Julie Otsuka

Big Read author
Julie Otsuka

Photo by Robert Bessoir

Music Credits:

Excerpts from Some Are More Equal, an improvisation performed by Paul Rucker and Hans Teuber from the cd, Oil.


Julie Otsuka:  Well, "When the Emperor was Divine" is about a Japanese American family living in Berkeley before World War II, their experience of being sent away to the internment camps during the war, and each chapter is told from a different character's point of view and it's loosely based on events in my own family's history. My mother was sent away to the camps when she was ten and my grandfather like the father in the book was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed and he spent several years in camps that were run by the Department of Justice for dangerous enemy aliens.

Jo Reed:  That was Julie Otsuka talking about her first novel and recent Big Read selection, When the Emperor was Divine. and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the national Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

What happens when your country considers you a national security threat and ships you and your family off to an internment camp for an unknown period of time? These are the questions Julie Otsuka explores in her novel When the Emperor Was Divine. Based in part on the experiences of Julie's own family, the novel tells the story of a Japanese-American family forced to leave San Francisco after the start of World War Two.  Sent to an internment camp in Utah, a mother, daughter, and son  come to grips with life in confinement in a bleak desert landscape--missing a father who had been arrested and sent to prison right after Pearl Harbor. They are released after two years and allowed to return to San Francisco, but their homecoming is fraught with hardship and anxiety about their place in America.  When the Emperor Was Divine is a slender book--five short chapters--that tells a powerful story about a personal and historical tragedy. When i spoke with Julie, i asked her why she chose this topic for her first novel.

Julie Otsuka:  No. I feel like the topic chose me. I feel like the book snuck up on me. I actually began the novel as a short story. I wrote the first chapter of the book when I was a student at Columbia in workshop and up until then I had written only comedy and this was the first piece of serious fiction that I'd ever written and it seemed to come from nowhere, and so I wrote it just to get it out of my system and then I thought I would return to my real work, which was the writing of comedy. So I didn't know it was the first chapter of something that would grow to be much larger, but then I was just very compelled by this family, by their situation, by the emotions that I felt while writing about this topic. I think it was something that my own family at least was very suppressed and not really talked about, which I think is typical of many Japanese American families who went through that-- through the war just to remain silent about their experience. So I think it was something that I needed to explore for myself in order to understand my mother better and why she was the way she was.

Jo Reed:  The main characters who are the narrators of the story are nameless. Why did you make that choice?

Julie Otsuka:  I actually had written an earlier version of the first chapter in which the mother had a name; she had a Japanese surname, and as I continued to write about these characters it seemed more effective actually to un-name them. I was really interested in the psychology of the situation. I mean I happened to be writing about Japanese Americans but I think I-- I could have been writing about any ethnic group at any point in history. I feel like there has always been an other group that's been expelled and sent away and I also thought that my characters were people from whom everything had been taken, their liberty, their belongings, their sense of self. And I think that the one thing that you can't take away from someone is their name so I wanted to leave them just some tiny shred of self so only they and they alone know who they are.

Jo Reed:  I'm going to be frank because when I started reading the book and I saw that nobody was being named I had this moment of oh, really, and it didn't take me long at all to become immersed in that story. The idea of that kind of universal the woman, the daughter, the son married to the extraordinary detail of their everyday lives really provides this great insight I think.

Julie Otsuka: I just saw her as a woman confronted by history and by circumstance and I mean that was-- I mean I feel like I was almost-- I was following her. I mean I don't want it to be particularly clear to the reader in the beginning that they're reading about a Japanese American woman but it's too bad that just right away-- I mean some people don't notice until further on in the book that the characters don't have any names. I mean I didn't want it seem like a too obvious device that I was using to make these characters universal, but I felt like I knew who they were, they knew who they were, and I feel like the details of their lives made them what they were. And I work very intuitively so I think a lot of my choices are just-- I just kind of-- they feel right so it just-- it felt right not to name them. 

Jo Reed: They also take turns narrating. The novel shifts; each character's point of view really tells the story of one section. And we should say the book has five chapters; it's a small book. Did you start writing the book with this structure in mind or did it evolve as the book evolved?

