About The Author
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University, she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Asian American Literary Award and the American Library Association Alex Award.
Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, is about the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II. It was based on her own family history: her grandfather was arrested by the FBI as a suspected spy for Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed and her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in an internment camp in Utah.
Her new novel, The Buddha in the Attic, is about a group of young Japanese 'picture brides' who sailed to America in the early 1900s to become the wives of men they had never met and knew only by their photographs.
A finalist for the 2011 National Book Award, the book is divided into eight chapters each exploring the different experiences of the many women involved, from their trip over from Japan to setting up home, raising children and eventually being banished into internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The book follows no single woman, but instead blends them into one narrative, which allows Otsuka to explore both the differences and commonalities in their lives, in prose of mesmerising lyricism.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Julie talks about the sentence that made everything fall into place, widespread ignorance about the internment of Japanese-Americans and borrowing overheard dialogue.
Questions & Answers
At what point in the writing process did you decide to adopt the device of group narration?
For several months I tried telling the story from the point of view of a single picture bride, but the tone felt forced and flat. Then, one day, while reading over my notes, I found, buried in the middle of a paragraph several pages in, a sentence I had written months earlier: "On the boat we were mostly virgins." I knew at once that this would be the first line of my novel, and that I had found the right voice - the 'we voice' - with which to tell the story.
Did you find that this structure meant that your writing was guided by rhythm as much as sense?
Yes, completely. I was obsessed with the rhythms of the language, constantly reading my sentences out loud to hear where the accents fell. I could sometimes hear the rhythmic pattern of the next sentence I wanted to write before I knew the exact words to drop into that pattern. It was like there was a secret underground aural grid that was holding everything together.
While none of the Japanese women is ever specifically identified, do you feel that there are any individual stories running through each of the eight chapters?
There are no individual stories that I follow all the way through the novel, just a series of surfacing I's. Each sentence gives you a brief window into a character's life - it's like catching a glimpse of someone's house from a train - and then, very quickly, we move on.
A huge amount of research clearly went into presenting such a wide range of authentic experiences. Did you find yourself needing to fill in lots of gaps or is there a reasonably through historical record?
Well, the historical record tends to focus mainly on the lives of men. Because most history is written by men. So I tended to gravitate more toward work by female scholars focusing on the lives of women. And yes, I did fill in a lot of gaps, which was not that difficult, because I'm a woman, and Japanese American.
You documented the experiences of Japanese-Americans in internment camps in more detail in your first novel, When the Emperor was Divine. Does the fact that Japan and America were on opposing sides during the war continue to make it difficult to elicit recognition for how they were mistreated?
No, I think it's more that the internment of the Japanese-Americans is a very shameful episode in our history we'd rather forget about. Easier, you know, to sweep it under the rug. People just don't want to hear about it, and it's still not being taught in the schools. Sometimes I'll find myself talking to a group of students who've read my first book about the camps and they'll say, "This didn't really happen, right? It's fiction? You made it up?" Or, "I didn't know." (Many older adults tell me this as well) And I'll have to explain that no, I didn't make it up, it really happened, right here, in our own country, not so long ago.
You wrote both your books sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Manhattan. What is it about that environment that seems to suit you so well?
No internet access, no music, no outlets, and the coffee refills are endless and free! I like that it's a big space - from the back corner I can look out across the café and see everything that's going on. It helps to have a lot of visual distraction, places my eye can wander while my mind is working hard to put together words and sentences. I couldn't write, for example, at a desk in a room with four white walls. I like the aural stimulation too - the hum of voices all around me. Pleasant white noise. The occasional irresistible snatch of dialogue, which I write down in my notebook (I said, look at these great brown socks. She says, they're green. Ok, then I knew there was a problem). And I enjoy the camaraderie at the café - I know all the other regulars, we're all there looking out for one another and doing our work. And then, of course, there's those pastries...
You also paint. Do you find that this gives you an outlet for creative urges that writing can't satisfy?
Actually, I stopped painting years ago, before I took up writing at the age of 30. I don't really miss it, though once in a while I'll catch a whiff of oil paints and turpentine and it brings back a flood of memories, all those years spent in the studio, and I'll feel it again, that desire to paint. But most of the time I'm very happy writing. I feel like it's the medium that suits me best, engages my brain the most. Though I will always love looking at - and be moved by - paintings. There's just something very mysteriously transformative about color and the stuff of paint. It's magic.