by Julie Otsuka, August 26, 2011 11:15 AM
: This is a continuation of yesterday's post from Julie Otsuka, which you can find here
Eight years ago, I was occasionally approached by smiling young men in the café asking me if I was Michiko, Yasuko, Fiona, and, once, Saskia. Today, eight years later, I am not so much approached by the smiling young men anymore. I have continued to age at regular eight-year intervals, while the young men have remained eternally young. Just the other day, however, one of them did come up to me and asked if I was Hannah Chang. I told him I was not. Sorry, sorry, he said, and then hurried away. I felt bad, as if, in some odd way, I had disappointed him. But then, when I saw the real Hannah Chang come striding through the door, I realized that I had not.
Eight years ago, I was boorishly propping up my foot on the chair opposite mine because I had sprained my ankle while rushing to meet the new boyfriend. Eight years later, the ankle has healed, the new boyfriend is long gone, and I am more careful about potholes when crossing the street.
Eight years ago, I did not know that in two years I would meet the man in this very café, in fact to whom I would dedicate my second book. He is rarely on time, so nowadays I find myself proceeding, quite happily, at a more leisurely pace. Because, really, what's the rush?
Eight years ago, my favorite time to come to the café was in the late afternoon, right after my mid-day swim. Now, eight years later, I am more of an early evening person. I have stopped swimming (sore shoulder) and now do my workout on land (better workout, but still, I miss the water). By the time I get to the café it is often 6:00 (just in time to hear the cathedral bells ringing) or 6:30 (last call for toast at the sandwich shop). The early evening and late afternoon crowds overlap, so most of the faces are familiar. And after coming here for 16-plus years, I do know most of the other regulars. Still, at the 50th anniversary celebration there were a number of faces I did not recognize. Who were these people, I wondered, and where had they come from? How could I not know who they were? The answer was simple. They were, it was explained to me, morning people. Of course. The morning people! Another parallel universe. And here I had thought we were the only ones.
Eight years ago, I wrote in longhand on loose sheets of white paper with a Waterman fountain pen given to me by my one of my brothers. Though I had become very attached to the Waterman (so perfectly weighted, such a beautiful object, such a pleasure to write with), because I am not always a clear and linear thinker I often found myself crossing out so many lines that the pages became unreadable. So now I write with a mechanical pencil (.5mm lead) and keep my Pink Pearl eraser ever at the ready. My thoughts still need constant tidying, but my pages are a little neater now. At least I can see what I've got. Still, along with the pool and the angels, I miss the Waterman.
Eight years ago, I saw, almost every day, my good friend, N., who was also working on a novel, and whose favorite seat happened to be the seat in front of mine. Over the years, I had practically memorized the back of his head. I knew when he got his hair cut. I knew when he bought a new sweater (winter) or T-shirt (summer). And I always liked knowing he was there. Now, eight years later, N. has published his novel, sold a second collection of stories, written a play, translated the Haggadah, and moved to Brooklyn, as all real writers these days, it seems, must, and the café does not feel quite the same. I miss him. The waitresses miss him. The other regulars miss him. And there is somebody new now sitting in his chair, typing away like a fiend.
Eight years ago, S. was also sitting in the back of the café, drinking tea and working on a novel. B. was sitting in the back of the café, eating chocolate lace cookies and working on a novel. Y. (almond horn) was working on a screenplay (zombies). Z. (coffee, black?), a biography. The humming ethnomusicologist was finishing his dissertation. The philosopher was philosophizing. The composer was composing. And the mathematician was quietly solving for x. Now, eight years later, S. has published her first novel and moved to Brooklyn. B. has published his first novel and moved to Brooklyn. Z. has won the Pulitzer Prize and moved to San Francisco. The screenwriter has sold a TV pilot and moved to L.A. (novelists go to Brooklyn, screenwriters, to L.A., and Pulitzer Prize winners can go wherever they want). And the humming ethnomusicologist has finished his dissertation and is now teaching in Texas. But the philosopher is still here, philosophizing. And the composer is still here, composing. The mathematician who was the mathematician? I can't even remember. The mathematician must be gone. As is the Italian teacher (boyfriend, downtown). The ESL teacher (China). The famous actress (finished her degree at Columbia). The unknown actress (moved back home to Toledo). The two Albanian waitresses (went back to school to get their degrees and have been replaced by their older sister). And my best friend, K., who I used to meet for coffee and hamantaschen every Tuesday evening at nine (moved away to Amish country and got married). And, along with the angels, the pool, the Waterman, and my good friend N., who has gone to Brooklyn to be with the other writers, I miss her.
