I first discovered Julie Otsuka when I picked up a copy of The Buddha in the Attic a few months ago. Her subject material attracted me, her rhythmic writing style pulled me in, and her expert storytelling held me until the book was done. And while her first novel is still a fantastic read, I just didn’t feel quite the same about When the Emperor Was Divine as I did Buddha.
Otsuka’s debut novel tracks a family of three—four, if you count their unwillingly absent husband and father—from the early days of the United States’ Japanese-American internment program until its end. Only at the very end of the novel does Otsuka turn her lens away from these unnamed protagonists in order to give a voice to a group of similarly circumstanced individuals; this lone chapter is told in a style somewhat resembling the entirety of Buddha. Because I was so enthralled with that novel’s “We came… We did… Some of us were… Some of them said…” I had a difficult time adjusting to Emperor‘s fixed cast.
These complaints are minor however. Just as she does in her second novel, Otsuka shines as she conveys the emotional struggles of Japanese immigrants in American. Readers not only watch as the family destroy all evidence of their Japanese-ness in a vain effort to pass as Chinese, but also see Chinese-Americans literally wearing their ethnicities on their sleeves: “I AM CHINESE.” Although evidence of violence visited on non-Japanese citizens is never seen, Emperor still conveys the sense of fear present in all Asian-American communities in the 1940s: They can’t tell us apart, so they’ll kill us if we don’t tell them we’re Chinese. Almost certainly—if recent attacks on Sikhs and Hindus are any indication—during WWII, White Americans during harmed Chinese and Korean immigrants out of misguided fear and ignorance.
In a manner that needs no discussion or explanation, Otsuka deals skillfully with her characters’ development. We watch as the mother takes care of all the messy details required by their move—tasks which, in stories with a more coming-of-age bent, would be delegated to children—in order to spare her family any unnecessary heartbreak. We see the son pine for a little girl back home in California, the only classmate he has who bothers to write. We watch as the daughter attempts to flirt with older men and engages in acts of teenage rebellion: unimportant to the story, but entirely necessary for her transition into adulthood. Finally, Otsuka allows readers to experience the pain of PTSD, and the ways in which war, imprisonment, and torture can change a person forever.
Although it is at times painful to read, When the Emperor Was Divine is an excellent novel. Otsuka takes up an often-ignored stain in American history and unpacks it slowly, centering her story around its victims, exercising all her literary prowess to make us feel exactly as do her characters. It hurts. It chokes you, knots you up inside, and then it suddenly makes you smile, just for a moment. I highly recommend the author’s emotional and thought-provoking debut novel to anyone looking for a great, short read.
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