Open Books – Open Minds author brings family history to life

Julie Otsuka, author of "When the Emperor Was Divine," speaks about her book in the Stdent Union Ballroom on Oct. 12.
“The war was something I needed to write about,” author Julie Otsuka said during her presentation for this year’s Open Books – Open Minds program at Rhode Island College. The war she spoke of was World War II – an era removed from Otsuka by a generation, but very much a part of her life through the experiences endured by her family.

Otsuka, the author of the program’s novel of focus this year, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” spoke to a large group of students last Wednesday, Oct. 12, in the Student Union Ballroom.

Her book tells the story of a Japanese-American family’s struggle as they were forced to evacuate their homes and enter American internment camps in 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The author spoke of how the real-life internment of her mother, grandmother and uncle inspired the story.

As part of her address, Otsuka reflected on how she went from pursuing an art major in college to having published a critically acclaimed, best-selling book.

One particular scene struck Otsuka very deeply: the image of a Japanese-American woman, standing outside her home, reading the evacuation notice posted on her door for the first time. “I just thought it was such a powerful image,” Otsuka said.

The rest of the novel, she claims, formed itself around this mental snapshot.

“I’m very picky,” Otsuka said. “I need to live, feel and experience my characters when I’m writing.” The author explained that she spent five years “finding her voice” and compiling scenes, characters and motifs for the novel.

Otsuka, right, signs copies of her book following her presentation.
The story, told from the point of multiple characters, occasionally uses an epistolary format. “I love reading letters; there’s something so immediate about them,” Otsuka said of her choice to approach the novel this way in lieu of a more traditional narrative.

Nearing the end of her presentation, Otsuka described her own hesitation to undertake something as taxing and labor-intensive as writing a book.

“For many Japanese-Americans, including my family, there was a great deal of shame involved with being evacuated. I felt I owed it to them, to my family. I had all these doubts, yet I felt compelled to go on.”

Open Books – Open Minds was established at Rhode Island College in 2006. A joint Student and Academic Affairs program, it links students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and the greater Rhode Island community through book discussions and participation in an array of programs and activities.