Eight years ago, the owner's son, whom I have known since he was six, was in his second-to-last year of high school and just beginning to think about college. Eight years later, he has been to college and come home early and is now preparing to take over the café. And he is suddenly all grown up, a young man, still learning the ropes from his father, but very much in charge. He still has the polite, respectful, good manners he had as a child, which even then seemed to belong to an earlier era, to a time when everyone said thank you and please and people did not climb up onto chairs to put their own needs (juice) above those of the group (air). I say hello to him every day now, as I have for years, to his father, and, for the past six months, to his mother, and every evening when I go home after saying good night to the waitresses, to the poet, to the composer, to the philosopher, and to the dishwasher sitting outside beneath the awning in his soiled white apron, enjoying his last cigarette of the day I go home knowing that I will see all these people again, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and that the café has been left in good
by Julie Otsuka, August 25, 2011 12:00 PM
: In 2003 I wrote an essay for Powells.com about my neighborhood café called, appropriately enough, 'In The Café
.' Now, eight years later, I would like to revisit that café, the Hungarian Pastry Shop, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and which I still go to, religiously, almost every day, to write.]
Eight years ago the café was charming but inexplicably dim, there was no Internet access, no music, and only one electrical outlet, which belonged to the exhaust fan and was located up high, near the ceiling, well out of arm's reach. Today, eight years later, the café is still charming but inexplicably dim, there is still no internet access (although from time to time, depending upon the whim of an upstairs neighbor, you can pick up a faint signal from a table in the back), no music, and only one electrical outlet. Still, the people come. The café is, if anything, more crowded than ever. People come here, in fact, to unplug and get a little bit of "real work" done. Or, if they're first-timers, they'll wander into the café, politely scan the baseboards for outlets and, finding nothing, turn around and head out to the nearest Starbucks. Or, if they're really desperate and not polite at all — I have seen this happen on more than one occasion — they'll climb up onto a chair, unplug the exhaust fan from the outlet and plug in their laptop. All for a little juice.
(People also come to the café, of course, to drink coffee and converse. Or because they are German tourists and their bus is parked across the street, in front of the cathedral, and they need to use the restroom. Or because they are having an affair, and no one would ever guess they were here. Or because they are doctors at St. Luke's Roosevelt and need their daily fix of sugar before heading into the O.R. Or because they are family members of patients who have just gone into the O.R., and all time has stopped, and the nurses won't talk to them, and the waiting room is just too depressing. Or because they have just fallen in love with one of the Ethiopian waitresses and can't get through a day without seeing her. Or because they have recently separated from their spouse of 22 years, and reconciliation is no longer an option, and they have to get out of the apartment before they go crazy. Or because they already are crazy and the café is the one place in the city where people might not actually notice. Or because they are the Chinese deliveryman who works at the restaurant next door and just want a civilized moment of calm — a cup of coffee in a café — before pedaling off madly into the night to deliver that next order of lo mein to your door.)
Eight years ago I was sitting at my favorite table in the far back corner of the café beneath a painting of the angels, sketching out ideas for my second novel. Today I am still sitting in that same corner, the second novel has just been published, and the paintings on the wall have been changed not once but twice (same artist, new pictures). Now, instead of sitting beneath the angels, I am watched over by a painting of a potted plant. Still, I am inspired. There's nowhere else I'd rather be sitting. I plan on writing my third book here, too, at this very same table, in this very same corner, which still, after all these years, feels like good luck.