Julie Otsuka:  No. Again it was accidental. I wrote the first chapter again as a standalone story from the mother's point of view and then I wrote the second chapter not as chapter two but just as another short story, and so I happened to be telling it from the point of view of the girl on the train as they are being taken away to the camp. And it was when I finished writing that second story that I realized that those two chapters put together might add up to the beginnings of a novel. I think if I had sat down at my desk one day just to write a book about the internment camps I probably would have chosen to tell it all from the point of view of the mother. The structure again it kind of evolved accidentally. Once I realized I had these two pieces pulled from two different characters' points of view, it made sense to write a third piece or now a third chapter from a different character's point of view and it also-- I think for me as a writer it just kept the material fresher; it was more interesting; I really-- I liked going into different characters' heads. It just kind of gave me a new burst of energy each time I began a new chapter from a different character's point of view.

Jo Reed:  Well, it's also interesting because each character is telling us a different segment of the story so we have the mother who has read the order and is readying the family. And then tell us what the daughter does, etc., etc.

Julie Otsuka:  Well, and the daughter she is right on the cusp of adolescence and I think she's in a semi-rebellious phase and yet she is determined to live out her rebellious youth even if she happens to be in an internment camp; she's a very kind of feisty girl. And the boy is a little younger, he's seven when the novel starts, and he's a little bit too young to understand what's going on. He's a very dreamy child and very much a magical thinker and he thinks in the way that children often do that everything is his fault, that everyone is being sent away because he's done something wrong, and I think he's the character that I felt closest to also emotionally just as a person and I feel like it was also a good point of view to describe the experience of being in camp I thought from the point of view of a child. And even if he's in a camp in the middle of the desert for three and a half years I feel like children have this sense of wonder and connection to nature so he's still very compelled by the natural world around him, by the scorpions, by lizards, by snakes, by turtles just in the way that children are. And so it's not an utterly bleak and devastating experience although in many ways it is, but I feel like there are these kind of moment spots of color and he's very, very innocent and he kind of makes up stories about why he is where he is. And then the point of view of the father is kind of held back throughout the entire novel; he's just this missing presence who we see glimpses of through the other characters, their memories of the father, their dreams of the father. And when we finally see him at the end of the novel when he's reunited with the family he's not the man that the-- that his wife and children remember. He's a very bitter, angry man and clearly something has happened to him while he's been away and detained but we don't know exactly what it is that happened to him, so there's this outburst of anger at the very end of the novel which again came to me as a surprise, I didn't think I would end on that note, but then looking back I feel like the novel's just a very slow, simmering buildup of nerves; there's all this tension that's built up. And throughout I feel like the mother especially is very-- her emotions are very, very deeply buried. I think on the surface she tries to remain very calm for the sake of the children but I think there has to be a release to that tension somewhere and I feel like there is at the end of the novel with the father's angry rant.

Jo Reed:  Yes, and the daughter, her section of the book she narrates the train trip going from the racetrack where they had been kept to Utah where the camps have been built, and as we said the son narrates the camp but then when they come home after they're released from the camp that section is narrated with a collective.

Julie Otsuka:  Yes, it is-- that chapter when they return, In a Stranger's Backyard," is told from the point of view of both the girl and the boy together, which is now a voice that I've used since-- in my second novel, "The Buddha in the Attic," I use the collective "we" voice also-- and again I don't know why I make my choices but it kind of just-- it felt right. Somehow that voice I feel like opened things up for me as a writer. And it gave me kind of a burst of energy and it-- there's almost a joyousness that I felt for the children, they're back, they're kind of elated to be back in the world or they think they're back but I think in many ways they'll never be completely back. Initially they're so happy to be home and yet it's-- some things have changed and some things have not changed. I mean I think it's a very difficult experience to reenter the world. Actually, I remember my mother telling me that when she came back from what we Japanese Americans call camp that nobody had asked her where she had been and her classmates just said, "Oh, hi, Alice," as if she'd never been away at all. So it's a very-- I think an-- it's an odd and very confusing experience to come back. So again it just felt right to use the girl and the boy together to tell that chapter of the story because I think in many ways they're the ones that are the most changed by that whole experience.

