Last month, Julie Otsuka was a finalist for the National Book Award for her book The Buddha in the Attic. I hadn’t heard of her before, but was intrigued by both that book and her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, which is about Japanese internment camps during WWII. When the Emperor was Divine is told from the point of view of four members of a Japanese family living in Berkeley in 1942 – the mother, who receives orders to pack up her family and move from their home; her daughter, who describes the long, dusty train ride to Utah, where they lived for 3 years; her son, who talks about the monotonous life they lived in the camp; and finally the father, who was sent for four years to prison on suspicion of being a dangerous Japanese loyalist.
When the Emperor was Divine is short but packed with evocative, powerful prose. Otsuka never gives her characters names; their anonymity only heightens the process of deracination and loss of ownership they went through in the camp. It’s such a sad, embarrassing episode in our history, and Otsuka doesn’t dramatize it – she lets the details and facts tell the story dispassionately. At one point, she simply lists all that the son remembers about her father – “He loved pistachio nuts. He liked to doodle. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. Whenever the boy knocked on his door his father would look up and smile and put down whatever it was that he was doing. He was extremely polite.” etc. No flowery emotion here, but none needed – you can tell how the boy feels about his father just by this list.
I read a comment on Amazon that said that at an author event, Otskuka revealed that while researching her book, she didn’t interview people who had been interned at the camps (and who are dying off), but instead relied on books that have been written about the period. I was disappointed to hear that. There is a lot of detail in When the Emperor was Divine that I’d assumed had come from primary sources, not necessarily from her imagination or from a book. But knowing this didn’t lessen the impact of the book for me, which was strong. I liked this book a lot and look forward to starting The Buddha in the Attic.
Hey, FTC! How was your holiday? Oh, mine was great, thanks. In fact, this book was a Hanukah gift – nice, huh? So you don’t have to worry about the undue influence of a free review copy here.