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Otsuka was born in May 15, 1962, in Palo Alto, California. She has taught at Columbia University, Yale University, and Columbia University School of the Arts, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1984. She later graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Fine Arts in 1999.
Her father worked as an aerospace engineer and her mother worked as a lab technician before she gave birth to Otsuka. Both of her parents were of Japanese descent, with her father being an issei and her mother being a nisei. When she was nine, her family moved to Palos Verdes, California. She has two brothers, one of whom, Michael Otsuka, teaches at the London School of Economics.
Her debut novel When the Emperor was Divine dealt with Japanese American internment during World War II. It was published in 2002 by Alfred A. Knopf. Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic (2011), is about Japanese picture brides.
Otsuka's historical fiction novels deal with Japanese Americans. Her books call attention to the plight of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Otsuka lives in New York City.
When the Emperor was Divine is a historical fictional novel written by American author Julie Otsuka about a Japanese-American family who was sent to a concentration camp in the Utah desert during World War II. The novel, loosely based on the wartime experiences of Otsuka's mother's family, was written from the perspective of four family members, detailing their expulsion from California and their time in the camp. It is Otsuka's first novel, and it was published by Alfred A. Knopf in the United States in 2002.
The book is broken into five uneven sections: “Evacuation Order No. 19,” “Train,” “When the Emperor Was Divine,” “In a Stranger’s Backyard,” and “Confession.” The first three sections are written in a distant third person narrative mode, where the characters are never referred to by name. The fourth section is in the shared point of view of the brother and the sister. The final section, which is only a few pages long, shifts into first person narration.
The novel is set in April 1942, in Berkeley, California, a Japanese-American woman reads public signs , takes notes, and goes home to pack. Nine days later, she is still packing. She dresses up to go shopping. Joe doesn’t want to be paid and gives her two caramels for her children.
At home, the woman takes down mirrors, moves plants outdoors, moves valuables to the basement, and packs books and dishes in boxes. She gives the cat to the neighbors and kills and cleans the chicken, which she will cook for dinner. She eats rice balls and gives the family dog, leftovers with an egg. She thinks about her husband, who, despite being in an internment camp in Texas since December, writes faithfully. She ties White Dog to a tree, kills him with a shovel, and buries him along with her dirty white gloves. When the children return from school, the mother prepares a chicken dinner and lets her daughter’s pet macaw fly out the window while she imagines her husband in the house with them. She has no idea what the future holds for any of them.
The second section, “Train,” focuses on the family’s transition from their first barracks to the second camp. On the train the girl is the central character. She observes people closely and sneaks peeks out the windows of the train, even though the soldiers on the train tell her that she is supposed to keep the shades on the windows drawn.
When they reach the camp, the third-person narration shifts so that the young boy is the point-of-view character. His childlike view of the camp sets the tone for this section, the bulk of the book. The reader learns about the strict rules governing camp life and the harsh conditions people endure in the Nevada desert. The family tries to hold on to the memories of their old lives. The boy in particular is trying to hold on to the memories of the absent father. The mother is increasingly struggling with severe depression.
The fourth chapter describes the family’s return to their home and their struggle with discrimination in the wake of the war. In this chapter, only the mother and the two children make it home at first. The children are happy to be home, enjoying the return of their freedom. The mother is upset about the way their house was occupied in their absence. For much of the chapter, the mother attempts to restore the house to its prior condition. This is not the only element of their former lives that cannot be restored. Their neighbors refuse to welcome them back, and the family finds it difficult to reintegrate into the community.
The final chapter of the book is a monologue by the father, wherein he articulates a fake confession. It is framed as if in response to the interrogation he endured on the night of his arrest. It is brief, only a few pages long, but it is intense, angry, and bitterly sarcastic. It points out that he might as well confess to every crime he is accused of having committed since his accusers will never believe that he didn’t do anything. He maintains how he has no identity in their eyes, apart from his race, and how his guilt has already been determined, thanks to that prejudice, before he was even arrested and brought into the interrogation room for questioning. The book ends on this note, forcing the reader to confront their own complicity with prejudiced practices in American society.
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