When the Emperor Was Divine
Julie Otsuka, 2002
On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family's possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans they have been reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their home and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.
In this lean and devastatingly evocative first novel, Julie Otsuka tells their story from five flawlessly realized points of view and conveys the exact emotional texture of their experience: the thin-walled barracks and barbed-wire fences, the omnipresent fear and loneliness, the unheralded feats of heroism.
When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of enormous power that makes a shameful episode of our history as immediate as today's headlines. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—May 15, 1962
• Where—Palo Alto, California, USA
• Education—B.A., Yale University; M.F.A., Columbia University
• Awards—Guggenheim Fellowship; Asian|Aerican Literary Award
• Currently—lives in New York, New York
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia.
Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine (2002), is about the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II. It was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist. The book is based on Otsuka's own family history: her grandfather was arrested by the FBI as a suspected spy for Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. When the Emperor Was Divine has been translated into six languages and sold more than 250,000 copies. The New York Times called it "a resonant and beautifully nuanced achievement" and USA Today described it as "A gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you'll ever learn."
Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic (2011), is about a group of young Japanese 'picture brides' who sailed to America in the early 1900s to become the wives of men they had never met and knew only by their photographs.
Otsuka's fiction has been published in Granta and Harper's and read aloud on PRI's "Selected Shorts" and BBC Radio 4's "Book at Bedtime." She lives in New York City, where she writes every afternoon in her neighborhood cafe.
When asked what book most influenced her life or career, here is what she said:
When I first started writing I read all of Hemingway's short stories, beginning with the Nick Adams stories in In Our Time. I remember thinking, 'oh, so that's how you do it.' Now I'm much less convinced, however, that there's a right way to do it. Still, he was the writer I first imprinted myself on, and I go back to his stories often, if only for the pleasure of listening to the sound of his sentences, his cadences. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)
Spare, incisive.... The mood of the novel tensely reflects the protagonists’ emotional state: calm surfaces above, turmoil just beneath.
Prose so cool and precise that it’s impossible not to believe what [Otsuka] tells us or to see clearly what she wants us to see.... A gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you’ll ever learn.
This exceptional first novel is about a Japanese family in Berkeley, California, during the Second World War.... The implicit questions about culpability resonate with particular power right now, but Otsuka's incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book's greatest strength. It turns our ideas of beauty on their head, as when the boy uneasily remembers a treasured glimpse of the horses he now eats: "They had long black tails and dark flowing manes and he had watched them galloping in the moonlight across the flat dusty plain and then for three nights in a row he had dreamed of them."
The novel’s voice is as hushed as a whisper.... An exquisite debut...potent, spare, crystalline.
This heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental debut describes in poetic detail the travails of a Japanese family living in an internment camp during World War II, raising the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion.... Events are viewed from...different perspectives [which] are defined by distinctive, lyrically simple observations. The novel's honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power.
Otsuka researched historical sources and her own grandparents' experiences as background for this spare yet poignant first novel about the ordeal of a Japanese family sent to an internment camp during World War II. Its perspective shifts among different family members as the story unfolds.... Otsuka's clear, elegant prose makes [her] themes accessible to a range of reading levels from young adult on. —Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA
Otsuka eloquently chronicles in five chapters, one from each family member, their reactions as they are removed from their friendly neighborhoods and thrust into a strange new world where they are now the enemy.... With precise detail, succinct but sensitive prose, and great emotional restraint, Otsuka's enlightening, deeply stirring, Alex Award-winning book will affect all readers.
Otsuka has created an intriguing story about Japanese internment during WW II. This powerful book is characterized by sparse, contained prose detailing the lives of a Japanese American family in California.... Each has invisible but lasting scars from their experience. When the Emperor Was Divine could easily be categorized as psychological fiction as well as historical fiction with its in-depth look at the minds of its characters and how each of them copes with their situation (ages 15 to adult). — Courtney Lewis
A carefully researched little novel...that's perfect down to the tiniest detail but doesn't stir the heart.... [T]he narrative remains stubbornly at the surface, almost like an informational flow, causing the reader duly to acknowledge these many wrongs done to this unjustly uprooted and now appallingly deprived American family—but never finding a way to go deeper....information trumps drama, and the heart is left out.
