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

Otsuka has recently been awarded the Carnegie Medal for Excellence for her novel about a Japanese American woman who's lost much of her memory to dementia. Originally broadcast Feb. 22, 2022.


Other segments from the episode on February 3, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 3, 2023: Interview with Julie Otsuka; Interview with Victor Navasky; Review of Cunk On Earth



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Novelist Julie Otsuka has just been awarded the Carnegie Medal for Excellence for her book "The Swimmers." It's about a group of people who go to the local pool to escape from their problems. Vogue magazine and Kirkus Review listed the book as one of the year's best of 2022. It's now out in paperback. Otsuka's two previous novels were acclaimed, as well. "When The Emperor Was Divine" is based on the experiences of her mother and grandparents when they were forced into Japanese internment camps during World War II. Her book "The Buddha In The Attic," which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is an 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 already was living here. In Otsuka's latest novel, "The Swimmers," one of the swimmers is in the early stages of dementia. Terry Gross spoke with Julie Otsuka last year when her novel was first published.


TERRY GROSS: 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: 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. 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.


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 my 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 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?


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.


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 forks 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: 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. 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: 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, 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.

BIANCULLI: Julie Otsuka speaking to Terry Gross in 2022. The author's latest novel, "The Swimmers," is now out in paperback. After a break, we remember author, editor and publisher Victor Navasky, who died recently at age 90. And I'll review a new mockumentary comedy series from Charlie Brooker, the co-creater of "Black Mirror." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


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