Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Report: When the Emperor Was Divine

18. Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine (2002) (7/15/18)

In this short, spare, lyric book of five parts, Otsuka tells the story of a family of four who are caught up in the removals of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. The family remains nameless throughout, their story told by an "omniscient" narrator.

It all begins with "Evacuation Order No. 19," in which the mother and her two children—the father having already been taken away immediately after Pearl Harbor—prepare to leave their Berkeley home. We see the normalcy of their life, and what is precious to them. We watch the mother pack things for storage, and the very few necessities that they can take with them; we watch her bury her silver in the yard under the small stone Buddha; we see her give their cat to the nextdoor neighbors, snap the neck of their chicken, release their pet macaw into the night sky, and cave in the head of their little white dog and bury him as well—because who would want to take in an elderly half-blind dog? There is a heartbroken tenderness mixed with hopelessness about these preparations.

The second chapter is "Train": exactly that—the long train ride from their first detention facility, Tanforan race track south of San Francisco, to the camp that will be their home for three years, Topaz in Utah. This chapter is more intimate, consisting more of conversations among the family members and other passengers.

The longest chapter is the eponymous "When the Emperor Was Divine," about camp life, told mainly through the boy's eyes. We learn about the tedium, the repetitiveness, the difficult physical circumstances. Life in the camp is very bleak for this small family. We do not get much of a sense of community, whether friendships or other relationships were made. It's a highly focused perspective.

"In a Stranger's Back Yard" relates their coming home, back to their house, which they were lucky still to have, though it is hardly a "homecoming," for animosity against the Japanese remained very high as everyone tried to adjust to the new normal of the postwar years. In this chapter, too, the father returns to the family, but he is a broken man. The mother, too, has changed, being forced to take a job as a housecleaner—though she later confesses that she was glad to have somewhere to go each day, something to do.

And finally, "Confession" is a communal howl about stereotypes and injustice. The book ends like this:
So go ahead and lock me up. Take my children. Take my wife. Freeze my assets. Seize my crops. Search my office. Ransack my house. Cancel my insurance. Auction off my business. Hand over my lease. Assign me a number. Inform me of my crime. Too short, too dark, too ugly, too proud. Put it down in writing—is nervous in conversation, always laughs loudly at the wrong time, never laughs at all—and I'll sign on the dotted line. Is treacherous and cunning, is ruthless, is cruel. And if they ask you someday what it was I most wanted to say, please tell them, if you would, it was this:
 I'm sorry.
 There. That's it. I've said it. Now can I go?
It's a beautiful, sad book, and a timely one to read just now, in this country.

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