Fragments of the Asian Diaspora: On New Novels by Julie Otsuka and Jessica Au

May 3, 2022   •   By benedict nguyễn

The Swimmers

Julie Otsuka

Cold Enough for Snow

Jessica Au

ANY OF MY FRIENDS could tell you what it’s meant to me to rejoin my neighborhood gym at the post-vaccination stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t shut up about how magical, yet how fraught, it’s been to keep going. My telling you I’m still double masking feels as meaningful a performance as my actually double masking while lifting my little weights during the gym’s off-peak hours.

And yet, as Julie Otsuka insists in her third novel, The Swimmers, how people share a communal space and form small codes together has great import. The novel introduces us to the members of an underground community pool via a first-person Greek chorus. As the chorus describes the pool’s rules, Otsuka’s “we” is not shy about singling out certain members for their deviances from the norm, with that gossipy tone endemic to any contained community. What unites the pool’s members is a reverence for their sport, for the mindless yet deeply mindful art of swimming up and down lanes, gulping for air between dips beneath the wet. Even as they’re all minding each other’s movements and surveilling each other’s little tics and choices, Otsuka’s attention to the somatic, to the solace of their solitary journeys in that man-made box of water, is, well, salient.

When a crack appears in the bottom of the pool, the tenuousness of the swimmers’ harmony reveals itself too. Like marking different phases of the pandemic, the task of tracing the genesis and growth of the fissure is deemed futile by some, even as they obsessively try to catalog its growth in the same way they catalog each other’s habits. That sacred and bodily feeling of communal wholeness and the subsequent impossible task of tracing its dissolution localizes itself in Alice, a pool member who suffers from dementia. Otsuka’s “we” becomes “she” as the book transitions into a section that itemizes what Alice does and does not remember. Next comes a “you” addressed from the nursing home where Alice is sent to reside by her husband and daughter.

In this section, the contrast between the petty fakeness of the now-disbanded swimmers’ uptight griping and the indignities of corporatized elder care becomes nauseating. In a disarmingly frank parody of marketing speak, Otsuka exposes the way politeness is instrumentalized to justify the disenfranchisement of the elderly, a process as alarming as it is befuddling to imagine any viable alternative: “[Y]ou will forget your ‘first family’ altogether and it will seem as if you have always been here (and perhaps, in some cosmic way, you have).”

As for Alice’s childhood PTSD, Otsuka allocates only a single one-paragraph vignette and a few even shorter asides to her experiences of being interned as a child at a Japanese detention camp during World War II (e.g., “She remembers the taste of dust”). But, like the fissure in the underground pool, once this historical trauma has been noted, it can’t be ignored: this sliver of a flashback within a short novel of brief vignettes lurks palpably. Given disproportionate weight, it could be the story’s starkest inflection point, the conveniently reductive origin of Alice’s eventual dementia. But the author’s attention is largely focused elsewhere.

Otsuka’s allegory of a community space as microcosm of a nameless town as microcosm of a settler-colonial state is obvious. As in the echo chamber of Twitter’s ever-darkening “discourse,” the introductory Greek chorus treats with glib casualness its own violences and focuses instead on upholding its superficial etiquette. This mini-community is shamelessly fatphobic and ageist, attitudes that reveal deeper anxieties about the inevitable enfeeblement and death of the human body. The society in this novel, like ours, does not know how to take care of its elderly; it does not know how to remember or grapple with loss, of memory or otherwise.

When the final section shifts point of view again, the second person becomes Alice’s unnamed daughter. She visits her mother and compares the scorecard of her own filial piety with the good-daughter points her mother racked up with her grandmother. Nowhere are these traditionally Asian values labeled as such; rather, the references feel lost, assimilated even, to the very Americanness bearing down on the characters through most of the text. The Swimmers’s almost anthropological listing of so many disparate phenomena — from the accoutrements of suburban domesticity to the neoliberally deregulated but red-tape-smothered pool — offers satirical comment on contemporary life with nimble precision. Otsuka’s relentless inventiveness, delivered with such a light touch, shrouds the dark unease of her story in disquieting laughter.

In Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, a mother and daughter travel to Japan together. Between accounts of their tourism, the unnamed daughter (and narrator) recalls moments from her coming of age as well as her mother’s. In the present-tense timeline, they share meals and pass hours where nothing’s said or not much needs to be said. In flashbacks, the daughter goes to college and learns everything she doesn’t know about the Western canon. She housesits for an adjunct instructor and learns what it means to tend to a home as an adult. The mother recalls her brother’s adolescent love affair with a wealthy patron’s daughter of the shop where he works. Soon after the anecdote is completed, it’s suggested by the narrator’s sister that the story was lifted from a soap opera of unspecified cultural origin.

Some images and motifs found in The Swimmers take new shape here: a character reflects on being alive while swimming in a pool; a daughter tends to her mother’s feet; and the specter of Japan’s role in World War II — and the meaning-making involved in being members of the Japanese diaspora at that time — looms ominously. Near the end of Cold Enough for Snow, the protagonist’s mother, originally from Hong Kong, recalls the appropriate set of customs for visiting shrines in Kyoto, Japan — a somatic memory that takes her daughter by surprise.

As in The Swimmers, the narrator’s methodical observations privilege her surroundings over herself. The primary subject of Au’s cataloging is not of punchy bit characters (as in The Swimmers) but rather of the more languid and vaporous stories of memory. Because of the transnational arc of the characters’ journeys, the story’s relationship to Asian cultural values is more overt than in The Swimmers. Cold Enough for Snow employs some obvious tropes that Asians in the diaspora often use as reference points to relate to each other: the motherly-love language of food, the erosion of mother tongues over generations, a propensity to hoard. Yet Au submerges these moments in more sweeping recollections. The daughter’s descriptions of rooms and furniture, of the light that passes through windows, read at times like essayistic art writing, not impersonal exactly but not the most direct method of unfolding interiority. The narrator says that her mother “believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting” — an affect-theory-esque way of thinking that recalls both my academic background and my own mother’s affinity for aphorisms. Au contextualizes the mother’s statement with references to (Asian) collectivism and (Buddhist) tenets of nothingness that tie affect theory to cultural history and experience. Read another way, the passage could suggest that the cultural objects and attachments so meticulously chronicled by the narrator are themselves the sources of her pain.

Perhaps, too, any attempt to catalog the affects of prototypically Asian culture or Asian mother-daughter relationships is a futile one. Both novels deploy a fragmentary structure — the white spaces of The Swimmers’s frequent section breaks, the scattered recollections of Cold Enough for Snow — to potent effect. To consider these stylistic choices from an affect theory lens, it’s the spaces between that are most laden with meaning. Where Julie Otsuka finds a deft humor in each observation, Jessica Au finds poetry in meandering, slippery transitions between anecdotes, with their nebulous timelines and transcontinental trajectories. Some vignettes and anecdotes could seem more decorative than revelatory. Maybe they’re emblematic of the protagonists’ indirect, even avoidant, communication styles — modes of behavior often associated with Asian upbringings. When considered in the context of immigrants or refugees, these evasive strategies can also be self-protective. Certain assimilationist moves may seem deceptively simple for some but, at the same time, are simply impossible for all. As debates around Asian identity formation have continued to churn in the wake of recent events — from the pandemic’s sinophobic origin stories to the ensuing rise in violence against Asians and Asian Americans — these books offer new understandings of familiar dynamics. And not just in their blank spaces: their keen attention to liminal sensations demands a reorientation toward observable phenomena.

Watching dragon dances during the recent Lunar New Year celebration in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I had vaguely unsettling feelings about the “Asianness” of the affair. I’m Vietnamese, and the aesthetics of the costumes and the vocabularies of movement were not fully of my culture. The whole ritual was both somewhat foreign and viscerally familiar. I was born and raised in the United States, so what do I know, anyway? As Cold Enough for Snow’s narrator muses, “Much later, I realized how insufferable this was: the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything.” Heavier aches need to be tended to holistically, but some discomforts … well, they can just pass through. As I watched the dances, I felt in my throat the shaking of many golden tassels to the beat of a loud drum.


benedict nguyễn is a dancer, writer, and curator based on occupied Lenapehoking and Wappinger lands (South Bronx, New York). Their criticism has appeared in Into, BOMB Magazine, Vanity Fair, and AAWW’s The Margins, among other outlets. Recent projects include their curatorial platform “soft bodies in hard places,” their dance-ish performances #publicartpractice, and The Nerve Studio, a consultancy they co-founded with Stephanie George in 2021. They publish the newsletter “first quarter moon slush” and, when not online @xbennyboo, are working on a few novels lol.