Displacement, belonging and finding truth

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Award-winning author Julie Otsuka discusses the themes for her upcoming “Displacement and Belonging” speech for the Loyola Humanities Symposium on March 16 along with her family’s background in Internment Camps in California during World War II and how her book wound up on a school system’s banned list.


book, writing, people, years, japanese, march, baltimore, read, writer, speak, story, chopsticks, maryland, life, camps, family, author, learn, venezuelan, friends


Julie Otsuka, Nestor Aparicio

Nestor Aparicio  00:01

W n s t Towson Baltimore and Baltimore positive we are positively into that slow period around here for sports. We’re not ready for baseball yet and certainly gives me a chance to stretch out a little bit here we are going to be doing the Maryland crabcakes or taking it back out on the road beginning on March 3 We’re gonna be a drug sitting in Dundalk have my my dear dear middle school music professor Calvin stadium in the state of singers going to be joining us in Dundalk. It’s all brought to you by our friends at the Maryland lottery in conjunction with our friends at window nation want to remind everybody Windows available 866 90 nation buy to get two free and two years free financing weather nation I would save some dough and stay a little warmer here. This winter through our friends at window nation. We’re also on the Eighth of March going to be at fadeless at Lexington market eating those delicious crab cakes perhaps for the last time in the old market. So we’re looking forward to that. And then in the middle of March right there about the time everybody’s beer gets green and they’re doing St. Patrick’s Day. And we have an amazing symposium every single year I tried to bring on whoever the Loyola University Center for the Humanities is going to be bringing in this year its award winning novelist Juliet suka. She is here to discuss her book and her memories of a Japanese internment camp, a book that she wrote 20 years ago that has become somehow controversial. Welcome to America. I would say, Julie, a pleasure to have you on. Congratulations on all your success and on having books banned. It tells me that you’re doing things the right way and have always done things the right way, here in America, and you’re coming here to talk about this welcome in a pleasure to have an author on a real writer on

Julie Otsuka  01:37

thanks, Nestor. It’s great to be here. Well, you go around the

Nestor Aparicio  01:41

country and have to speak about banning and censorship and, and the topicality of your first book has become something that people talk about, and people bring you in from far away, to come in and chat with kids. And more than that this is part of an educational structure for kids to read and learn what our country did almost 100 years ago. And certainly you know more about this than I do. I want to give you an opportunity to talk about what you’re going to be discussing on March 16. When you come here to beautiful Baltimore over at Loyola campus.

Julie Otsuka  02:17

Yeah, I’ll probably start by talking about my mother and her family. So they were incarcerated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and this is a story that I didn’t really know very much about as a child growing up, which is very typical, I think in Japanese American families, the incarceration just was not spoken about. So I think I came to writing because of the silence in my own family about this episode in our history. And it was a way of learning about my mother. She was 10 when the war broke out World War Two. And she was in prison in a concentration camp called Topaz in Utah, in the middle of the deserts very, very desolate area for three and a half years. And her father was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed as a suspected spy for Japan. So I think I’m just going to begin simply by just telling my own very, very personal family’s story, that will be the starting point.

Nestor Aparicio  03:16

That’s an amazing journey. You know, I think we all once we get to be a certain age, we try to learn a little bit about our lineage, lineage or heritage, even if we were not raised. I was born Venezuelan. I was certainly not raised in any Venezuelan culture, but familiar with some of my family’s history. I spent last week with my 81 year old aunt in Houston, asking her how did I get here in the 1960s. And I learned things right. And I don’t know why I’ve never asked my 81 year old Venezuelan, how she wound up here. And but I guess it took me to be 54 years of age to literally do this last week. And I went on a mission and involve Bruce Springsteen, I got a full admission. Bruce Springsteen was in Houston. But I had never asked my aunt and over pancakes and waffles last Tuesday, we actually had a chat about how we wound up here. You mentioned a Japanese culture. And I’ve been to Japan a few times. I love Japanese culture. I love Tokyo. Saving Face is probably the first thing any American or you know, Western culture person would read about anyone going to Asia is saving face and pride and family pride. And you said to me, we just didn’t talk about those things. And I’m thinking, false pride involves a lot of things. Can you discuss why those things weren’t talked about? And you use the word we call them internment camps here because it’s pleasant. You call the concentration camp. That’s not a word that Americans have used that discuss that needy years have they actually it

Julie Otsuka  04:50

is it’s the word that Franklin Roosevelt used to describe the camps. It’s how the camps were described in the newspapers at the time.

Nestor Aparicio  04:58

So Is that in translation?

