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When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka + Author Interview [in AsianWeek]

Photo by Jerry Bauer Author Julie OtsukaLooking Back at a Family’s Internment: Julie Otsuka’s novel debuts in paperback

OK, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, just out in paperback this week, is the best book on the internment that I have ever read. Spare and streamlined, Emperor is a shockingly brilliant debut novel. Historically accurate, this slim volume has no surprises or plot twists – but it will make you gasp as it exposes the truth.

The title is an indirect reference to life before World War II, a time when the Japanese still believed that their emperor was descended from the gods. When the very human voice of the defeated emperor announced the Japanese surrender, the illusion of divinity was shattered forever. For the Japanese American family in Emperor, pre-WWII was a time of relative normalcy, of freedom.

Divided into five tense chapters, Otsuka’s novel gives voice to each of the four family members. The California-born and raised Otsuka, whose mother’s family was interned in Topaz, Utah, is a remarkable witness – read her testimony and help ensure that the mistakes of our past are not repeated again.

AsianWeek: I understand you came to writing somewhat circuitously …
Julie Otsuka: I was a painter when I was younger, and I did my undergraduate degree [at Yale] in art. I went to the Midwest to do a graduate program in painting, but dropped out after three months. I think I was too young – I found the experience of having to produce art under pressure fairly traumatic, and left there thinking I’d never paint again. I moved to New York City and began temping. After a few months, I wanted to paint again, so I enrolled at an art school downtown – a non-degree program. After another two years, I hit a wall – I was overwhelmed with doubt, couldn’t put down even one mark on the canvas without being sure it was ‘wrong’ – and this time I gave up painting for good.

AW: So then what happened?
Otsuka: I was working evenings in midtown as a word processor, so I had a whole day to fill up. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I began going for long walks every morning and in the afternoon I’d go to my neighborhood café and just sit there and read for hours. I found stories terribly consoling. After reading in the café for about three years, I began to think that I might want to write, so I signed up for a creative writing class. Because I felt like a failure – a failed painter – I felt I had nothing to lose, and writing was something I did just for fun. I didn’t take it too seriously, which was probably a good thing. After a couple of years, I applied to Columbia and got an MFA in creative writing [in 1999]. Half of my novel appeared in my thesis. Before Columbia, I had only written comic stories; I had never written about the war.

AW: What prompted you to write what would become Emperor?
Otsuka: It started as a visual image of a woman standing on a street, looking at a sign on a telephone pole – that sign being [Executive Order] 9066. The image gripped me, although I don’t know why. In my mind, I followed her home to see what she might do after that. I had no idea that what I was writing might be the beginning of a novel – I would have been terrified to think it was something that big …[click here for more]

Author interview: “Looking Back at a Family’s Internment: Julie Otsuka’s novel debuts in paperback,” AsianWeek, October 24, 2003

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2002, 2003 (paperback)