Jo Reed:  The mother who opens the book was for me a fascinating character. The executive order had come down for the evacuation and there's a whole list of instructions which I actually then went and downloaded to read the whole thing--

Julie Otsuka:  Oh, you did. Uh huh.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, I'm looking at it now and it's so extraordinary that this happened in not my lifetime but in the lifetime of people you and I both know.

Julie Otsuka:  It's not that long ago, yeah.

Jo Reed:  It isn't that long ago, and as she's getting ready she also has some really heartbreaking decisions to make clearly about things that she can bring and things that she chooses to dispose of that are too Japanese and therefore can bring a certain amount of suspicion to the family but they were not allowed to bring any pets, which you really tackle very straight on and it was heartbreaking.

Julie Otsuka:  Oh, the scene with the dog. Yeah, I mean that was-- when I began writing that first chapter again as a story I just-- I knew that there was a sign-- there was a woman that read the sign and I knew that she had this very old dog and she would have to decide what to do about that dog. And then in my research I read so many accounts of animals and I remember reading "Bainbridge Island." Do you know where that is? It's right off the coast of—

Jo Reed:  I've been there, yeah.

Julie Otsuka:  Oh, you have. Oh, it's beautiful. Evacuation order number one, the first order, was issued on that island and I read an account of the army trucks taking the Japanese Americans down to the docks and their dogs-- the Japanese American families-- their dogs just racing after the army trucks ‘cause they didn't know what was happening to their masters and animals even like the boy, like children, are so innocent. And I remember also my mother-- my grandmother actually describing just getting rid of the chickens that she had in the yard for a long time and she just-- because she had to slaughter them all the day before they left and my mother described very vividly. And I remember that she-- my grandmother just broke their necks one by one under the handle of a broomstick and my mother said later, "Oh, it a mess." So something had to be done with these animals and they didn't have a lot of time to figure out what to do so I think expediency was often-- it was really driving many of those decisions but in the book I feel like the mother-- she loves this dog, it's on its last legs, it's very, very old, it's not going to survive for much longer if she'd given him away to somebody else, and so I think she wants to give it a very humane and dignified ending; at least that's the way that I wrote it although people interpret that-- the dog's seen in very different ways.  

Jo Reed:  I was so deeply moved by that chapter and that woman and the way she simply went about doing what she needed to do and even though she couldn't have felt matter of fact about it the matter of fact-ness in which she went about it was heartbreaking.

Julie Otsuka:  I feel like she's the character who's the most distant from myself so I had to imagine myself as just being this very traditional in many ways Japanese woman who was just going to keep it together for the sake of those children, and also Japanese is a culture very, very law abiding and so they do follow the rules and so when the government is telling you to do this, this, this and this you do it so she's following orders, she is just going about her-- but I think you just kind of focus on the day to day, what do I have to do to get through this day, what do I have to tell the children, what do I have to take, but she's very, very methodical because I think-- if she weren't I think she would just fall apart and she can't afford to at that moment. I mean her husband's been gone already for a few months, she doesn't know what his ultimate fate will be or what hers will be, and she has no choice except for-- to remain very, very together and to keep track of the details.

Jo Reed:  Yeah. She gets depressed when she's in the camps.

Julie Otsuka:  Uh huh, and I think it's a delayed response. I think she could afford to then at that moment but not in the beginning.

Jo Reed:  But it struck me that when she had something to do and she knew what it was that she had to do she could stave off that desolation but at the camps there was very little she had to do and the boredom was part of the problem.

Julie Otsuka: I mean I think for many of the adults that was the problem. It was very demoralizing I mean especially for the men; I think it was a very emasculating experience. These were hardworking men, many of them were agricultural workers, farmers who always worked I mean every day of their lives seven days a week, and for the first time in their lives they had no work to do and they were no longer looked upon as being the leaders of their families; children started to eat with other children in the dining hall. So this was really kind of fracturing the family, the father was no longer the head, and I think that many of the older folks did get very depressed during just those long, long years of waiting.

