From paint to pen: Writer speaks at Emerson

by Ryan Catalani / Beacon Staff • February 14, 2013

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Author Julie Otsuka speaks about her life and books for a reading series sponsored by Ploughshares.
Author Julie Otsuka speaks about her life and books for a reading series sponsored by Ploughshares.

When she was an undergraduate at Yale, spending long days painting in her artist’s studio, Julie Otsuka never expected to be a writer. She thought she would spend her life portraying images and meaning through oil and canvas, not writing longhand at a Hungarian pastry shop in New York City.

And yet Otsuka found herself in Emerson’s Beard Room on Feb. 7, answering questions from professors and students alike about her two novels — the latest of which, The Buddha in the Attic, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction last year. She met one of the judges for that award, Emerson professor Steve Yarbrough, who invited her to speak on campus for a reading series sponsored by Ploughshares — a literary magazine based at Emerson — and the writing, literature, and publishing department.

The Buddha in the Attic tells the story of a group of Japanese “picture brides” who were married to American men only on the basis of their new husbands' often-misleading photos. It uses the collective voice, “we,” a technique that Otsuka said let her succinctly express the multitudes of experiences those women had undergone.

But it was only through failure, Otsuka told an audience of 31, that she was able to become a writer.

“I failed at painting,” she said. “It was really my first love, the thing that I wanted to do more than anything else.”

She tried to pursue painting after graduating, but after a few years she said she simply could not do it without overwhelming self-doubt. She found an evening job word processing — creating typed versions of handwritten papers — but during the day, Otsuka said, she would wander through the stacks of her neighborhood bookstore, sometimes five times a week, and pick books at random off the shelf.

“I was really depressed, and so I began going to the cafe at that point, and I would read every afternoon,” she said, “Because I found reading was just kind of an escape, and I loved being lost in somebody else’s story.”

After two years of sitting and reading in the same corner under an exhaust vent, she said she signed up for an informal fiction workshop, whose exercises simply asked students to craft new stories by imitating other authors.

“Language was somehow a more manageable medium for me than painting,” she said. “With writing, I somehow have more faith that I can pull it off.”

Otsuka was accepted into Columbia University’s MFA program and ended up writing the opening chapters of her first book, When the Emperor Was Divine—about a Japanese-American family’s experience in a World War II internment camp—for a workshop class, drawing on her own family’s stories of the camps.

Later in the evening, Otsuka read the first chapter of The Buddha in the Attic to a crowd of 52 in the Bill Bordy Theater. She said she got the idea for that novel while she was promoting her previous book: A grandmother told Otsuka about her journey across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. as a picture bride.

Otsuka’s speaking was deliberate and confident, and her expression was almost always neutral and unvaried — until she let slip a brief smile and chuckle at the end of this passage:

“And was it true that the women in America did not have to kneel down before their husbands or cover their mouths when they laughed? (Charlie stared at a passing ship on the horizon and then sighed and said, ‘Sadly, yes.’)”

Owen Ziegler, a first-year graduate student in the creative writing program, said he enjoyed the reading.

“A book like this, it’s uniquely lyrical,” said Ziegler. “I think it’s important to have a book like this read aloud, to hear what it sounds like, even more so by the person who wrote it.”

Luke Jones, a third-year graduate student, also said he was impressed by Otsuka’s writing.

“I thought it was really exceptional, her experimentation with form,” said Jones, who is also in the creative writing program. “It’s cool to see people willing to push the boundaries.”

Otsuka’s willingness to use the first person plural voice — and even to write about these subjects — grew only with time, she said in an interview, as her initial forays in fiction were in humor, not historical fiction. She said her experience with painting, including her failure with the medium, was critical.

“I think there’s something to be said for being a late bloomer,” she said, “because everything you were up until the moment you start writing really informs your work.”