Eight years ago, if someone was sitting in my seat I would sit down at a nearby table and patiently wait for that person to leave before making my move. Today, eight years later, when I walked into the café, there was indeed someone sitting in my seat, but it was someone I knew, another back-of-the-shop regular, and as soon as he saw me he stood up, picked up his things and slid over to the outside table so I could have my seat in the corner. All without saying a word. And so here we sit happily, side by side, silently doing our work. This happens at least once a week and is one of the many reasons I love the café, for its community and camaraderie, for the unspoken fellowship of its long-time regulars and how we all look out for one another, day after day, year after year, angels at each other's backs.
Eight years ago, before settling into my seat at the corner table beneath the painting of the angels, I would order a cup of coffee and a croissant. Today, eight years later, before settling into my seat at the corner table beneath the painting of the potted plant, I order a cup of coffee and two glasses of water, then go to the sandwich shop next door, which is run by the café owner's wife, and put in my order for toast (seven-grain, well-toasted, lightly-buttered). The croissant to toast switch happened abruptly, and without warning, about six months ago. Why, the Austrian waitress wanted to know, after so many years, had I suddenly changed my order? The answer is, as it is to so many things (where do you get your ideas, why didn't you give your characters names, why did you name the dog "White Dog," where do you see yourself in five years, in 10 years, in 20?), I don't know. I remember coming down with a fever for a couple of days and losing my appetite because I couldn't taste anything, and then, when the fever lifted and I felt better again and my appetite returned, the croissant tasted too sweet. So, I guess the answer is, I got a fever and the croissant tasted too sweet. Plus, I enjoy the toast (such a simple pleasure), the daily exchange with the café owner's wife, saying hello to the young man in the back who makes the sandwiches and toasts the toast and to the old man in front whose name I do not know but who is there every day, sitting at his table in his corner, just watching the world go by. It's like stepping into a parallel
by Julie Otsuka, August 24, 2011 11:01 AM
In the fall of my 25th year I had just moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to begin the graduate program in painting at Indiana University. My first critique was several weeks away and for the first time in my life I found myself unable — quite literally — to paint. The moment I put down a mark on the canvas, it looked "wrong" to me. So I would dip my rag into the turpentine and wipe away the mark and start all over again. But the second mark looked equally wrong. So I would wipe it away and begin again. And on it went. It was as if I'd suddenly become self-conscious about writing the letter a
. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. As an undergraduate at Yale I had always painted freely and prolifically. I loved the medium of paint, its physicality, the gorgeous stuff of color, the mysterious square of the canvas where anything, it seemed, might happen. Painting was the one thing that I could imagine myself doing for the rest of my life. But at Indiana I began to doubt. And once I started, I could not stop. With each passing day I became more and more convinced that I could not paint. Because I could not paint.
One afternoon, sick from the turpentine fumes, unable to stare at the blank canvas for more than a minute, worried that I would have nothing to show for my upcoming critique and certain that I was losing my mind, I put down my brushes and walked out of my studio. I had to try not to paint. Not knowing where else to go, I climbed onto my bike and rode over to that safe place of refuge — the library. I pulled a book off the shelf — The War, by Marguerite Duras — and sat down and began to read: "I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Chateau. I have no recollection of having written it. I know I did, I know it was I who wrote it." And I did not stop until I had reached the last line: "And I knew he knew, knew that every hour of every day I was thinking, 'He didn't die in the concentration camp.'" When I looked up it was still afternoon, I was still in Bloomington, but for the first time in weeks, I had forgotten how afraid I was. Duras's memoir — a searing account of the month she spent waiting for her husband, Robert L., to return from Dachau at the end of the war — seemed so much more vivid than my own life, so much realer, and while reading it I had felt, however briefly, lifted out of myself. Which is, I think, what the act of reading is all about — getting lost in somebody else's story, the particularities of their wants and needs, the rhythms of their telling.