Jo Reed:  And of course now we knew it was three and a half years but at the time nobody had any idea of how long.

Julie Otsuka:  No, they didn't know when the war was going to end. They didn't know what would happen to them after the war ended. Some of them were afraid that they would be deported to Japan. Some were afraid that they would be executed. They just-- they really didn't know.

Jo Reed: Asian immigrants were not eligible for citizenship at that point.

Julie Otsuka:  No. By law they were not so even-- I mean I think many of the older folks if they could have they would have chosen to become citizens because most of them had been there since before 1924. After the 1924 Immigration Act they were-- Asians were not allowed into the country so most of them had been there for almost 20 years. This is probably a little-known fact in California if you were a Japanese immigrant you couldn't marry a white-- a white American person without that person's citizenship being taken away. And there were also what were called alien land laws. You-- if were a Japanese immigrant, you couldn't buy property, you couldn't rent often for longer than X amount-- two or three years so that was another reason that these farming families were always on the move, they were often living from one piece of rented land to another or from one agricultural camp to another, but the laws were really against them from the very start.

Jo Reed:  In your book "When the Emperor was Divine" both the daughter and the son really are all-American kids.

Julie Otsuka:  Completely. Culturally they're American-- they are totally American; at least they think they are until they realize that that's not quite how they're seen by everyone else.

Jo Reed:  And then of course as we mentioned when they return back home on one hand as they immediately point out they were extremely fortunate.

Julie Otsuka:  In that they had a house to return to.

Jo Reed:  Precisely.

Julie Otsuka:  Correct, yeah.

Jo Reed:  Talk about the key and the importance of the key.

Julie Otsuka:  Oh, she's wearing the key to the house around her neck and I mean there is just this dream of going back home and they are very lucky because most Japanese didn't own their homes because they weren't allowed to own property, but you could get around that law by buying a house in your children's name and your children is an American citizen. And I think there's just-- there's always this dream of going back and everything will be okay and they-- when they do go home I mean nothing is okay at all. I mean the house is utterly-- it's been ransacked. Many, many people have lived there during their absence, all the things that they locked up in a room upstairs are of course gone, the whole house has been stripped, and yet they do have a place that's theirs to call home.

Jo Reed:  How close are the events in this book to the actual experiences of your mother, uncle and grandparents?

Julie Otsuka:  I'd say pretty close. I remember my mother describing to me coming home and that her mother had locked everything upstairs in this room and put two padlocks on the door like the mother in the book, but of course nothing is left. And I remember there is a real shortage of metal and I remember my mother saying that everything had been taken from the house, the house had been stripped, so even the stovepipe and the motor to the washing machine were gone but it could have been worse. I think that's something that people always say to themselves, "It could have been worse. It could have been worse." I mean there are many families that came back after the war and had to live in these trailer camps for a long, long time or they lived in hostels or in church many had no place to come back to, and I think the anti-Japanese sentiment after the war was even worse than it had been before the war; they were not welcome back. I think many of their neighbors thought they would never come back and that's why they felt that it was okay to maybe ransack their houses, take their furniture, do whatever, but I'd say that the bare-bones outline of the novel does resemble very closely what happened to my family.

Jo Reed:  We never find out what happens to the father when he's taken away. Did you ever find out what happened to your grandfather?

Julie Otsuka:  We don't know what happened to him, but after the war he was very ill. And, I mean, the men who were rounded up by the FBI in the very beginning right after Pearl Harbor was bombed, many of them were community leaders or else they were journalists, but they were men who were in their prime, and they tended to be older, so my grandfather was 60. And so he was not young, and after the war he had three strokes, and so he could never work again, and, I mean, many of them were too old anyway to restart their careers. And so, after the war, my grandmother went to work as a cleaning lady, which she did for many, many years to support the family and put her children through college. But I feel like for them and I think for many Japanese-American families, the hard part wasn't those three and a half years in the camps; it was coming back and trying to get their lives started again. And I think for many of the parents' generation, it was too late. It was too late. They lost everything. It was too late for them to start over, so they placed all of their hopes, I think, on their children, which is a terrible burden, I think, if you're one of those children, to carry.

