiction of a group—in this case, a community of swimmers who swim laps in an underground pool, now faced with the destruction of that vessel of daily ritual. She pairs this with one swimmer’s experience of the gradual forgetting that accompanies dementia, and how it affects her daughter. It’s an exquisitely written novel exploring the routines that bring us joy and comfort, and the grief, loss, and love that encompass a lifetime. Our conversation via email dipped into a few memories of an earlier pre-covid time.
Jane Ciabattari: How have you fared during the past two years of uncertainty and turmoil? Are you still in New York City? Writing? Swimming?
Julie Otsuka: I’m doing all right, I’m used to working at home. The most difficult part was not being able to see my elderly father. He died in January of 2020, when the Covid numbers were high, and there was not yet wide access to the vaccine. It seemed best—for my own safety and for his—if I did not fly out to California to see him. I will always feel bad about that.
So I’ve been in New York City the whole time. I gave up swimming several years ago in favor of a “dry” workout on land, at the gym. But I gave up my gym habit during the pandemic. I’m writing, working on something new.
JC: I remember talking with you about your neighborhood café on the Upper West Side during an interview for The Daily Beast when Buddha in the Attic was published. Did you work on The Swimmers there?
JO: I wrote all of The Swimmers in my neighborhood café—except for the last chapter, which I wrote at home, during the first year of the pandemic, when it no longer felt safe to be writing in an indoor public space. I was worried that I’d find it difficult to work at home, but actually, it was fine. I suddenly had so much more time on my hands. But I do miss the café terribly, and long to go back. I love working in public spaces—the general din of voices all around me, the smell of coffee, the occasional stray bits of dialogue that float my way, the chats with the other regulars, the feeling of being part of a larger community, it’s all good.
JC: When I asked what you were working on then, you said your next novel would be set in New York City. “Something about swimming and dementia,” you said. So here we are, with The Swimmers. What was the inspiration for your new novel? Is it based in part on personal experience?
JO: Growing up in Southern California, I spent a lot of time at the beach in summer as a teenager. So I’ve always been very comfortable in the water. Later, as an adult, I swam recreationally for many years, at a nearby pool, and was always fascinated by the culture there, all the rules, spoken and unspoken, the regulars, their oddities and quirks, the scene in the locker room, etc.
And both of my parents suffered from dementia, so I was able to draw on that, too.
JC: You told your story in Buddha in the Attic from the perspective of a group of young woman picture brides who sail together from Japan to the US. In the first section of The Swimmers, “The Underground Pool,” you return to that “we” chorus of voices to describe activities from the point of view of the swim club regulars at the pool, which is located in an anonymous suburb in California. “Some of us come here because we are injured, and need to heal….Others of us are employed at the college nearby… 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.” You describe the jockeying for lanes, the rules, the camaraderie, the accommodations made for swimmers like Alice, a member for more than thirty-five years, who is in the early stages of dementia. What pulls you into this first-person plural point of view? What are the advantages for the story you are telling?
JO: The first-person plural is, for me, the ideal voice to use when describing a community from within. It’s a very capacious voice that is infinitely expandable. It allows you to paint a bigger picture than you would otherwise if you were telling the story from a single character’s point of view.
JC: The discovery of a crack at the bottom of the pool sends the group into disarray, obsessing about what it is, if it might spread, what to do. Is there history or research behind cracks like this? Or was this ominous detail invented?
JO: Purely invented! Though I did do some research into pool cracks afterwards, for technical terms, added detail, etc. But “my” crack doesn’t really follow the rules of science. It’s more a metaphor for rupture. A sudden break in reality. The unknown.
JC: Your second section, Diem Perdidi (“I have lost the day”), follows Alice from her daughter’s perspective, in a litany of what she remembers, what she forgets. I’m curious about the specifics. How did you trace the memories from short term to long-age? Is there a reason some memories linger?
JO: With Alice, as is the case in most people with dementia, the last memories to go are the earliest. So her childhood memories stay with her until close to the very end. I didn’t really trace her memories from short- to long-term, and I can’t really say I had any organizing principle. I wrote a bunch of sentences that began with “She remembers” or “She does not remember,” and then I configured them into coherent clusters, which became paragraphs. There was a lot of arranging and rearranging of the sentences that went on—and the organizing principle was simply my intuition, what “felt” right.
JC: The “Belavista” section takes the second-person point of view. The opening lines—“You are here because you have failed the test”—usher Alice into a “long-term for-profit memory residence,” the world of final care for a person with a “downward cognitive trajectory.” You create an emotional arc based on intimate details, sentence by sentence. How did you do that?!
JO: I described, in a very factual, almost scientific, way, the world of the memory residence. The strangeness/cruelty of that world spoke for itself. I felt like I was simply capturing reality. And every now and then, I’d slot in a few intimate details about Alice to remind the reader that she was there. This was actually a very fun chapter to write. I’d never taken on the voice of a somewhat malign (because, profit-driven) institution before.
JC: The final section, “EuroNeuro,” continues this intimate point of view, but from the perspective of Alice’s daughter. “What was it, you wonder, that first made her begin to forget?” You detail a gradual letting go with enormous patience and objectivity. Did you have a process through which you built these moments?
JO: Again, no process, very intuitive. I wrote scenes down as they came to me, which wasn’t necessarily chronologically, and then—as with the sentences in Diem Perdidi—I rearranged them into what felt like the “right” configuration. This is why I’d be terrible at teaching. I don’t really know how I do what I do. There’s no real method, it all happens on a very unconscious level.
JC: The combination of the crack in the pool and the early moments of forgetting give us the early cues to a disintegration that is terrifying yet inevitable. I’m curious about how you found it possible to distill the buildup of emotions, of love and grief, over the years, into fiction?
JO: I think I’m a distiller by nature, that’s just my natural sensibility.
JC: What are you working on now?
JO: It’s too early to talk about yet. All I can say is I’m writing something new, I’m not sure what it is, but I’m continuing to work in a more personal vein, turning the camera inward on myself.