Julie Otsuka  05:01

We definitely have. Yeah. But that is how they were referred to in, you know, in the early 1940s. So that’s why I use that word. And not to get too technical. But internment actually applies to people, only to people who were not born in this country. So two thirds of the Japanese Americans were born who were incarcerated in the camps were born in this country. So they were

Nestor Aparicio  05:23

America mother was born here, but was correct. Okay. Yeah. Now her father was born in Japan. Correct.

Julie Otsuka  05:31

He was in Japanese, by law were not allowed to become American citizens. So he

Nestor Aparicio  05:36

prior to the bombing, correct. Really, really special for Japanese. Obviously, my Venezuelan family came in the 60s are different. But every family I grew up with in East Baltimore, Polish, German, Italian, they all came, they all came through, I think Ellis Island or like that Baltimore was also a place where we’re boats came from Europe. And I’ve since learned a lot about slavery. And a lot of a lot of things on Baltimore positive, not all of the positive, quite frankly, but all of it true. And all of it things that I think we need to talk about, and certainly something that you felt like you needed to talk about a quarter century ago in in, in writing a book, in terms of what that life was like for your family. Right.

Julie Otsuka  06:20

Yeah. And I wanted to mention to your point about asking questions, I wish I’d asked my questions, you know, decades earlier, because by the time I began to write my novel, my mother who I thought would be a great source of information. And basically she was, but she was in the very early stages of dementia. So she was no longer a completely reliable source of information. But because with dementia, you you lose your childhood memories last. So her memories of being a child in the camps were still very, very, very clear. But there’s still so much that I’ll never know about what happened. I did learn a lot, but I had to do a lot more research than I thought I would, I couldn’t just rely on my family for their stories. But one thing when the book came out, there was still so many survivors of the camps alive, including my mother. And now 20 years later, you know, most of those folks aren’t gone. And they, like you said, it’s the Japanese culture is very much about saving face. And a lot of the Japanese Americans felt shame, which they should not have felt, but they somehow felt that it was their own fault that they had been sent away to the camps. And afterwards, they just did not want to talk about it at all, as a friend of mine said, he said, Well, we’re not whiners. So they just wanted to pick up the pieces of their lives and just move on as best they could. So you know, that’s why I didn’t grow up speaking Japanese at home, even though it was my mother’s first language. My father actually was an immigrant from Japan. But we only spoke English. We had those, I think we had one Japanese face in the house, there was just really nothing Japanese at all. And that was very typical of third generation Japanese Americans like myself, to grow up in these households that were completely cleansed if anything vaguely Japanese because our parents after having gone through the war, one wanted us to be as American as possible, which is why my name is Julie. Because my parents when my mother was pregnant, they looked at the name your baby book, and they just chose the you know, one of the most popular names for girls and really wanted me to blend in.

Nestor Aparicio  08:40

Well, I’m glad you blend in. I’m glad you speak English and write in English because I still read in English. Juliet suka is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient. She has written things and been awarded things and she’s coming to town to speak on behalf of Loyola University in the center of for the Humanities, their annual keynote address and they do this every year this year. It’s on Thursday, March 16. At 630. It’s right in McGuire Hall, Julie will be in discussing an American story war memory and ratio about her family’s experience in Japanese internment camps or concentration camps. And your book was written in 2002. The book is when the emperor was divine. You mentioned 20 years ago and your mother and the last 20 years that have passed. You write this book you get awarded. It just an amazing probably changed your life dramatically at that time. I would think that you that because of the topicality maybe along the lines, you did run into other people who were not suffering from dementia to to talk to you about it or did the book not open any door anywhere? To have more conversations to learn more about the subject matter?

Julie Otsuka  09:49

Uh, no. I feel very fortunate and that when I was on book tour for Emperor 20 years ago, I traveled up and down the West Coast, which is where most of the Japanese Americans live and You know, I didn’t grow up in a Japanese American community. This is back in the 60s. So there just weren’t a lot of people who looked like me when I was I grew up in Palo Alto. And

Nestor Aparicio  10:11

you’re just a California girl in your own mind. Right? Right. I mean, literally, you’re the

Julie Otsuka  10:15

valley girl accent if you listen really hard. But, you know, I was able to speak to people who had lived through the camps, and they just started telling me their family stories after my readings, they would come up to me. And that’s actually where I got the idea for my second novel, The Buddha in the attic, which is about Japanese picture brides basically, male order brides who came over from Japan to America, in the 1920s. And I would just women would come up to me and say, you know, my, my mother or my grandmother came over as a picture bride. And when she got off the boat, she was shocked to learn that her husband was so old or is so poor or so dark, like these men had misrepresented themselves and photographs and letters, so and these women, and come, you know, across an ocean to marry these men that they did not know. And it was just a really fascinating story. And that, so I just kind of, you know, I just absorb these stories that people told me and I use them in my next novel.

