Saturday, March 24, 2007

Q&A with author Julie Otsuka

Family’s experience colors novel about internment
by Rachel Baruch Yackley
Posted Saturday, March 24, 2007

Julie Otsuka
Born: California, 1962
Resides: New York
Family: Single with plants
Occupation: Writer
Unique factoid: “I can’t think of anything. I had a normal suburban upbringing. And I’m a creature of habit.”

Julie Otsuka’s first book, “When the Emperor Was Divine” (Knopf, 2002), is not a lengthy novel, yet it narrates the epic tale of survivors during a troubling time in our country’s history.

Laid-out in five chapters, each told in a different voice, this novel takes the reader back to a not-so-distant time during World War II, when the United States reacted to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor by arresting, displacing and interning more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans as well as Americans of Japanese descent.

Told through the voices of a woman, her husband, daughter and young son, Otsuka has painted a clear picture of a confusing, frightening time.

“When the Emperor Was Divine” and “Weedflower,” a young adult novel by Cynthia Kadohata, have been chosen for this year’s “Our Community Reads” program, sponsored by the St. Charles Public Library, in partnership with Community Unit School District 303 and Elgin Community College.

Otsuka received her bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1984, and a master’s in fine art from Columbia University in 1999.

“When the Emperor Was Divine” won second place in the 2002 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, for fiction.

Otsuka will be at the St. Charles Library at 7 p.m. April 18 to discuss her book and sign copies. This program is free. She will also visit middle and high schools in St. Charles, and will visit with students at ECC.

Related programs will be offered throughout the month, including a discussion of Otsuka’s book on April 12; a cultural film about Japan along with Japanese treats from local restaurants on April 13; calligraphy and origami demonstrations as well as a performance by the Spring Valley Koto Ensemble on April 15; and folktales of Japan on April 20.

For more information on these events, visit:, or call (630) 584-0076.

Q. How did this story, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” come to you?

A. It was a visual image — a picture of a woman reading the evacuation order for the first time. I tried to imagine what she might do after reading the sign. I imagined following her home.

Up until then I’d been writing comedy. I was in my second year at Columbia, as a comedy writer.

My mother was interned, and over time, I became more and more intrigued with what happened.

Q. Did you do a lot of research?

A. I did. I thought I’d get a lot of information from my mother, because she was a child when she was at “camp,” as she referred to it. But when I started, she was already in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and wasn’t able to (provide any information).

I think a lot of people in my mother’s generation created very normal, very American childhoods for their kids. We only spoke English. I don’t think I understood what my mother had gone through until I was much older.

Q. Your mother, her brother and their father were interned in a camp in Topaz, Utah, just like the mother and two children in your book. Are your relatives in this story?

A. The personalities of the characters are very different. In terms of what happened (in the story), it is based on what happened to them.

My grandfather was put in a series of camps for dangerous enemy aliens. My mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in Topaz.

Q. In a description I read of the internment camp in Topaz at, the experiences of many people at the camp sounded like those of the characters in your book — after being forced to leave their homes, they were housed at Tanforan Race Track (in California), then several months later, endured a long train ride to the desert in Utah.

A. Anyone who lived in the (San Francisco) Bay area would have first gone to Tanforan.

Q. Have you been to Topaz? Have you seen where your mother lived?

A. I went to the museum. It’s in an old barrack (from the war). It was very eerie. I felt like I spent years creating this place in my mind. It’s very desolate; very barren. You could still see foundations of the barracks, and shards of crockery. Then in the town, there are some structures from the camp that survived (and were moved).

Q. Chapter 2, “Train,” is written in the voice of “the girl.” During the arduous train ride from California to Utah, why is the girl slipping playing cards, one-by-one, out the window?

A. It’s like putting a note in a bottle; like saying “I was here.” It’s also an angry act. She’s cooped up on a train with her mother. She’s an adolescent, and she’s just angry.

Q. Chapter 3, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” is in the voice of “the boy.” Why is this chapter titled the same as the book, and why did you choose this title?

A. It’s about it being safest to suppress their Japaneseness; safest not to make any reference to Japan.

The Emperor is also a stand-in for the father. In both the children’s minds, he is bigger than life. He’s also a stand-in for all the men; a communal voice.

Q. Are stories of the American response to being attacked, and especially the stories of the experiences of Japanese-Americans during World War II relevant, today?

A. Definitely, especially in terms of what is happening to Muslim-Americans. People are disappearing, people are being questioned. It’s eerily familiar, just a different ethnic group.

Q. Do Japanese-Americans ever fear being rounded-up again?

A. I can’t speak for all of them, but for my mother’s generation, they did feel like if they didn’t behave well, it might happen again.

I don’t think it will happen again. I don’t think there could ever be a mass roundup, again.

But for years, my mother would end telephone conversations with “The FBI will be checking up on you, soon.” She just did it with family.

Q. Did you take that as her being funny?

A. Oh, yes, I did.

But years ago we saw my grandfather’s FBI file, and they were watching him, and they did arrest him. There was nothing incriminating in the file.

But if you were a businessman and had ties to Japan, you were on the list. If you were in Japanese organizations in the community, you were under suspicion.

Q. Have you read Yoshido Uchida’s books on Topaz: “Journey to Topaz,” and “Desert Exile?”

A. Yes. What her family went through is pretty much what my family went through. I think her books are wonderful.

Q. Do you have more stories in the works?

A. I’m working on a new novel. It’s about the first generation of Japanese women to come to America as picture brides between 1908 and 1921. I’m writing about a group of young women who came over on a ship from Japan.

That’s how life in America started for many, many young Japanese women. They were very poor, and some were just desperate to escape poverty.

While my first book came to me in pictures, this book came to me in song — in a rhythmic pattern.

Q. What ever happened to your interest in writing comedy?

A. I wrote a lot of short stories when I was at Columbia. I feel like there’s a lot of humor in what I’m writing.

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