Three years, five months…

When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

“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.”

The world of Berkeley, California, 1942, is painted with an alarming placidity. Julie Otsuka’s liquid prose gives the first scenes of her book the amber-suspended timelessness of a heat-stunned Sunday afternoon. The air is thick with silence as faceless beings go about their business. An unnamed woman in glasses reacts to a sign she sees at the Post Office, jots down a few things, and goes home to pack up her house. The woman is faceless, and mostly silenced, but we see jagged glimpses of her appearance, through the eyes of others – her children, her fellow sufferers, her memory.

The emotionally devoid narrative voice parallels the lean and barren landscape of the Utah desert at which eventually the woman, her son, and daughter arrive. Topaz interment Camp, the temporary resting place for those disenfranchised by Evacuation Order Number 19, is a dried out lake bed populated with tarpaper shacks and white alkaline dust, a place filled with nothing but absence, nothing but loss. The sometimes startling shifts of Otsuka’s sentence length seem like the regular irregularity of the days she describes; three years and five months governed by bells, filled with an extraordinary sameness, while at the same time jarringly, blindingly wrong.

This book is being read by some high school freshman in Hayward, California, and though the protagonist in this book is a 41 – year-old mother of two, the bleakness seeping from the thoughts of the ten-year-old daughter, who is herself an adolescent by the end of the interment, recommend it as an important read for young adults. While the more typically assigned Farewell to Manzanar in listed as a young adult book exploring the themes of the Japanese interment, Otsuka’s book describes a camp where much less went on in terms of cheerleading, youth culture, and fun. Contrasted with Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz which is intended for much younger readers, Otsuka’s terse descriptions of the necessary heartlessness of the mother, the sense of betrayal, the confusion and withdrawal of the children, together with their empty homecoming to a racist neighborhood, create a darkly empathetic novel, showcasing the casualties of war, which include loss of civility, integrity, and Constitutional rights.

“Too short, too dark, too ugly, too proud,” reads Otsuka’s indictment of those of Japanese ancestry by their American counterparts. A bitter legacy of a prejudiced nation, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel of eloquent relevance today.

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