Julie Otsuka works hard on her fiction–I know she does–but how effortless does she make it seem? Her prose is so spare, simple and genuine that it reveals no evidence of labor or revision. It is so true that it is hard to even imagine her in the act of writing it.
When the Emperor Was Divine was her first novel, which I read just now, a year or two after I read her second, The Buddha in the Attic. Both novels are slim and concern a period in our country’s history that no one talks about very often, I think probably because it is so painfully appalling–the period in which Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps. I’ve seen Julie Otsuka speak; she revealed that these novels are based on the experiences of her mother and her mother’s family. I could barely deal with how much I loved The Buddha in the Attic–the collective voice, the rhythm, the sentence juxtapositions–it was devastating. Had I not read that one first, I would have thought the same about this one, which pales slightly only in comparison to the later work. It is still an incredible, and incredibly affecting, book.
It is divided into five sections, each in a different point of view. The subtle genius of this novel is that it is about a specific family–a mother, father, daughter and son–but it is also about the collective experience of families who were separated, uprooted and traumatized during this period. The characters do not have names; the first three sections are in the points of view of “the woman,” “the girl,” and “the boy,” respectively. The fourth is through the lens of the children together–both these children and others, it seems, returning to their former communities after years as prisoners. The fifth and last section is from the perspective of the Japanese-American men held as enemies during the war. The family’s father was taken before the rest of them, unexpectedly, in his slippers and robe, and held as an enemy in a separate camp, his loving, consistent letters mostly redacted. When he returns to them, he is destroyed, unrecognizable. The section is not specifically his but theirs–the men who were taken–though it is in the first person. Page 142 reads:
Who am I? You know who I am. Or you think you do. I’m your florist. I’m your grocer. I’m your porter. I’m your waiter. I’m the owner of the dry-goods store on the corner of Elm. I’m the shoeshine boy. I’m the judo teacher. I’m the Buddhist priest. I’m the Shinto priest. I’m the Right Reverend Yoshimoto. So prease to meet you. I’m the general manager of Mitsubishi. I’m the dishwasher at the Golden Pagoda…I’m the peach picker. I’m the pear picker. I’m the lettuce packer. I’m the oyster planter. I’m the cannery worker. I’m the chicken sexer. And I know a healthy young rooster when I see one!…I’m the one you call Jap. I’m the one you call Nip. I’m the one you call Slits. I’m the one you call Slopes. I’m the one you call Yellowbelly. I’m the one you call Gook. I’m the one you don’t see at all–we all look alive. I’m the one you see everywhere–we’re taking over the neighborhood…I’m your worst fear…And I’ve been living here, quietly beside you, for years, just waiting for Tojo to flash me the high sign…
When I read Julie Otsuka’s work I wish that I never before used the word “evocative” to describe someone’s writing–no one can evoke a time, a place, and a quiet sadness like she can. Sometimes it is hard to even tell where the power is coming from, but it is always there. It is the accumulation of her sentences, her restraint, the careful scaffolding she builds out of sight. I can’t recommend her books enough.