Julie Otsuka is one severely underrated writer.
Let's back up a few years - I read The Buddha in the Attic in spite of my own better judgement, and was blown away by nearly flawless writing, a wonderful sense of mood, and a story that has not left my consciousness since then. The Buddha in the Attic was a book I never would have read had I not spotted it on the recommended table at my local bookstore, had I not opened it to the first few pages and been intrigued by the first-person plural. But the book proved to be so much more than a bland-looking "literary" piece with a gimmick. Instead, I discovered that Otsuka could both write, and she could write. I bought When the Emperor was Divine not long after, and it's languished on my shelves ever since.
Why languished, you ask? Well, because like many readers who fall in love with one book at one point, there is always the fear that the author's other works will disappoint. So I put off reading Otsuka's earlier novella more and more. Until a couple weeks ago, when I broke down and pulled it off the shelf. About time, too. There was no cause for concern - When the Emperor was Divine is just as cleanly written, just as finely tuned, and ultimately just as thought-provoking as The Buddha in the Attic. Possibly more important as well, though I don't think I liked it more.
Though The Buddha in the Attic was written later, I couldn't help but feel as though it's the natural prequel to When the Emperor was Divine. Buddha deals with the immigration of Japanese women to the US (California, specifically), gradually opening their story across decades as they adjust to life in their new country, showing racism and culture clashes vividly and powerfully.
Emperor begins in World War II. The girls who moved to the US in Buddha are now grown women, mothers, whose children are entirely American, hardly speaking any Japanese. Emperor has a more generally familiar structure, following one single family across a slice of American history that is often (improperly) ignored and forgotten: the family's time in the Japanese internment camps.
Like Buddha, which follows a group of women, none of whom are an actual protagonist, Emperor purposely blurs the boundaries of standard narration by keeping our family very generic. "The woman", "the boy", "sister", etc. - names for characters we get to know. They're placeholders, a representation for an entire group of people crammed into the same utterly unjust, baffling situation. Our family comprises of mother, daughter and son, with an absent father who was taken away not long before the rest of the family was sent to camps.
With this lightly drawn setting, Otsuka gives a surprisingly quiet, powerful account of the impact of the interment camps. Little is actually said of the camps themselves - Otsuka describes them in broad terms, referencing minor details more than anything actually concrete - but the mere choice to show them to readers through the eyes of the children (and not the mother, whose perspective opens the story as the family prepares to leave) tells quite a bit about Otsuka's intentions. The remaining sections of the novella, dealing with the family's return to standard life and a sense of normality, show this intention even more clearly.
Because Otsuka's book isn't about what happened. Rather, Otsuka seems to ask - calmly, sadly, and perhaps a little tiredly - how and why it happened. How did entire families get rounded up, how were citizens forced to declare their "loyalty" and "denounce" Japan's emperor? Why were men sent to prison and not seen for years, with only the occasional letter sent home? How did neighbors simply take from the homes of those sent away? Why was this so easy?
These questions linger. As they should. When the Emperor was Divine provides a probing look at highly focused racism that is still entirely relevant today (the book's "Chink or Jap?" turns into "Arab or Indian?"). It's a clear-eyed assessment of one of America's greatest - and generally unspoken - shames. It's the sort of book I want taught in classrooms. It's the sort of book that needs to be discussed.
I've read a lot of powerful books in my life. But this pair of Otsuka's novellas has left a greater impact on me than many of the largest epics. As I recommended The Buddha in the Attic years ago, I now recommend When the Emperor was Divine. Read them in whichever order you'd like; it doesn't matter. But the story they tell and they message they convey does. Combined with spare and breathtakingly clear writing, these are books that shouldn't be passed over for a moment.