Community of Voices

Julie Otsuka’s beautiful The Swimmers, the September California Book Club selection, departs from the manner in which she uses collective voice in her first two novels but continues to demonstrate deep emotional and cultural insight.

julie otsuka, the swimmers, the buddha in the attic, when the emperor was divine

I’ve been teaching Julie Otsuka’s masterful, perspective-shifting novels about the Japanese American experience in my creative writing classes for years. I start students with her novel about the incarceration of one Berkeley family during World War II, When the Emperor Was Divine, before teaching her polyphonous follow-up, The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese picture brides coming to the United States. I’ve loved them for their technical experimentation with point of view, urging my students to analyze the skill with which Otsuka shifts perspectives from chapter to chapter, or even within a single paragraph, from the collective experience of the first generation to that of individuals within the group. I’m also deeply moved by both novels’ profound insights into generational trauma caused by racist U.S. laws on Japanese immigrants and their families.

So it was something of a surprise to read the first part of her new book, The Swimmers, and find that the collective voice does not belong to Japanese Americans, or any single ethnic group, but rather speaks for a group of random people who happen to use a communal swimming pool:

In our “real lives,” up above, we are overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters (Just one more row), secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses, twins, vegans, “Mom,” [and]…one Alice…but down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.

As the book progresses, a single swimmer’s story is centered: that of Alice, an elderly Japanese American woman who is suffering from dementia. As her unnamed adult daughter watches, Alice gradually loses her memories of her history, including the man she loved before the man she married; her years in an incarceration camp in the desert during World War II; the first daughter, who died shortly after birth; and the second daughter, who, as an adult, helps to care for her.

Later in the book, Alice becomes a member of a different kind of community—an assisted-living facility—joining other women who are losing their memories, control over their bodies, and eventually their lives.

Thus, the community at the pool takes on important symbolism. Alice’s life has largely been defined by the actions of others (the U.S. government, the man who left her and would not marry her, the white women she kept houses for). However, the pool’s is the sole community that Alice chooses. In an eerie parallel to her early life, when Alice, as a child, is sent to a World War II–era incarceration camp, Alice is denied agency again near life’s end when she’s sent by her husband to the nursing home.

The book is devastating and beautiful in its recounting of memory. Otsuka’s diamond-chiseled sentences are as polished as those of her earlier books:

She remembers the rows of dried persimmons that once hung from the eaves of her mother’s house in Berkeley…. She remembers the number assigned to her family by the government right after the start of the war. 13611. She remembers being sent away to the desert with her mother and brother during the fifth month of that war and taking her first ride on a train. She remembers the day they came home. September 9, 1945. She remembers the sound of the wind hissing through the sagebrush.

In these later sections detailing the memories of Alice’s incarceration during World War II, The Swimmers resembles most closely Otsuka’s previous two books. It’s easy to imagine Alice as the unnamed little girl from When the Emperor Was Divine, watching her own mother fall into despair and mental illness in the incarceration camp. Just as the mother from Emperor easily could have been one of the picture brides described in The Buddha in the Attic.

The Swimmers also continues the theme of mother-daughter relationships and cross-generational experiences. At its core is the exploration of the interactions between Alice and her unnamed adult daughter. The scenes between the two are never sentimental, always a bit fraught with the tensions between the mother’s love and her noncomprehension of the choices of her living daughter. Ultimately, their relationship also chronicles changes in the Japanese American experience: If the first two generations struggled merely to survive, both due to cultural confusion and racist anti-Japanese laws, Alice’s daughter is finally able to choose to live as an American woman with a multitude of choices unavailable to earlier generations. But rather than relief or pride, Alice’s daughter is left feeling somewhat guilty that she has chosen to live her life for her personal happiness rather than her mother’s. Here, Otsuka shows that the expanded opportunities of the third generation do not necessarily heal the wounds of those who suffered the most but in fact may lead to misunderstandings and a sense of loss.

Otsuka writes:

You never once invited your mother to come visit you in all the years that you were away. You never wrote to her. You never called to wish her a happy birthday…. When she asked why you weren’t closer you said you didn’t know.

This year, in a move that echoes the historical events Otsuka describes in her books, a school board in Wisconsin made the news for banning When the Emperor Was Divine, claiming it lacked “balance” and did not provide the perspective of the U.S. government for incarcerating Japanese Americans. The school board’s ban was mistaken for many reasons, including the fact that its rationale was racist and illogical, but not least of all because Otsuka’s work is nothing if not balanced. The school board suggested that the U.S. government was justified in imprisoning Japanese Americans because of acts of war committed by the Japanese government in Asia and the Pacific. Racism against Asians in America is often premised on this notion: that Asians in the U.S. are not individuals, like white Americans, but symbols of an enemy other who deserve to be treated inhumanly. Otsuka’s books powerfully counter this racism by demonstrating how Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents and grandparents defined themselves, both within groups and apart from them and especially in light of the U.S. government’s levying of its tremendous power against them.

In all of her novels, including The Swimmers, Otsuka excels at balancing the voice of groups—chosen and assigned and accidental—with those of her protagonists, who struggle to define their individuality both within and apart from these groups, including their families, over the course of their lives.•

Join us on Friday, September 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Otsuka will talk to CBC host John Freeman and a special guest, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Cunningham, about The Swimmers. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the novel. Register here.

May-lee Chai is the author most recently of a short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, which won a 2019 American Book Award.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below