In her riveting first novel When the Emperor Was Divine (2003), Julie Otsuka delivers the story of a Japanese American family’s ordeal during internment in the early 1940s. At the beginning of the novel, the mother sees the signs of the coming crisis—the literal signs posted around town stating that the Japanese must evacuate Berkeley, California, and the figurative signs such as changes in the attitudes of her neighbors. Shortly after, the mother, her daughter and son, pack a few belongings and leave their home behind to board a train headed for an internment camp in the Utah desert. Aboard the train, the daughter takes note of all the other Japanese passengers who are sick from the rocking of the cars on the track. Once at the internment camp, the family members struggle to maintain their optimism and their identity. Heavily censored letters arrive on occasion from the father who has been arrested by the FBI for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy against the U.S. government.
After three years, the family is released from the internment camp, and they return to their house that has been ravaged and vandalized in their absence. The children’s schoolmates will not even look at the daughter and son; their neighbors shun them on the street. The father returns home thin and worn, and the family—forever changed—attempts to piece together their new existence.
Otsuka uses spare, poetic prose to narrate the story, creating a haunting tone that sits with the reader well after the novel ends. The chapters in the novel shift in point of view from the mother, to the daughter, to the son, and finally to the siblings together. The novel closes with a disturbing plea from the father in which he asks us to consider what he has actually done wrong by falsely confessing to be “the slant-eyed sniper in the trees. . .the traitor in your own backyard.” Throughout the entire novel, the characters’ names are never stated, suggesting that this anonymous family could stand as symbols for the multitude of families affected by the internment.
When the Emperor Was Divinehas received much praise from critics for its unadorned portrayal of this Japanese American family during the internment of WWII. Critics note that the internment is not an often discussed topic in the history of the United States, yet it remains one that we cannot afford to forget. Julie Otsuka has stated in interviews that her own family has been affected by the internment and that the subject begged to be written. Otsuka worked on When the Emperor Was Divine for six years. She was awarded the Asian American Literary Award in 2003.