Author Julie Ostuka • Courtesy

Last year, novelist Julie Otsuka spoke with the International Examiner about her latest book The Swimmers, and this spring, she will be visiting Seattle to talk about her book by participating in the Seattle Public Library program Seattle Reads

Otsuka’s upcoming visit, to focus on her tale of memory loss and community, was long a well-kept secret. “My lecture agent told me back in August of 2022,” she revealed. “I was so excited, but I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone for several months, which was hard!”

Otsuka is no stranger to the Seattle Reads program, having previously participated in the program in May, 2005, to talk about her book When the Emperor was Divine, a novel about Japanese Americans incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. “One very strong memory I have is of doing an event at the Beacon Hill branch library with Tom Ikeda,” Otsuka recalled. “At one point Tom asked if there were any survivors of the camps in the audience.” 

One by one, Otsuka recollects, people began to stand up. “These were older Japanese Americans, many of whom had never spoken of their wartime experience before,” she said. “The entire room burst into applause, and it’s difficult to describe how incredibly moving this was. There were tears.”

But the resonance went even deeper. “Afterwards, Tom told me that it was probably the first time that the wartime experience of these Japanese Americans had been acknowledged by their friends and neighbors in the community at large,” Otsuka remembered. “An older white woman came up to tell me that she’d worked with one of the Japanese American women in the audience for over twenty years, and that her friend had never once spoken of her time in the camps.”

Overall, the experience left a strong impression on Otsuka. “In 2005, I was at the very beginning of my literary career,” she said. “Seattle was the first city to choose Emperor as its City Read, and I had no idea what to expect. I felt so warmly welcomed by the community, both Japanese Americans and non-Japanese Americans alike.”

For this new visit, Otsuka is working with Seattle Reads program manager Stesha Brandon. “I have been the Literature & Humanities Program Manager since October 2016, and this will be my seventh Seattle Reads,” Brandon said. “It’s my job to manage the program, from book selection and contracting the speaker, to community outreach, to hosting the events. My favorite part is working with community partners to connect patrons with books that we’re excited about.” 

Seattle Reads books are selected by a group of library staff and community partners, and this year, Otsuka’s new book was a top choice. “Because 2023 is the 25th Anniversary of the Seattle Reads program, we wanted to bring back an author who had been featured in the program,” Brandon explained. “It is a way for us to look back at the history of the program and also celebrate it.” 

Otsuka describes looking back, as well. “Upon learning the news, my first thought was, I wonder if any of the survivors I met in 2005 are still alive,” she said. “That generation is fast leaving us. There are so many stories that we’ll never get to hear.” 

As with Emperor, the theme of Otsuka’s latest book also has multi-generational relevance.  “The Swimmers was a compelling choice because memory loss touches so many people in a variety of ways,” Brandon elaborated. “We felt that it was an opportunity to discuss the impacts of memory loss on those who experience it, as well as those who care for people experiencing it.”

And yet, Otsuka acknowledges marked differences between her two books. “Unlike Emperor, The Swimmers is not so much about what happened as about trying to hold onto the memories of what happened,” she said. “I know that my work will resonate differently in 2023.”

Brandon reports that reader response has been positive. “The Swimmers is a short but powerful book, and is artfully written,” she said. “We’ve been hearing from folks that they’re really grateful to have the opportunity to talk more about this topic.”

And these opportunities are many, starting with the Frye Art Museum’s facilitated gallery tour on May 4 of the aquatic works in “Flying Woman: The Painting of Katherine Bradford,” in concert with a book discussion of The Swimmers. “SPL’s Older Adults Program Manager, Emily Billow, has been working closely with the Frye’s Creative Aging Program and the Memory Hub at the UW Brain and Wellness Center,” Brandon relayed. “The three organizations wanted to collaborate on a program that engaged multigenerational audiences with older adult topics.” 

This event will occur before Otsuka arrives in Seattle. “The Frye’s Chief Curator, Amanda Donnan, will be leading the gallery tour, and a librarian from SPL will be leading the book discussion,” Brandon said. “Ideally attendees would come having some familiarity with the book and its themes, although it’s completely fine if folks haven’t read the book first.”

Then, on May 19 and 20, Otsuka will be visiting two branch libraries and two senior centers in Seattle.  “We work with several community partners each year to help determine many of the programmatic elements as well as where the programs should take place,” Brandon said. “We’ve been working closely with partners at Densho, the Phinney Neighborhood Association’s Greenwood Senior Center, and with a wonderful community liaison, Karen Maeda Allman, to help advise.”

Both Otsuka and Brandon are encouraging a diverse spectrum of Seattle’s community to attend these events.  “I’m hoping that I’ll get to meet some of the Japanese Americans I met in 2005, survivors of the camps,” she said. “But I’m also eager to meet new readers, and talk about other things, swimming, the life of the body, the aging process, what we remember, what we forget.”

At each appearance, Otsuka plans to go with the flow. “What I’m hoping is that there’s a lot of back and forth with the audience,” she said. “My favorite part of any visit is talking to the audience, hearing from readers, listening to their stories.”

Seattle Reads will also integrate visual art for this milestone year.  “It was through these partners that we identified an artist, Lauren Iida, who will be creating a cut-paper Memory Net that is inspired by The Swimmers,” Brandon shared. “This will be debuted at Julie’s event on May 19, and then will be on display as part of the Seattle Reads 25th Anniversary exhibit.”

Most importantly, Seattle Public Library emphasizes that the Seattle Reads program is for everyone.  “Folks can pick up a book at their library branch, read it, and even discuss it with their community before seeing Julie speak,” Brandon said. “Or they can just come enjoy the free event. Everyone is welcome.”

Otsuka echoes this sentiment. “After my experience in 2005, I was eager to come back to Seattle again,” she said. “It’s the warmth and involvement of the community that makes Seattle Reads so special.”

Julie Otsuka speaks on May 19 at Southeast Seattle Senior Center 4655 South Holly Street, Seattle, and Central Library, 1000 Fourth Avenue, Seattle, and on May 20 at Lake City Branch library, 12501 28th Avenue Northeast, Seattle, and Greenwood Senior Center, 525 North 85th Street, Seattle.

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