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.

Lost Boys of Sudan

Lost Boys of Sudan plan fundraiser to aid homeland
Rachel Baruch Yackley
Posted Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Samuel Anei survived a war. At only 8 years old, he was forced to  run from his home, alone, from his family and friends, and find safety and security in a new land.
Anei is a Lost Boy of Sudan. You can hear his story as well as the  harrowing experiences of other Lost Boys at the Arcada Theater on Saturday when a local organization, Lost Boys Rebuilding  Southern Sudan Foundation, presents the 2006 Sundance Film Festival  award winning documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us.”
This fundraising  event will include a visit from former NBA superstar Manute Bol, also from Sudan.
The term “Lost Boys” was borrowed from the children’s story “Peter  Pan.” It is used to describe an entire generation of approximately 26,000 Sudanese boys who were driven from their tribal villages during a civil war between north and south Sudan in the late 1980s.
Regardless of age and current living situation, these survivors,  most of whom are orphans, continue to refer to each other as “Lost  Boys.”
“I left Sudan in 1987 for Ethiopia. It was very crazy,” said Anei,  who was only 8 years old when civil war engulfed the region. “My  village was attacked by militia (sent by the) Sudan government. A lot of people were running in different directions. I followed a group. 
“We walked for three months. I had no one to take care of me. No food,  no water. We survived by eating wild food and drinking stagnant water. In Ethiopia, I lived in a refugee camp for four years, then there was war in Ethiopia. We flee to Sudan. In Sudan there was still war.  Killing, still killing. So we flee to Kenya in 1992. We walked to  Kenya. We stayed in Pochalla (Sudan, on the Ethio-Sudanese border).  The town was attacked by the Sudan government. We were taken to  another town between Sudan and Kenya — Lokichokio. We stayed there.  It’s the base of United Nations Relief.
“But then the (Sudan)  government was sending militia to kill us. There were insecurities. Then we fled to Kakuma, Kenya. I lived there, in a refugee camp, for  nine years, until I had a chance to come here.”
Throughout all this, Anei said he came through with minor injuries,  but the emotional scars are great. “To run from war, you feel kind of depressed for a long time,” he said.
 The last time Anei saw his parents was in 1987. He does have two brothers left, an older and a younger,  who are still living in Kenya, in a refugee camp.
Anei came to Chicago on March 7, 2001. He, along with five other  boys, was one of the first Lost Boys to arrive.
“We were in a different situation (before 2001), under United  Nations care. Bill Clinton, the United States and the United Nations, arranged for (a group of) us to come here.
“The United States agreed to resettle 4,000 Lost Boys in 2001,” said  Jane Mooberry, who serves on the board of the The Lost Boys  Rebuilding Southern Sudan Foundation. “Then when 9/11 happened, the  resettlement stopped.”
Now, nearly 3,600 of the “lost boys” (now found men) have been  resettled in the U.S. For various reasons, only 89 “lost girls” have  been resettled in the U.S., according to
According to, more than 125 Lost Boys live in the Chicago area. These young men are dedicated to  helping the next generation of Sudan, especially now that a peace agreement has been signed between the government in the north and the  Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in the south.
“They are all living in apartments, working, and going to school.  Some have already become American citizens. That is the goal for all of them,” said Mooberry. “The majority of them will remain in the  United States because they feel they can provide more assistance from  here, than if they were to return to southern Sudan. They see the  hope for the future, for the youth of Sudan.”
 Now 26 years old, Anei lives in a house on the North Side of Chicago with other Lost Boys. He works at Tri-Lite in Bridgeport, and attends Truman College, where he is majoring in business  administration and taking a minor in management.
“It’s very good. It’s not like the life I had in Africa,” Anei said. “I miss Sudan a lot. I miss the friends who used to play with me. I miss Sudanese food. I miss the culture. One day I might be going back there to help.”
Until that day comes, Anei is helping Sudanese children who are  still living in Africa by serving as a board member of the Fox Valley-based Lost Boys Rebuilding Southern Sudan Foundation.
This organization came together in September 2006.
“The Lost Boys (who are living in the area) wanted to give back to  Sudan. They didn’t know how to do it, and they looked to Americans for direction,” said Mooberry.
Lost Boys who serve on the foundation’s board live in Elgin, Carol  Stream, Wheaton, and Chicago.
“I’m one of the persons who has been in the life that was so hard,”  said Anei. “Children in southern Sudan (still) have no school to go  to, and no place where they can play games. My main goal is helping  with their education, and with the chance to bring this new  generation to a new situation.”
Before war broke out in southern Sudan, Anei’s father was a farmer,  and the family had cows, sheep, goats and chickens. He was also a  chief of the village where their tribe, the Dinka, lived.
Testimony to the figurative smallness of the world, Anei is from the  same village as Valentino Achak Deng, the main figure of Dave Egger’s popular new novel, “What is the What.” While Deng lives in Atlanta, he has been to Anei’s Chicago home to visit his childhood friend.
Come learn the modern history of Sudan, the largest country in  Africa, and support efforts to aid the children whose lives have been  destroyed by 20 years of civil war, by attending the Lost Boys fundraiser Saturday.
“God Grew Tired of Us” will be shown at 2 and 7 p.m.. The theater is at First Avenue and Main Street in downtown St. Charles.
“God Grew Tired of Us” covers the life of three of the Lost Boys over a four-year period as they leave the refugee camp in Kakuma and move to the United States.  This film is narrated by  Nicole Kidman, directed by Tom Walker, and produced by Brad Pitt, Molly Bradford Pace, and Peter Gilbert. To learn more about this  film, visit
Following the showing of this 2006 Sundance Film Festival award-winning movie, Bol will speak, and will then be joined on  stage by the eight Lost Boys who are on the board of the foundation for a questions from the audience.
Bol is believed to have been born on Oct. 16, 1962, in  Sudan. At the age of 18 he was recruited to play college basketball in the United States. Bol was drafted in 1984  and played until 1995. He is the only player to block more than 300 shots in his first two seasons.
“Since retiring from the NBA, Manute Bol  has been working tirelessly to improve the conditions for people of southern Sudan,” said Mooberry.
Joining Bol on stage will be William Mou, Mayom Majok, William  Majak, Arkangelo Dut, Samuel Mayoul, James Mum Ajuong, Deng Deng and Anei.
Tickets are $10 general admission, $50 and $100.
Patrons who purchase $100 and $50 tickets get preferred seating and  will be able to visit with Bol and the Lost Boys at a private reception at 1 and 6 p.m.
Tickets will be available at the door the day of the event. You can  also make donations and purchase tickets online at (click on events), or reserve tickets via e-mail to Include show time, number of tickets  and price. Tickets will be held at the Will Call window. Donations of any amount are welcome. All proceeds from this fundraiser will go to the foundation.
“The mission of this organization is geared toward providing hope  for the youth of southern Sudan. The main goal is to build schools  and community centers where they can nourish mind, body and spirit,” Mooberry explained.
Donations will go towards building costs, and to the purchase of  educational supplies, as well as recreational materials.
Donations can be made online, or mailed to The Lost Boys Rebuilding  Southern Sudan, P.O. Box 6264, Elgin, IL 60121-6264.

A favorite quote ...

"The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearances, giftedness or skill. The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past ... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play out the one string we have and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it."
-- Charles Swindoll