Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #74: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
This short but powerful debut novel pricks our collective conscience as Americans with the sparingly-told story of one’s family’s Kafkaesque experience in the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII. Imagine, dear reader, that from one day to the next, you are suddenly viewed as the enemy of the nation you have called your own for decades—spat upon, hissed at, refused service, fired from your job, bricks thrown through bedroom windows, all without a formal accusation or the right to defend yourself. And then you are whisked away to an alternate existence of emptiness. This is the story of thousands of Japanese-Americans in 1942 whose lives were ripped apart and for whom nothing would ever be the same.
A comfortable middle-class Japanese family that has been living in Berkeley, California for more than 20 years, suddenly loses its father in the middle of the night to close-mouthed FBI agents for “questioning.” For months, he is shuttled from one facility to another, and his letters to his wife and children look like Swiss cheese, sentences either sliced out with razors or blacked out with ink by censors. And then, one day, the city is papered with notices for all Japanese-Americans to prepare themselves for removal to internment camps for the duration of the war. Mother and children—a boy and a girl—are taken by train, and then bus, into the middle of the Utah desert, in possession of only what they can carry. They are alternately suffocated from brutal heat and ever-blowing dust or frozen in winters for which there is insufficient protection, and lose track of the days as they lose track of their homes, their former lives, and ultimately their identities. They are fed, they are not physically or verbally abused, but they are suspended in time and surrounded with mind-numbing and interminable nothingness.
Otsuka manages to convey throughout her novel the beauty of precious Japanese cultural traditions, even while portraying a certain brittleness in the lives of her protagonists. The family eventually gets back home, but lives under a pall, a special kind of post-traumatic stress that author Otsuka captures in painfully sparse sentences, each of which jabs like a knife into the heart of our oh-so-democratic society.