Nestor Aparicio  11:20

You’ve been to Japan.

Julie Otsuka  11:23

You have probably been there more times than I have been. I’ve been there only twice. And it’s been a long time since I’ve been

Nestor Aparicio  11:28

there twice. And I can’t wait to get back to third time. So what was your experience there?

Julie Otsuka  11:35

It was amazing. It was many years ago and I got to meet I, I didn’t like I said, I did not grow up speaking Japanese. But I studied it for one year in college intensively Boy, that language is very hard for a native English speaker. I’m just glad to learn chopsticks

Nestor Aparicio  11:49

I hear you know, can eat you while and legato and, you know, chopsticks actually missing a finger. So I went over 2006 It was actually in China. And they brought me toothpicks to eat. And I said to myself, you know, I probably have adapted in life, I’ve learned how to throw a curveball with a missing finger. I need to learn chopsticks. So once I learned chopsticks, it opened the whole door for me. I feel

Julie Otsuka  12:14

like a curveball. You can use chopsticks it is the great

Nestor Aparicio  12:17

accomplishment of my adulthood. And over 40 The biggest accomplishment is learning to eat with chopsticks. So it’s good.

Julie Otsuka  12:23

Now try it in your other hand. That to me, but I actually I got to meet my father’s relatives. So he grew up in this very tiny, tiny village. It was basically a silkworm village, about 60 miles outside of Tokyo. So it was just, it was this tiny place in the mountains and

Nestor Aparicio  12:43

you shot your heritage, you did go and you went down that path.

Julie Otsuka  12:47

I did. And they did not speak any English. My father was an only child, but he did have relatives in this town still. And so I remember going into his uncle’s house, and the entire second floor was filled with silkworms, these trays of silkworms. And then which is wild. It was just like stepping back in time. And just to think that, you know, my father, I was just like, he really has, you know, he crossed a great ocean. You know, he really it was just it, you just realize how far I realized how far my father had come from this tiny village in the middle of nowhere to come to America was just I think it was a pretty brave thing to do. But you’re immigrants, you’re your family too. I mean, it’s just It’s brave to up and leave. And to go to a culture where you know, you look different. Perhaps you don’t speak the language, you’ll always have an accent, you might not be accepted, you’ll always be perhaps a foreigner. And yet, you know, but to meet the people from whom he came was it was quite something and I could speak, you know, I could speak enough we could communicate so that that I mean, and now I would not be able to I’ve lost most of my Japanese but that was really kind of a stunning experience.

Nestor Aparicio  13:54

Juliet suka author, she will be here in Baltimore on March 16. You could follow her out on the interwebs and look her up and read your books. And in some places you’re not allowed to read her books which So Julia, I’ve been a writer my whole life. I was a journalist in the 80s newspaper reporter. I’ve done radio for 31 years, I’ve written a couple of books. The books I’ve written have been sports related around championships. So one of the more disturbing events of my life that I and I talk about this openly with any writer and I have a lot of writers on because I like smart people. Now not all yell fellows, but some of them are. But in 2014, the Ravens won the Super Bowl was 10 years ago, and you’re the internet’s mature and there’s a Facebook and a Twitter and like all of that. I wrote a nice thick book with a little bit of fairy tale cartoon cover about the Ravens second championship, and it was third person and I dove in and I learned stories and a quarterback that was so proud of it. I took 200 days of my life writing this thick book selling it for 30 bucks to Ravens fans all over the world taking orders. I went to Ocean City, Maryland, second week of June after this, and I had a bunch of books. And it was like the convention for the fans. And I had the books stacked up and the posters and signing books. And it’s all nice, except I sat there and watched 1000s of people walk by me all with ravens gear, and they all looked at me, hey, Nestor, how you do, and I might have good book, I don’t read new books, I read new books and years. And I sat there for, you know, two days, and I sold the 20 books or whatever, because these 10,000 people who love the Ravens whose basements are purple, everything’s purple. They, they didn’t read no books. And this really concerned me. And then two years later, Donald Trump became, we can go on and on and on and on. As for the deterioration of all of that I am, anytime I bring an author on, I have a lot of sports author, friends who write great great books, bestsellers, the whole deal, I always worry about all of us who write books and where the audience is. And then I worry even more when I have someone like you on who has been put in this situation to see your own book burned. I want you to talk about Wisconsin and talk about book banding and being an author and the importance of the material, any material that can open people’s minds and hearts to some degree. I’m very discouraged about books and banning, and it’s an honor to have you on to talk about having your book banned. I said that in the beginning, and I mean it.

