Living Writers Series Features Julie Otuska

Jaime Gelman

Persson Auditorium was filled to the brim when author Julie Otsuka entered the room to speak as part of the Living Writers Series. Students were even standing in the back of the auditorium, straining to hear the author read from two of her works, “The Buddha in the Attic” and “Diem Perdidi,” and answer questions from the audience.

Beginning her professional career as a painter, Otsuka did not decide to become a writer until the age of 30. She received her B.A. from Yale University and has received many awards for her writing, including, but not limited to, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the American Library Association Award and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. Her first novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” has sold over 300,000 copies worldwide.

Otsuka began her visit by reading “Come, Japanese!” the first chapter from her second published book, “The Buddha in the Attic.” Through a captivating first-person plural point of view – using words such as “we,” “us” and “our” – she described a group of Japanese girls and women on a ship to America. These women, called picture brides, discussed their travels in rich descriptions as they struggled to deal with the difficulties of living on the boat, and the changes they would soon find in America.

Otsuka explained how she had no personal connection to these picture brides, which was one of the main reasons why she chose to write about them. The picture brides that she wrote about were Japanese women who were matched with a husband in America. They were chosen as pairs from photographs, and only had the opportunity to correspond through several letters. The picture brides in her story left for America in hopes of a better future and good husbands. They had no idea what they would find when they got off the boat.

After the first reading, Otsuka read a second excerpt from her newest work, “Diem Perdidi,” which translates to “I have lost the day.” The short story is part of her newest book, which she described as being about swimming and dementia. The narration, told from the second person point of view, described a mother, who was mostly referred to as “she,” suffering from dementia. Although this piece was a work of fiction, Otsuka classified it as the most personal piece she ever wrote.

It was easy to see why Otsuka is such a highly esteemed writer and why she has received so many awards. Not only does she use a variety of unique points of view with extreme success, but she also has an impressionistic and collage-like writing style that is truly captivating. She described how, when she writes, she uses both her knowledge of painting and of writing; she sketches her ideas out loosely to find the larger picture before she brings it into focus with the details and the actual writing. Otsuka impressed the audience with her readings, creating another memorable event in the Living Writers series.

Contact Jaime Gelman at [email protected]