I found Julie Otsuka’s debut novel to be a beautifully devastating ode to her family’s lived experiences during internment. I appreciated the author’s somber and matter-of-fact tone. Though the book is thin in relation to its page count, not a single word was wasted by the author. The story is both sparse and dense, which makes me wonder if the author was influenced by the Japanese poetry form of haiku. The beauty and sadness of Otsuka’s prose made me think of the work of Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese Nobel laureate for literature. When the Emperor was Divine read as a deeply personal elegy, a lament for the 100,000+ Japanese American citizens who were forcibly displaced by their country based on nothing more than their ethnic origin.
A major theme of the book was the internalized self-hatred that each character inevitably displayed. I didn’t expect the raw, openly displayed self hate, most notably displayed by the little girl. Early in the novel, the little girl asks her brother and mother if there was anything wrong with her head and her face; no kind words from her family could put her at ease. The little girl seemed to be earnestly trying to assimilate — she wanted to be a “normal” (AKA white) American girl. Over the course of the novel, she became increasingly antagonistic to her mother and brother. She was given to bouts of rage, sadness, cruelty, and occasional abandonment of her family while at the camp.
This really emphasized the compounding trauma of the internment experience. Beyond just physically separating families from each other, the dehumanizing process of internment deteriorated the mental/spiritual/emotional bonds that connected families. In this way, Japanese American internment was a form of cultural genocide.
All was not lost though, thankfully. My favorite character — perhaps the bastion of the family’s resistance — was the little boy. As the youngest child, I expected him to be the character most willing to assimilate. I was pleasantly surprised at (and grateful for) his small and subtle acts of resistance. Whereas his sister wanted to attract the attention of the soldiers guarding them, the boy called out Emperor Hirihito’s name behind their backs. He scrawled SOS signals in the dust outside the camps. He kept a pet tortoise that he seemed to care for as long as he could. The differences between the siblings’ coping methods provided a sense of narrative balance and fleshed out the lives that Japanese Americans had to carve out of the foreign dusts of the camps in Utah and Arizona.
One thing that confused and saddened me was the lack of rage towards the system that sought to destroy the characters. I can’t remember a point in which anyone — child or adult — decisively declared “fuck this place & the people that are holding us here“. All the characters seemed to internalize their undeserved trauma and process it as shame. I know that certain Asian cultures have honor based cultural practices. I wonder if the shame response (as opposed to outward expressions of anger) could be attributed to a perceived lack of honor from the internment experience.
One of the grossest part of the Japanese internment experiment (and the American slavery machine overall) was the fact that many of the camps were built on tribal land. This country was/is so gross that they took the land and resources from one oppressed group *in order to oppress another group*. Additionally, while Japanese American citizens were being treated as enemy prisoners of war, the rest of the country seemed to do nothing but continue to participate in the war machine. The same people tending those victory gardens were the ones stealing rose bushes from their systemically oppressed neighbors.