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Author Archive: "Julie Otsuka"

The Café Revisited, Part II

[Editor's note: 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 ...


The Café Revisited, Part I

[Author's note: 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 ...


On Not Being Able to Paint and Reading Marguerite Duras’s “The War”

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 ...


“Excuse Me, But Are You…?”

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 ...


On Writing the Second Book and Being Invisible

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 ...


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