Read Julie Otsuka’s “The Swimmers” With Us

Julie Otsuka's "The Swimmers"

In May of 2005, author Julie Otsuka visited Seattle as part of Seattle Reads, the Library’s citywide book group that started in 1998.

Otsuka’s acclaimed debut novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine” had been chosen as the Seattle Reads selection that year. The book described in “incantatory, unsentimental prose” (The New Yorker) the experience of a unnamed Japanese family forced from their home in Berkeley to an incarceration camp during World War II.

As reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (log into NewsBank with your Library card to read the full text) one of the most memorable moments in the author’s Seattle Reads appearances occurred during a program at the Beacon Hill Branch, when Tom Ikeda, founder of Densho and event moderator, “took note of the number of Japanese Americans in the crowd and asked any former internees to please stand.”

Hesitantly, they rose to their feet, former internees near the front of the crowd, but also sprinkled throughout, some in groups, others in pairs, a few by themselves, until there were 30 people standing, while many others in the audience felt their hearts rising into their throats, tears welling in their eyes. Then the rest of the audience started to applaud.

‘That is a moment that I will really remember,’ Otsuka said Thursday. “That brought tears to all of our eyes; it was so moving. It was probably the first time that many of these people had had their internment and absence ever acknowledged by others in the community.”

Eighteen years later, Otsuka is returning to Seattle, and to Seattle Reads, which turns 25 this year. The Library has chosen Julie Otsuka’s third novel “The Swimmers” as the Seattle Reads selection for 2023. She will visit Seattle on Friday, May 19, and Saturday, May 20. 

“The Swimmers,” a slim book that was published in 2022, is the story of what happens to a group of obsessed recreational swimmers when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool. One of these swimmers is Alice, who is slowly losing her memory.

“The Swimmers” echoes some of the themes of “When The Emperor Was Divine.” Without the fellowship of other swimmers and the routine of her daily laps, Alice is plunged into dislocation and chaos, and swept into memories of her childhood and the Japanese American incarceration camp in which she spent the war.  Alice’s estranged daughter reenters her mother’s life too late, leading to “an unforgettable novel about mothers and daughters by a writer of spell-binding talent” (The Daily Mail).

“When we were searching for the right book for Seattle Reads’ 25th anniversary, ‘The Swimmers’ stood out as a multilayered, lyrical, and deeply moving novel that readers from different generations and backgrounds will relate to and be excited to discuss,” said Stesha Brandon, Literature and Humanities manager at the Library. 

How to find a copy of “The Swimmers”

It’s easy to find a copy of “The Swimmers.” Print, e-book and e-audiobook copies are available in the Library’s catalog.

Limited copies will also be available for informal borrowing (meaning patrons don’t need to check out the copies) at most Library locations and at several community partner locations, including the Frye Art Museum.

Check back closer to the event dates for details and a discussion guide at

Seattle Reads 2023 is presented in partnership with Densho; Frye Art Museum, Creative Aging Programs; the Phinney Neighborhood Association’s Greenwood Senior Center; and The Memory Hub and UW Memory and Brain Wellness Center. It is made possible by The Seattle Public Library Foundation and The Wallace Foundation. Additional support provided by media sponsor The Seattle Times.

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