Jo Reed: In the chapter where the family comes home you explore many things, but I think part of what you explore is the way they're coming to grips with their racial identity. It's not that it didn't happen before. It did, but in that chapter, where they're really very much rejecting things that're Japanese..

Julie Otsuka: They're ashamed and also they're children. They still don't quite understand, but they don't want to be identified with anything that's Japanese. And of course right after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Japanese-American families were just burning all of their Japanese things. There were bonfires in everyone's back yard. And so they come back and I think all any child wants to do is on some level just really to fit back in, just to fit in and to be accepted. They don't want to stand out, so they really try to downplay their Japanese-ness as much as they can, and yet they're still seen as being very foreign and other by their classmates. But they're determined never to be seen as the enemy again, which, I think, in some way means further rejection of their parents.

Jo Reed: That's just what I was thinking. I mean, as though there wasn't enough, A, it's generational, and, B, you're born in one country; your parents are born in another. That's another big gap, but then when you have a war that fuels enormous prejudice, that's monumental. The book was published in the year following 9/11, and it has a very particular resonance in that context.

Julie Otsuka: I finished writing the novel in June of 2001, so I had no idea that it would resonate in the way that it has post-9/11 as a sort of cautionary tale about what can happen when the government starts singling out ethnic groups as being the enemy. I mean, I thought the book, if I were lucky, might be respectfully reviewed as an historical novel. But I think for many, many Japanese-Americans, 9/11 just brought back so many memories. I mean, it was just all so very, very familiar. You just had a group that overnight becomes the enemy. And I think it brought up a lot of unpleasant memories for many of the older Japanese-Americans. You have people being rounded up in secret and sent away to secret detention camps. I think being a dangerous enemy alien is not that unlike being an enemy combatant. And there's just all these eerie parallels, and I always thought while writing the novel that this could never happen again, but it just seems like in so many ways we never learn from history. And it's odd. I've been traveling the country for years and speaking to many young people about the camps, but a lot of them have not heard about the camps still. I think it's not something that's included in most American history books, and so some of them are surprised that, I mean, this is a work of-- they'll say, "This is a work of fiction, right? It didn't really happen," but I'll have to explain that, yes, it is a work of fiction, but it is based on a very big and often omitted historical truth.

Jo Reed: And it was very moving in the period after 9/11, because as you say, Japanese-Americans tend not speak very often about the camps and their experiences, but many, many spoke up right after 9/11.

Julie Otsuka: They did, and many reached out to Arab-American, Muslim-American groups, too, and I think it's very hard for Japanese-Americans to speak up and assert themselves, especially Japanese-Americans of that generation, but I think it was a very important thing for them to do to reach out and to say, "You are not alone".

Jo Reed: How did you transition to writing? You began painting. That's what you thought your career would be. 

Julie Otsuka: I transitioned to writing after failing as a painter, and I do recommend failure. I think it's a very good experience for anyone to go through. I never thought I would end up as a writer. I was an art major as an undergraduate at Yale. Well, my first love was actually figurative sculpture, working with clay. I love doing that, and then I fell in love with the medium of paint, and all throughout my 20s it was painting or trying to paint. I began a graduate program in painting. I came to New York and I went to the New York Studio School and I studied more drawing and painting, but at a certain point I just-- I felt very frustrated. I couldn't make the pictures that I was seeing in my head, which was so clear to me. I mean, I knew exactly what kind of paintings I wanted to make, but technically I wasn't able to execute and I just became very, very frustrated and self-conscious. I mean, it was at the point where I couldn't even put down a mark on the canvas without wiping it away and being sure that it was wrong. And at a certain point I was just so unhappy, and I'd started painting when I was younger very joyously and I just love to see. I love to look. I love to put down the mark on the canvas. I love the smell of the paints. I mean, there's nothing more that I love than color, really. I feel like it's just magic. But at a certain point I couldn't do it anymore. I was so unhappy, and so when I quit painting, I put down my brushes one day for good and I was working evenings at New York as a word processor, and I began going every afternoon to my neighborhood café and I would just sit there, and I would just read for a couple hours every day before I went into work. And I hadn't read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I began reading a lot of short stories. And I love reading and being immersed in story. And so, after reading for a couple of years, I just very tentatively signed up for a-- just an informal writing workshop in New York-- just kind of on a lark. And I could always write, but I never thought I had anything to say, but I always enjoyed words, I think, and I think the medium of language is-- I think it's a little bit easier for me than the medium of paint, for whatever reason, and so I just began writing just little vignettes and stories but very much in the spirit of play. I wasn't thinking I have to make it as a writer or I have to write a novel. I wasn't thinking that at all. It was just something that I really liked to do and that I was exploring and because I was older at that point, too. I was 30. I felt like maybe it was the right time to start something different and new. I didn't put the same pressures on myself as I did when I was painting, because I had failed. I just felt like I really had nothing to lose and I had nothing to prove, either. 