Since then I have read many other accounts of World War II, but none as intimate and close to the bone as Duras's. Her matter-of-fact tone, her spare, stripped-down prose and her short, staccato sentences perfectly mirror the excruciating agony of her waiting. "Today, yes, today Berlin will be taken," she writes. And then, "I'm so afraid, I'm not waiting any more. Is it all over? Is it?...I don't know where he is." And, finally, "I no longer exist." Duras's situation — she does not know if her husband, whom she has already decided to leave in order to bear another man's child, is dead or alive — is impossible. And yet go on she must. If not for her own sake, then for her husband's. And ultimately, one senses, for the sake of her writing.
Reading Duras's memoir is one of the only memories I have of my time in Bloomington. The critique I had been dreading — my first and, as it turned out, my last — seems to have mostly vanished from my mind. I vaguely recall putting up a few paintings on the wall and everyone, myself included, just wanting to look away. Because my paintings looked like they had been painted by someone who did not know how to paint.
One month later I dropped out of graduate school, sold my bike, packed up my brushes and paints, and moved to New York City, where I began temping and trying to restart my life. It would be another five years before I would begin to write, and another 10 years after that before I published a novel about my own family's experience during the war (my grandfather was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and my mother, uncle, and grandmother were interned for three years in Topaz, Utah) and someone asked me if I had read The Human Race by Robert Antelme. Because, I was told, the last scene of my novel, where the father returns home after the war, was very reminiscent of scenes from Antelme's book.
I had never heard of Robert Antelme and went home to look him up. He had been, I learned, a member of the French Resistance during WWII and was later deported to Buchenwald and then to a German labor camp. His memoir, The Human Race, is about the year he spent in that camp. His former wife was Marguerite Duras, who refers to him as "Robert L." in her memoir, The
by Julie Otsuka, August 23, 2011 10:56 AM
I am often mistaken for somebody else. Just the other day, for example, a man approached me, smiling, in the cafe (see my Powells.com essay) where I go daily to write. "Kyoko," he said, "is that you?" Another time a woman came up to me to tell me how much she had enjoyed my recent recital at Alice Tully Hall. I was, she told me, her idol (I think she had confused me with the pianist, Mitsuko Uchida). And once, a man who had struck up a conversation with me on the subway refused to believe, when I told him I had gone to Yale, that I was not the famous architect, Maya Lin. And two very different people a blond flight attendant on a Delta Air Lines flight out of Minneapolis and a gay black neighbor in my building have told me that I bear a strong resemblance to the bridal designer, Vera Wang.
I have also been told, on more than one occasion, that I look like Yoko. A young man gathering signatures for Greenpeace in front of Starbucks told me this. The man who always comes into the café, high as a kite, to use the restroom told me this. An older woman walking her dog one morning down Broadway told me this. We were heading in opposite directions, so I just smiled and kept on walking. But then she called out, "Turn around," and, although I am not normally a person who follows orders shouted out to me by strangers on the street, I turned around. "It's the way she walks, lowers her head," she said. I nodded, then lowered my head and kept on walking.
Even my own mother has told me that I remind her of somebody else. One evening, after supper, we were sitting at the kitchen table when she looked at me and said, "You have the same nose as the first girl." "What first girl?" I asked. "The first girl who was born before you," she said. My mother, who was then in the early stages of Alzheimers, had never mentioned a first girl to me before. When I asked my father about this, he explained that there had been a daughter born before me who had lived for a few hours and then died. So, really, even though I had always thought I was the first (and only) girl, I had been the second girl all along, which probably explains why I am never surprised when I am mistaken for somebody else. I expect to remind people of the person they want to see. It's coded somewhere deep down in my DNA. And mostly, I am happy to
by Julie Otsuka, August 22, 2011 12:04 PM
One year after the publication of my first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, I dreamed that I had finished writing my second book. And I realized, much to my dismay ? how had I failed to notice this? ? that I had accidentally written my first book all over again. This, I knew, was something you should never do. It was one of the golden rules of creative writing. Don't repeat yourself. (Also, never write about your dreams.)
When I woke up (and never begin a story with a character waking up in her bed), I was alone in my hotel room in San Francisco, on the second-to-last leg of an eight-city book tour for the paperback publication of Emperor. I was often asked during that tour, and many times in the months and then years that followed, if I felt a lot of pressure to write my second book. And my answer was usually, "No, not really." Or, "In the beginning, yes, but then later, no."
