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[416] When the Emperor Was Divine – Julie Otsuka

” Their old life seemed far away and remote to him now, like a dream he could not quite remember. The bright green grass, the roses, the house on the wide street not far from the sea—that was another time, a different year. ” (93)

In summer 1942, just after Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan. Overnight thousands of Japanese Americans had been reclassified. The terse but eloquent novel, Otsuka’s debut, follows one Japanese American family, their name withheld, to the blinding white glare of the Utah desert, where the now enemy aliens shall be kept in the internment camp. They are uprooted from their normal life and forced on exile, to a no-man land where they are left to fend for themselves in scorching heat and bitter cold, with minimal and impersonal amenities under strict supervision.

Every morning in place where we had lived during the war, she had reached for the key as soon as she woke, just to make sure it was still there. (107)

We never learn the names of the young boy and girl who were forced to leave their Berkeley home and spend over three years in a dusty, barren camp with their mother. Shortly before their evacuation, the FBI had taken their father in slippers and kept him in New Mexico, fate uncertain. Letters from him arrive at the camp tattered and torn, with sentences blacked out. That all these people are anonymous, with just an identification number pinned to the collar, just adds to the horror and turmoil just beneath the calm surfaces. Otsuka delineates their experience in the most raw and restrained voice, one that is neither melodramatic nor sentimental.

The novel’s strength drives from its tranquil prose, the sheer honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice. The source of the injustice’s power is in fact more horrifying than the internment experience itself. The war aftermath is a distillation of anger, frustration, and loss. After years spent in filthy and cramped lodging with pitiful objects that define their world, the family returns to their home only to find it ravaged by vandals. Their neighbors snub them. Too embarrassed and embarrassed also for the enemy.

When the Emperor Was Divine is one continuous arc, told in eloquent and spare prose. The act of injustice and xenophobia is best captured in the fragmented but powerful insights of the two young children and their mother. The epilogue, titled confession, is one fierce and provocative essay on what it means to be one of them, the enemy.

144 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]