Event Recap: Rhythm and Sight in Julie Otsuka’s ‘The Swimmers’

Author Julie Otsuka, special guest Michael Cunningham, and host John Freeman spoke eloquently about collective voice, painting, and The Swimmers, our September CBC selection.

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Host John Freeman began the fluid and moving California Book Club conversation about Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers, our September CBC selection, by talking about its sumptuous collective voice, which Otsuka had also used in her other books to different effects. He asked Otsuka how she’d developed her style of collective voice. She explained her difficulty in starting The Buddha in the Attic, which is her novel about picture brides. She had tried to tell the story from the point of view of one of the women. While looking through earlier work, she saw what became the first line of the finished novel: “On the boat we were mostly virgins.” She said, “As soon as I saw that, I just knew that was the first line of the novel, and that gave me the idea for using what I call the ‘we’ voice.”

Freeman asked how she’d heard the words while writing or editing to make a perfectly balanced sound in her prose. Otsuka responded that her process is intuitive; she could never teach what she does. She said, “I’m obsessed with the rhythm of language. I don’t know why.… Part of my brain is always just listening to rhythm.… I see the rhythm of the sentences as a secret underground grid that holds the whole novel together, and it hopefully lulls or draws the reader into the book, without the reader actually knowing why.”

Expressing curiosity about the portraits of communal life in her books, Freeman asked about her early experiences of community and where her interest in communality came from. Otsuka commented that she’d grown up in a very white neighborhood in Palo Alto in the 1960s, which had a different landscape then. There weren’t many Asians, so her family wasn’t part of a larger Japanese American community, but they were welcomed on that street, Los Palos Avenue. A white family lived next door. The mothers became friends, and so the kids “were just all raised together, in and out of each other’s houses.”

The evening’s special guest, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and screenwriter Michael Cunningham, joined Otsuka and Freeman. Otsuka got her MFA at Columbia University, where Cunningham taught. He mentioned being one of the people who’d read Otsuka’s thesis 20-something years ago, though he hadn’t taught her. He said, “It was just so clear that there was something serious going on there, and it is just such an incredible thrill to see what you’re doing and what’s happened. I knew it.” Otsuka mentioned that she’d left her final thesis review walking on air because he’d said he thought she could be a novelist.

Both Cunningham and Otsuka started out as visual artists. They both changed their minds. He asked her to talk about being self-transformed from an aspiring painter and writer to an enormously successful writer. Otsuka explained that she’d come to writing as a failed painter. She said, “There was just this gap between the kinds of paintings I was seeing in my head and what I was able to execute technically. I love the material of paint. I love the color. It’s just amazing. It’s just so visceral also—just good stuff, oil paint.” Before painting, she sculpted from the figure, and that was how she learned to see. “I remember looking at a cow femur bone, and it was the first time I’d looked at something that I had no preconceived idea of, and it was just gorgeous—these really complex curves moving through space—so I imprinted on that bone.”

Cunningham commented that learning to see was good training for a writer, though he didn’t think of it that way when he thought he was going to be an artist: “You have to really look at a hand, because if you don’t really look at the hand attached to, owned, and operated by the model, it’s going to be a Mickey Mouse hand. You really have to abandon your sense of how the object, the body, the bone, the hand should look and see it as it actually does look.”

Going back to Otsuka’s earlier remark, Cunningham said that he, too, couldn’t bear the gap between the painting he was trying to produce and the one he was able to produce, but this was true for him of writing as well: “I always had a greater book in mind than what I’m able to write, and one of the fundamental differences is I can survive that.”

After Otsuka read a portion of the book set at the institution Belavista, Freeman noted that his own mother was in a similar facility and had also been diagnosed with Pick’s disease, which the central figure of the novel, Alice, has, and that he’d been destroyed by that chapter. He said that one of the reasons he adores the book is that Otsuka takes us inside “a place like this, where so many parents and loved ones have gone and where, probably, so many of us will go. It’s so unseen.”

Otsuka commented that it’s always more interesting to tell the story of what somebody wants, rather than what somebody dreads, such as dying in a nursing home. She said, “The question was, Can I make it come alive in some way, and without it being a complete downer on the page? Can I make it a good read as well, and yet do so with empathy and a lot of feeling?”•

Join us on Zoom on October 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Natalia Molina will join Freeman and a special guest to discuss A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know what you think of this book. Register here for the event.

Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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