The hardest part about writing the second book was not the actual writing of it, but coming up with the idea for it. When I finished writing my first book, I felt emptied out, used up, like a part of me had died. And I didn't have a whole slew of ideas lined up on the second-book queue. All I had were a few discordant, stray thoughts ? mass arrests (repeat theme from book one), "we" the town (unfinished business from book one), picture brides (something I'd been thinking about for years), girl skipping (image from an old notebook ? see my Powell's "In the Café" essay ? that I had sketched out, but for a long time these thoughts remained, well, discordant and sketchy. They seemed to add up to nothing. Which was worrisome. Because what if they never added up to anything?
Then, one morning ? it was February, I remember, and all winter long I had been breaking out in hives all over my body once and sometimes twice a day, not because of the second-book pressure, but for a different reason altogether (the allergist, who tested me for everything and could find nothing wrong with me, no irritant to which I might be even faintly allergic, finally looked me in the eye and said, "Is some guy busting your chops?") ? I sat down at my desk and everything I had been thinking about for the previous year and a half reconfigured in a new and unexpected way and I could suddenly see the arc, the shape, of my next book. It wasn't ABCDE, but more like ADBCE (I had my beginning and end, A and E, worked out from the start) with some extra plot twists ? N and Y ? tossed in, just to mix it up. So I felt alive again. I was back in business. I had my idea. Now all I had to was write it.
The great thing about writing a first book is that you are invisible. Nobody knows you are writing it, or that you are even a writer, or hoping to one day call yourself a writer. Nobody is watching you or asking you (politely, but still, they're asking) "How's it going?" and you can take as long as you like ? in my case, six years ? before springing your book, fully formed, on the world. It's a very private space from which to write.
The trick to writing the second book, I figured, was to continue, in my day to day life, to feel invisible and unwatched. I had to maintain my first-book state of mind.
This was not really a problem. Because basically, except for when I'm standing in front of an audience, talking about my first book, I feel invisible and unwatched anyway. It's my preferred (and utterly fallible) stance in the world: I can see you, but you can't see me. I get to do the watching. I'm the anonymous person in the back of the café, quietly sipping her coffee, staring off into space, every now and then swatting at a fly or jotting down a phrase (raw milk, halo effect) or overheard snatch of dialogue (And we fought. We fought all the time. She was dying, and we fought.) into her notebook before getting up to refill her coffee. It pretty much looks like I'm doing nothing all day long. I don't bring my laptop with me, and I'm not a furious scribbler. My per day output is meager, at best. No one who didn't know me would ever guess that I was writing a second book, or even a book.
One day, about two years into the writing of the second book, a man, another regular at the café, an academic at the university whom I'd sat next to or in the vicinity of ? we were both back-of-the-shop regulars ? for years, said to me, "Well, maybe one day you'll get a real job like the rest of us, who have to work for a living," and I replied, "But I do have a real job," because I do, I am fortunate in that I can actually support myself as a writer. (Also, I've had real jobs in the past: For years I answered a telephone in an office in the MetLife building with the word, "Marketing," which, if you say it enough times, begins to sound almost surreal.) But I understood why he had said what he'd said. I knew that, from the outside, I appeared to be an indolent idler. And I appreciated his subsequent flustered apology. He felt bad about having made a less than flattering assumption, and I felt bad that he felt bad. I mean, really. Such a little thing. So he had mistaken me for a lazy person. Worse things could happen. So that was that, apology made, apology accepted, the air was cleared, and we continued to sit in the back of the café, not speaking to one another, for another five or six years, he, grading his history papers and preparing his manuscript for publication (I knew, because I had been watching), and I, writing my second book (he never knew, because he had fallen for my overly relaxed, first-book, just-doing-nothing persona) while pretending not to.
That second book, The Buddha in the Attic, is due out tomorrow, from Knopf. The hives have stopped. The chop-buster is long gone. The historian has vanished (tenure at another university? Changed cafés? Moved to Brooklyn?). I have an idea in mind for my third book, but don't ask me about it just yet. I'll let you know when I'm