Empress of the Divine: Author of Greenwich Reads Together novel serves as the voice of a silenced era

Famed author Julie Otsuka has been quite the talk of the town, thanks to Greenwich Reads Together, and last week she took questions and signed autographs at Greenwich Library. — Kate Petrov photo

Famed author Julie Otsuka has been quite the talk of the town, thanks to Greenwich Reads Together, and last week she took questions and signed autographs at Greenwich Library.
— Kate Petrov photo

Plenty of World War II novels have been written with political agendas in mind, but for Julie Otsuka, author of When the Emperor Was Divine, the motivation was a simple desire to communicate the experiences of a silent generation.

Ms. Otsuka’s novel about the internment of thousands of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II was this year’s Greenwich Reads Together selection, and the author recently came to town to discuss her work with the community. She appeared last Thursday for a question-and-answer session at Greenwich Library, and several more events were scheduled for this week, too.

In an interview with the Post prior to her library appearance, Ms. Otsuka said an author is never quite sure that he or she will have readers at all, let alone an entire town.

“You’re writing a very personal, heartfelt story, but you don’t know if it will resonate with anyone else,” Ms. Otsuka said, adding that she was “thrilled” that the Greenwich community had embraced her novel, especially given that people on the East Coast are particularly unfamiliar with what the internment entailed.

When the Emperor Was Divine begins on a sunny day in Berkeley, Calif., in 1942, when a Japanese American woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home and immediately begins to pack her family’s possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans, the woman and her family have been deemed enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their home and sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert.

Describing life in these camps from five different points of view, Ms. Otsuka uses fiction to convey the real-life horrors of a period in U.S. history that has seldom been documented, especially in the form of a novel.

Writing, however, has not always been the author’s forte, she said. Earning her undergraduate degree in figurative sculpture and painting from Yale University, Ms. Otsuka spent her post-college years trying to make it as a painter. It wasn’t until the age of 30, when she realized her attempt to become a professional artist had failed, that Ms. Otsuka began the writing career that would eventually make her an award-winning author, she said.

At the time, Ms. Otsuka said, her interest in contemporary fiction and short stories inspired her to take a writing workshop in New York, and from there she began to hone her craft.

“I’ve always felt comfortable with language, but I never really felt that I had a story to tell,” Ms. Otsuka said. “There was one waiting for me in my family, but I didn’t realize it.”

Growing up in California, Ms. Otsuka overheard small fragments of stories about life in internment camps from family members, most of whom had experienced them firsthand, including her mother, uncle and grandparents, she said, but no one openly spoke about it.

“A lot of West Coast families were like that,” Ms. Otsuka said. “I don’t think I realized how difficult [the internment] really was until I began to do research.”

Taking six years to complete When the Emperor Was Divine, Ms. Otsuka said, she read countless history books to thoroughly fill in the gaps that family members had left out of their internment experiences.

Originally intending to write a short story about the Japanese American internment experience, Ms. Otsuka said she essentially ended up producing a novel by accident. After having written a short piece on the subject with the intention of making it a stand-alone work, the author later wrote a related piece from another character’s point of view, which would eventually become the second story in When the Emperor Was Divine. It was while attending graduate school at Columbia University, at the suggestion of her professors, that Ms. Otsuka pieced both works together and began to write one cohesive novel, she said.

And although the book could be viewed as a political commentary, Ms. Otsuka said her writing “doesn’t come from that place.” Instead, she said, she began writing after an image of a Japanese American mother standing by herself on a sidewalk reading an evacuation order came to her. The rest of the inspiration for the novel came from both the history of Ms. Otsuka’s family and her people, she said. “It was a personal endeavor.”

Fortunately, Ms. Otsuka said, that endeavor allowed her to travel extensively as she sought out older Japanese American survivors of internment camps who shared their stories with her. Those she spoke with appeared relieved to share their experiences, Ms. Otsuka said. After staying quiet on the subject for so long, it seemed they were happy that someone was finally telling their story, she said.

“It’s very humbling for me to meet them,” Ms. Otsuka said. “It’s an honor.”

Additionally, Ms. Otsuka said, she spoke to a number of older white people who were on the West Coast during the period of internment. Many of them genuinely did not realize what was happening right under their noses, while others had uplifting stories of goodwill to share, she said. Although the stories were often tales that had been overheard, Ms. Otsuka said she learned of “good neighbor” acts, like the white family who hid and sheltered a Japanese family in their barn or the one that took care of a family’s nursery so that it was in good working order when they returned from camp.

The tales of hope were “something I need to hear, personally,” the author said. “I need to hear those stories of good.”

A recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, and several other accolades, Ms. Otsuka said she is truly grateful for her success as a writer.

“It’s heartening to me that people are interested finally” in the internment, Ms. Otsuka said. “The Japanese Americans were silent about it for so long, and they went through so much and they just kind of stifled it,” she said.

With a second book, The Buddha in the Attic, under her belt and a third under way, Ms. Otsuka said, she’s happy to have found an art form that she can execute precisely the way she imagines.

“I feel like I finally found my medium,” she said.

More information about Greenwich Reads Together is available at greenwichlibrary.org.


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