Julie Otsuka  16:27

It was, it was a shock after 20 years of just being out there talking about the book to encounter pushback like this, it just never happened to me before. But it was an unusual, and ultimately, unexpectedly heartening story. So this was a band that was started not by us most book bands are started by parents in the community. But this ban was initiated by several members of the school board in Muskego. And they rejected my book, it’s a little unclear, but their official reasons were that it was too sad. It was too poetic. And they wanted to show an American point of view. And I’m an American author. And I’m writing a better Americans. So but so the book was rejected by the school board after the English teachers in the district had proposed the use of this book. However,

Nestor Aparicio  17:24

in the same way that that I read Catcher in the Rye and needs to be in that what type of children would be reading your book ah, group, not that it matters. But what, who has a want to keep it away from that’s what I’m trying.

Julie Otsuka  17:37

I think it was a 10th grade AP English class.

Nestor Aparicio  17:40

I mean, that’s Catcher in the Rye as Miss Monday was my fifth grade teacher and I stayed friends with her and we talked about Catcher in the Rye every time we get together.

Julie Otsuka  17:47

You know, and that’s it’s, it’s, you know, kids are smarter than we give them credit for being they can handle difficult material. But the parents in the community rallied against the ban. And this is a it’s a fairly conservative town. But it was an amazing thing to watch. They were they were not happy with the ban. They started a petition 300 People signed it, there was a rally, people came out in opposition to the ban in support of the book. They formed a book club, a community book club, and the first book that they read was when the emperor was divine, ah, it ended up being a real. I mean, ultimately, the book was, it was rejected, it will not be taught, you know, next year in the high schools in Muskego.

Nestor Aparicio  18:34

But maybe one day, though,

Julie Otsuka  18:36

perhaps you don’t know. But I had never seen a community rally like that around a book. And that gave me hope. And some of the people the rallies were former high school students at this school that had been on the book, and were teachers. So it was, it was in the end, it was it was a very heartening thing to see. I have to say,

Nestor Aparicio  19:00

Whoa, everybody comes out and joins you on March 16. Celebrate your book and and honors your story and, and the meaning and the deeper meaning of all of it. I guess this is why you want 10th grade kids writing term papers about such things and taking it in and speaking to the sadness. And I don’t read a whole lot of fiction. I’m a nonfiction reader. Full disclosure, I’m that guy. But But sadness and inviting that in and inviting. My wife is a read fiction. And she started reading again recently. And I don’t know why she picks the books she reads, or you know, or what the hook would be or what the story would be. But the the notion that you’re writing books, and you you wrote them 25 years ago, what makes a good book these days, I mean, when you’re writing a book, you want an audience, you want to sell it, but you also want to write your own book. It’s sort of like being an artist or being a musician or being anything else where you’re making things hoping that to have success, to feed yourself but also understanding that you’re not writing for everybody. You can’t have a happy ending to a sad book. Right.

Julie Otsuka  20:00

Now, you know, it’s funny people ask me, like, who’s your audience and actually, my audience is just myself when I’m writing, I’m really writing for my ear, just for the sounds of language. And I just hope that what I’m thinking about will appeal to somebody out there. You have no idea as a writer if your book will find an audience or not, but I think it can’t really worry about I think you have to tell the story that you’re really dying to tell. And, you know, if it finds a home, great, but so that’s how I work if I think if I worried about an audience, or people liking or not liking my book, that might be a little debilitating, just psychologically to worry about when people like it or not, will it find a publisher or not? I think, as a writer, your job is just to write the best book that you can.

Nestor Aparicio  20:52

The books I’ve written have been very much Jack Torrance shining back in a room, all work and no play. It is it is a solitary for for an extrovert for a born extrovert. It is an incredibly solitary thing to be a writer. It really is.

Julie Otsuka  21:08

Yeah, and I would have to say also, you said it took you 200 days that is lightning fast.

Nestor Aparicio  21:13

Oh, yeah, I had to get it out. I mean, yeah, I know that real writers, and when I have them on, they’re in year three or year four of the project, right?