1. When the Emperor Was Divine gives readers an intimate view of the fate of Japanese Americans during World War II. In what ways does the novel deepen our existing knowledge of this historical period? What does it give readers that a straightforward historical investigation cannot?
2. Why does Otsuka choose to reveal the family’s reason for moving—and the father’s arrest—so indirectly and so gradually? What is the effect when the reason becomes apparent?
3. Otsuka skillfully places subtle but significant details in her narrative. When the mother goes to Lundy’s hardware store, she notices a “dark stain” on the register “that would not go away” [p. 5]. The dog she has to kill is called “White Dog” [see pp. 9–12]. Her daughter’s favorite song on the radio is “Don’t Fence Me In.” How do these details, and others like them, point to larger meanings in the novel?
4. Why does Otsuka refer to her characters as “the woman,” “the girl,” “the boy,” and “the father,” rather than giving them names? How does this lack of specific identities affect the reader’s relationship to the characters?
5. When they arrive at the camp in the Utah desert—“a city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain”—the boy thinks he sees his father everywhere: “wherever the boy looked he saw him: Daddy, Papa, Father, Oto-san” [p. 49]. Why is the father’s absence such a powerful presence in the novel? How do the mother and daughter think of him? How would their story have been different had the family remained together?
6. When the boy wonders why he’s in the camp, he worries that “he’d done something horribly, terribly wrong.... It could be anything. Something he’d done yesterday—chewing the eraser off his sister’s pencil before putting it back in the pencil jar—or something he’d done a long time ago that was just now catching up with him” [p. 57]. What does this passage reveal about the damaging effects of racism on children? What does it reveal about the way children try to make sense of their experience?
7. In the camp, the prisoners are told they’ve been brought there for their “own protection,” and that “it was all in the interest of national security. It was a matter of military necessity. It was an opportunity for them to prove their loyalty” [p. 70]. Why, and in what ways, are these justifications problematic? What do they reveal about the attitude of the American government toward Japanese Americans? How would these justifications appear to those who were taken from their homes and placed behind fences for the duration of the war?
8. What parallels does the novel reveal between the American treatment of citizens of Japanese descent and the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany?
9. Much of When the Emperor Was Divine is told in short, episodic, loosely connected scenes—images, conversations, memories, dreams, and so on—that move between past and present and alternate points of view between the mother, daughter, and son. Why has Otsuka chosen to structure her narrative in this way? What effects does it allow her to achieve?
10. After the family is released from the camp, what instructions are they given? How do they regard themselves? How does America regard them? In what ways have they been damaged by their internment?
11. When they are at last reunited with their father, the family doesn’t know how to react. “Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place” [p. 132]. Why do they regard him as a stranger? How has he been changed by his experience? In what ways does this reunion underscore the tragedy of America’s decision to imprison Japanese Americans during the war?
12. After the father returns home, he never once discusses the years he’d been away, and his children don’t ask. “We didn’t want to know.... All we wanted to do, now that we were back in the world, was forget” [p. 133]. Why do the children feel this way? Why would their father remain silent about such an important experience? In what ways does the novel fight against this desire to forget?
13. The mother is denied work because being a Japanese American might “upset the other employees” or offend the customers. She turns down a job working in a dark back room of a department store because she is afraid she “might accidentally remember who I was and...offend myself” [pp. 128–129]. What does this statement reveal about her character? What strengths does she exhibit throughout her ordeal?
14. Flowers appear throughout the novel. When one of the prisoners is shot by a guard, a witness believes the man had been reaching through the fence to pluck a flower [see p. 101]. And the penultimate chapter ends with the following sentence: “But we never stopped believing that somewhere out there, in some stranger’s backyard, our mother’s rosebush was blossoming madly, wildly, pressing one perfect red flower after another out into the late afternoon light” [p. 139]. What symbolic value do the flowers have in this final passage? What does this open-ended conclusion suggest about the relationship between the family and the “strangers” they live among?
15. When the Emperor Was Divine concludes with a chapter titled “Confession.” Who is speaking in this final chapter? Is the speech ironic? Why has Otsuka chosen to end the novel in this way? What does the confession imply about our ability to separate out the “enemy,” the “other,” in our midst?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)
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