2011 Book Selection

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)

About the Book

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)

This powerful first novel describes a Japanese family’s displacement from its home in Berkeley to an internment camp. After the father is arrested in 1942 on suspicion of conspiracy, the mother, daughter, and son spend three years being moved from camp to camp, hearing only occasionally from the father and then only in heavily-censored letters. The story of those three years, with their “No Japs Allowed” signs and dreadful living conditions--and their aftermath, when the family returns to its vandalized home and tries to return to normalcy--is told from multiple, shifting points of view. For the novel, Otsuka drew on her grandparents’ experiences as well as on research into the 10,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

More about the book from Random House.

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About the Author

Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is a graduate of Yale University where she majored in art. After graduation, she spent three more years developing her painting portfolio, intending to continue her art education, but ultimately put away her brushes and picked up a pen. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia. She lives in New York City.
When asked about When the Emperor Was Divine, she said “Quite truthfully, I never set out to write a novel about the internment camps. I started out writing--or trying to write--comedy, in fact, and never thought of myself as a "serious" writer. But images of the war kept surfacing in my work, so for reasons I didn't quite understand, the war was something I needed to write about.”

An interview with Julie Otsuka from Random House

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Guides for Readers and Faculty

Random House's note to teachers (including interview with Julie Otsuka, brief historical background, reading questions, themes)

Rhode Island College's faculty guide (essays from Rhode Island College Faculty)

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-- from the New York Book Review

“Otsuka's research seems to have been thorough, but the novel wears it lightly. The logistics of relocation and the routines and regulations of camp life are rendered with a sure sense of detail. The official edicts issued and the unofficial guidelines some internees adopted to get through the ordeal feel equally on the mark. So do the newspaper headlines of the day (''Jap Emperor Repudiates Own Divinity!'') and the questions on the loyalty forms distributed in the camps when, in perhaps the ultimate incongruity of the whole relocation fiasco, the United States Army started recruiting volunteers from among the internees.
With her gift for compression and her feel for a child's-eye view of disrupted family life, Otsuka neatly sidesteps any checklist predictability as she covers her ground. If she can play down the obvious, she does. If the obvious is just too outrageous to ignore (''Kill the Nazis! Kill the Japs!''), she lets it speak for itself. For the most part, her less-is-more approach works beautifully.”

-- from Publishers Weekly

“This heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental debut describes in poetic detail the travails of a Japanese family living in an internment camp during World War II, raising the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. After a woman whose husband was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy sees notices posted around her neighborhood in Berkeley instructing Japanese residents to evacuate, she moves with her son and daughter to an internment camp, abruptly severing her ties with her community. The next three years are spent in filthy, cramped and impersonal lodgings as the family is shuttled from one camp to another. They return to Berkeley after the war to a home that has been ravaged by vandals; it takes time for them to adjust to life outside the camps and to come to terms with the hostility they face. When the children's father re-enters the book, he is more of a symbol than a character, reduced to a husk by interrogation and abuse. The novel never strays into melodrama -- Otsuka describes the family's everyday life in Berkeley and the pitiful objects that define their world in the camp with admirable restraint and modesty. Events are viewed from numerous characters' points of view, and the different perspectives are defined by distinctive, lyrically simple observations. The novel's honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. Anger only comes to the fore during the last segment, when the father is allowed to tell his story -- but even here, Otsuka keeps rage neatly bound up, luminous beneath the dazzling surface of her novel.”

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Please make sure to visit the RIC LibGuide for the 2011 book to view additional information and interactive content!


Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban: September 7th, 12:30-2:00 - "September 11, 2001-September 11, 2011, America and the Muslim World, How far have we come?" (Alger 110)

Tom Schmeling: September 28, 12:30-2:00 - "Korematsu: The Worst Supreme Court Decision Ever?" (Fortes Room in Adams Library)

Julie Otsuka, author of When the Emperor was Divine, October 12, 12:30-2:00 (Student Union Ballroom)

Faculty Teaching Guide and Workshops on When the Emperor was Divine, September 23, 10:00-12:00, Adams Library Room 405 (Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning)

Lloyd Matsumoto: February 15, 2012, 12:30-2:00, "Efforts to Change Victory Day to Peace and Remembrance day and the Japanese Internment Camp Experience" (Fortes Room in Adams Library)

Film Screening: American Pastime and History & Memory: For Akiko and Takashige Thursday, February 23, 2012, Alger 110,65:00 pm . Discussion moderator: Film Studies Professor Vincent Bohlinger.

Exhibit by Visual Artist Roger Shimomura: March 29, 2012 (place tba)
An American Diary, Roger Shimomura "combined aspects of his Pop Art and cartoon-based imagery with reminiscences of his family's internment during World War II" http://www.gregkucera.com/shimomura_diary.htm.

Student Conference - March 30, 2012 (fall deadline Dec. 9, 2011): Anita Duneer (aduneer@ric.edu)

Page last updated: Friday, November 18, 2011