Jo Reed: Certainly "When the Emperor Was Divine" is an historical novel. And not to overstate things, but historical novels tend to be these big, fat books filled with grand statements, and yours doesn't do that, and I think a lot of its power comes from the understatement, the focus on getting through the everyday, and the fact that it is such a visual book.

Julie Otsuka: I wasn't aware of that while I was writing it that it was pointed out to me afterwards. I almost felt like I was a camera just following the characters through their day, and I feel like the practice of painting and writing aren't that different. I feel like if you're a painter you go into your studio every day. You sketch out a scene loosely on the canvas and you bring up the details one by one. You don't fixate on a corner and get that right before you go into the whole thing but you try to bring up the whole picture at once. And I feel like with writing I go to the café. I try to sketch out a scene very loosely, and then I just bring up the details, and you slowly bring the whole thing into focus. I often can see a scene in my head. I can see what it looks like. Before I begin to describe it on the page, I can see it very clearly in my head. "When the Emperor Was Divine," I feel like the way things looked was so important, and I feel like the landscape of the desert in particular was almost like another character in the novel.  It was just such a dramatically bleak, bleak, bleak landscape, and then just to imagine yourself living there for more than three years is just almost impossible, and yet they did it and yet they were lucky in that they got to come home, too.

Jo Reed: You received a PEN/Faulkner for..

Julie Otsuka: I did.

Jo Reed: …"The Buddha in the Attic," and it was also named as a finalist for the National Book Award.

Julie Otsuka: Correct.

Jo Reed: And now your book, "When the Emperor Was Divine," continues to be read. Both your books have extremely long shelf lives.

Julie Otsuka: As a writer you never-- you just don't know what kind of life your book will have. I mean, when "When the Emperor Was Divine" first came out, it was very respectfully reviewed, and then two years out it started being picked up by cities and colleges as community reads or freshman reads, but it took a while for it to take off, and then it just kind of built up this momentum that was completely surprising and unexpected for me as an author. And yet I felt like it was really in a gap. I mean, I felt like there hasn't been a lot of fiction written about the camps, which to me is very odd. I also wondered why there aren't more Japanese-American writers. That, too, seems-- I mean, there's some in the Chinese-American second generation, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan. I feel like they've been writing well and early. From the 1970s on they've been writing, but I feel like there aren't a lot of Japanese-American writers out there, and I feel like for anyone like myself who's a son or daughter of a former internee, the story of the camps will be the obvious story to tell. But there hasn't been a lot written about them, so I do feel like I'm telling the story that needs to be told but hasn't really been told too often so far.

Jo Reed: Thank you so much for giving me your time, and it is..

Julie Otsuka: Thank you, Josephine.

I'm so honored, I have to say, to be part of this Big Read program, so it's really a pleasure. I was so surprised. Thank you!

Jo Reed: Thank you.

That was Julie Otsuka, her novel When the Emperor Was Divine is a recent Big Read selection. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the national Endowment for the Arts.  Next week, musican Bora Yoon. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Julie Otsuka’s first novel When the Emperor Was Divine explores her family’s history in the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.