Julie Otsuka  21:21

That would be the middle of a book for me. So

Nestor Aparicio  21:25

why does it take you so long to bake the cake. You

Julie Otsuka  21:28

know, every writer is different. I just happen to be a slow writer, and I’m very, I’m just a perfectionist, my sentences have to sound right. I also do a lot of research for my novels. And if you’re writing historical fiction, you really have to get your facts, right, because somebody will call you on it if you don’t. And if you’re a reader, and you’re, and you’re reading along, and you run across something that you know, is not accurate, it just breaks the spell of the novel. So so there’s that. So there’s research, and then there’s the actual writing process, I think, I probably throw out 99% of what I write. So it just takes me a while to kind of get to the heart of the story. And I am, I guess I’m sort of a minimalist by nature. So I start with a lot of material and I just kind of pare down and pare down and pare down. And it just takes me a long time.

Nestor Aparicio  22:18

What’s next?

Julie Otsuka  22:21

Actually, it’s completely different from what I’ve written in the past, but I’m working on an essay about the painter Joan Mitchell, do you know who she is? No, she will. She was I’ll tell you she was a second generation abstract expressionist painter. And she is just I love her work so much. She’s, I think, recently become more well known for her work. But she was she was she was big in the 1950s she lived the last 30 years of her life in France. But um, I My training is as a painter. I studied painting and sculpture for many years before I began to write I came to writing after having failed a painting, which was my great first love,

Nestor Aparicio  23:06

but failed with painting. It’s impossible.

Julie Otsuka  23:10

It’s been very easy, believe me, but so I’ve never it’s it’s I’ve never written nonfiction. So it’s very interesting to be writing about something that’s not related to my family’s past at all. That’s not fictional. At all. It’s something external. It’s something that I’m looking at. I get to use my visual way of thinking, which I love. I get to think about color. And I love paint. I love color. And so it’s been really fun actually, to work on this essay, and I have a deadline, which means that I can’t just gotta get it done. Yes. And which, you know, when somebody puts the fire under you, it’s actually it can be a good thing.

Nestor Aparicio  23:45

So you’re gonna go from artists to writer to journalist here with a real deadline, you know, to get this thing published. Joey Otsuka joins us. She will be in Baltimore and Loyola and we’ll make sure she doesn’t have any tourists. crabcakes on the 16th of March, she’ll be at McGuire Hall at Loyola discussing and doing something they annually do. It’s a Center for the Humanities they do an annual symposium. This year she’s going to deliver the keynote address and American story war memory and erasure about our family’s experience in the Japanese internment camps, concentration camps World War Two, and you can learn more@loyola.edu You can learn more at Baltimore positive and where should I tell people to follow you and find your your books anywhere they’re sold? Other than how to spell your name ot su Ke and it’s not even the Japanese pronunciation so you’re gonna help me with that before you go right?

Julie Otsuka  24:33

I will try my pronunciation probably is not great but he’s Oscar is the correct Japanese pronunciation so

Nestor Aparicio  24:40

it almost sounds like my wife’s Polish family right? They’re like Oh, like the pronunciation a little what is their what is their name? Oh, well, I mean snore stupid like it sounds like because of the way it ends. It has more of a European flair than I thought like an Asian flair. But either way oh T S. UK you can follow Julie and find her books anywhere the internet is insert We follow him over here. How many of these do you do on an annual basis, we go into university and talk about your book and talk about your life and your family.

Julie Otsuka  25:07

You know, it really varies. I mean, it was slow during the first year to the pandemic. But, I mean, I’ve had years where I’ve done, I don’t know, 10 or 15, which for me is a lot and then some years fewer. It just, it really, really depends. Like, I can’t there’s no way to predict.

Nestor Aparicio  25:25

I just like to see authors and book people out and doing things and every time I drive by something used to be a bookstore, it worries me, that’s all so I’ll just say that for all of us. And good luck with your nonfiction. I’ve been working on it all my life I still haven’t gotten to write I can’t do fiction so the left and the right don’t work together. But I will see you on March 16. Congratulations on all your success and and I love the story of love to having you on. Appreciate.

Julie Otsuka  25:50

Thanks so much. Nestor. It’s been really fun Juliet suka

Nestor Aparicio  25:52

she writes books and things and does art and writes fiction for fiction readers. Go find her and find her on March 16. A big thanks to Karen Sago and everyone out there who will helps us find great guests that book great guests to your Baltimore positive. I’m going a little bit of a rest but we’ve been doing the radio row greatest hits from the last 28 years of Hall of Fame football players, incredible actors and rock stars and all sorts of things. So make sure you’re checking that out at Baltimore positive as well. We’re gonna be doing the Maryland crabcake tour beginning March 3 again at drug city and on the eighth at fade these it’s all brought to you by the Maryland lottery and our friends at window nation. I am Nestor we are wn St. am 5070, Towson Baltimore and we never stop talking. Baltimore positive

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