San Francisco Public Library

January's Pick 2007

Image representing cover of When the Emperor Was Divine When the Emperor Was Divine
by Julie Otsuka

The characters in Julie Otsuka’s debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, were inspired by her family’s own experiences during WW II. In the novel, Otsuka shows the awful uprooting endured by a Japanese-American family from the spring of 1942 until the spring of 1946.

Following President Roosevelt’s Evacuation Order, a mother and her two children, a 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, are forcibly relocated from their Berkeley home. They are transported to a converted racetrack stable south of San Francisco for five months and then for the remainder of the war to barracks in a barbed-wire enclosed internment camp in the Utah desert. The father of the family has already been sent to a “dangerous enemy aliens” camp in New Mexico on unsupported charges of suspected treason.

From chapter to chapter, a different family member’s point of view is expressed. The author is able to convey the psychological complexities and contortions experienced by the family as they adapt to their incarceration with stoicism, and even a sense of irony. In their words, as well as in what is left unspoken, Otsuka reveals the psychic costs of their struggle. Falsely accused of disloyalty because of their ethnicity, the family and their fellow inmates are required to prove themselves worthy, even as their own civil rights are denied. By the end of the novel when the family returns to their vandalized home, the harshest aspect of their long ordeal awaits. The father has been diminished by his fearful experience. The family members face a world in which their identity in postwar society is still assailed by the mainstream culture, and its effect on their self-esteem.

This month's title was selected to coincide with our two Related Library Exhibitions. For On the Same Page, the Library has purchased the 2003 paperback edition of When the Emperor Was Divine, published by Anchor Books. It is also available at the Library in Large Print format and as an unabridged talking book in CD format.

Photo of Julie Otsuka About the Author

Born in Palo Alto, Julie Otsuka left California for the East Coast to study art. She received a B.A. in Art from Yale University and was admitted into the M.F.A. program at Columbia University on the strength of a portfolio of humorous sketches written for a boyfriend. Shifting from painting and sculpting to seriously pursuing her writing, Otsuka worked on her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, for six years. Her efforts were rewarded by warm critical reception to the 2002 hardcover edition. In 2003, the novel was “longlisted” for the U.K.’s prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction. On Dec. 8 of that year, the author was honored by the Asia Society as one of the winners of the Sixth Annual Asian American Literary Awards. In 2004, she was awarded a Guggenheim Scholarship.

Otsuka’s own family shared much of the same background as the characters in the novel. Her grandfather, like the father in the novel, was unjustly arrested as a suspected traitor, and her grandmother, mother and uncle, like the mother, daughter and son in the novel, were held in an internment camp in Utah. From these facts, as well as from details gleaned while growing up, the author crafted her novel image by image. Otsuka has left the characters in the book unnamed, giving them a more universal connection with all people rounded up and persecuted for their ethnicity in times of war. The author is working on her second novel, which she considers “sort of a prequel.” It is about Japanese “picture brides” journeying to their future husbands in post-WWI America.

Of Related Interest

AsiaSource Interview with Julie Otsuka, author of When the Emperor Was Divine, December 3, 2003.

Meet the Writers: Julie Otsuka. Barnes and Online interview with the author, including some biographical information and noting her favorite books, films, and music.

Otsuka, Julie. In the Café. Online essay by the author, describing her writing habits. – When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. Online interview, with some biographical information about the author.

Related Library Exhibitions

If They Came for Me Today: The Japanese American Internment Project

Relocation and Resiliency: Japanese American Internment in California