a conversation with Julia Otsuka      


I know your family was interned during the war. What inspired you to write When the Emperor Was Divine?

Well, I never consciously set out to tell this particular story. It's almost an accidental book. The images came to me, over time, but I never thought the material would add up to anything. Also I didn't really think anyone would be interested in the subject matter. But for some reason, the subject of the internment—but even more than that, the emotions behind it—somehow resonated with me. And the war was a theme that kept on surfacing in my writing. I would write one story and start telling another story with the same characters. After awhile, I realized that I had something substantial on my hands and that I should go with it. It was sort of a daunting subject. It was hard to know how to do it justice. But I thought of the book as a story about the characters first, always, and not really a story about Japanese-Americans during World War II. I decided to take that particular tack; it made it easier for me. That's how I found my way into it.

Did your family talk a lot about the experience?

No, very little—I did a lot of research for the book. My mother was eleven when she went in and she doesn't have really clear memories of it. Like your relatives, she has humorous stories. I don't know if she just chose not to tell me or if she really doesn't remember. I think it's the latter, actually. And then my grandmother. As she got older, she spoke more and more Japanese and less and less English, so it got harder for me to communicate with her. I don't remember her talking much about it, either. But also at the time, I didn't really know to ask. So I'm sure there was a lot more information there to be had from my grandmother, but I didn't really know about it. I was young and she was not so forthcoming.

Why do you think Japanese-Americans are so reticent about this particular subject?

I think because of the shame. I think, for them, it was a shameful episode. Also, culturally, I think it's just you don't really complain; you endure.

I always think of that phrase shikata ga nai—can't be helped.

Right, right. (Laughs.) As a young girl, I remember if I ever complained, my mother would say, "Just look in the mirror and smile," or, "Chin up." That attitude does make it easier to get on with things.

The war was a devastating episode for everyone of that generation. And I think the main task for everyone after the war was to get on with their lives, not to dwell on the pain or the loss.

Probably the best-known book about Japanese internment is Snow Falling on Cedars, which is by a white author. There aren't really any well-known books on the subject by Japanese authors; there's Farewell to Manzanar and No-No Boy, but they're not as known by the general public. Why do you think that is?

I have no idea why that is. I always thought, while I was writing the book, that there must be twenty, thirty other people out there exactly like me, writing the same story. It's the obvious story to tell. What other story would you tell if you're the daughter or son of an evacuee? I'm sure there are many, many people out there, right now, writing the same book or their version of it; I don't know why they haven't come to light. It's sort of a mystery to me.

The odd thing is that all the books I knew on the topic were children's books, like by the author Yoshiko Uchida.

Yeah. That is very odd, very strange. I still haven't read Snow Falling on Cedars. I was afraid to while I was writing the book. I didn't want to be discouraged because I had heard it was so good. But maybe now I can finally read it, because I've heard such good things about it.

Of course, the first anniversary of 9/11 is coming up and your book is very timely in relation to that. I just read a book recently called 21st Century Manzanar that postulates that if the U.S. ever goes to war with Japan again, reevacuation—ReVac—could happen again.

At this point?

Yeah, it takes place in the near future—9/11 is mentioned as a past event. Do you think ReVac could happen?

ReVac—that's a good term.

That's what the book calls it.

It's scary, but I don't think that it's that entirely unlikely. I mean, I'd like to think that we've come a long way as a society in terms of our tolerance of 'the other' since World War II. I don't know what will happen if, say, there is a second terrorist attack. There was that survey taken right after 9/11, asking people if they thought that Arab immigrants should be interned, and I think about a third of the people answered yes. I think internment is still a possibility.

A lot of Japanese-Americans after the attack came out and spoke out against it—you know, don't let this happen again, etc.

I think it was very important that they did because very few people came forward in 1942 to protest the internment. The Quakers did, but very few others. I think it's important.

Going back to the book, one of the most noticeable things about it was that none of the main characters have names; they're just the mother, the father, the girl, the boy. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

It was. I can't even say why. It just felt right. I wanted it to be a universal story, although it happened to a particular group of people. People have been rounded up and sent away all throughout history.

The last chapter—it was amazing, really powerful. Did it come easily to you?

Oh, thank you. It did. While I was writing the penultimate chapter the last chapter came to me in a rush. And I knew right away, as soon as I wrote it, that it would be the ending and that it was the right ending for the book. I wrote a draft of it and set it aside as I finished the second to last chapter. And when I was ready, I just went through it. I didn't have to do much. It just felt—it was a surprise, I never expected anything like that. It just seemed like the right ending, but a surprising ending, too, given the tone of the book up until that point.

Did you write the book in pretty much the order it's in?

Yes, pretty much.

I think you started writing this during your MFA program at Columbia?

Right. Part of the book was my thesis. And then I worked on it for two years afterward.

One of the other things I liked about the book was its attention to everyday detail, its focus on that rather than the injustice of the situation. I thought it was an interesting choice.

People always mention that. I think I must be obsessed with details. I have to see the scene visually. And I guess I like to know a little more than I need to know to tell the scene. It's the one thing I can work with. I do hear that a lot—that the details are pretty vivid.

It makes it very universal and historical.

And more particular, at the same time.

And more visual.

Oh, good. (Laughs.) I also didn't want to overload people with details. But I just had to know how things looked.

Do you think it's a natural extension of your work as a painter?

People mention that, too. I don't know. It might just be a coincidence. I have no idea. When I'm writing, it's the rhythm of the words, the sound of the language, that compels me.

Do you still paint?

No, no. I gave away my brushes and my paints. It was the right thing to do. (Laughs.) I don't miss it. I like writing. I like words. And I Iove stories. And language.

Was it a natural transition from painting to writing?

No, I stopped painting and I was in despair, in sort of a creative breakdown. I just couldn't go on painting anymore. I was filled with doubt. And so for three years, I did nothing. I just read all day long. I went to my neighborhood café. And I took long walks everyday; I felt very empty. I had this job word processing in the evenings. It was a very solitary, bleak sort of existence. I had no idea what to do with myself, except to read. That was really my only consolation. I would go to the café and read stories. It was the only thing that seemed to help me feel better. But I had no idea that I'd end up writing; I had never written fiction before. So that was the furthest thing from my mind. I just thought, well, I'm a failure as a painter. At a certain point I signed up for a workshop and decided to try my hand at writing. Fearlessly—it was almost a lark. I felt at that point—now I know that it wasn't that important, but when you're young, everything seems like a big deal—I had nothing to lose. And I think I felt more comfortable with language; it seemed easier, to me, as a medium to work with than painting. And, you know, I love looking at painting and maybe that's enough. I love color and I love form. Maybe I'm just meant to be a looker.

Speaking of which, have you thought about turning the book into a film?

Have I? No. I think it's not a very sexy story. There's no love interest. It seems like it would not be very filmable. There's almost no plot. I mean, I guess there is some plot, but it's just history. But what happens? Time passes and a family reacts to the situation. I think I'm weak on plot; it's not a very good story.

There aren't very many movies about the experience, either. I can only think of one.

Oh, what was that?

Come See the Paradise.

Oh, I saw that.

I haven't seen it myself. Did you see it before or after you wrote the book?

Oh, years before. A long time ago.

Who are your writing inspirations?

Oh, lately I've been reading a lot of Isaac Babel— The Red Calvary stories. And those are stunning. I've never read him before. The language is so diamond-hard, so clear. The subject matter is so devastating—the violence. And the language is gorgeous.

What have I read recently? Oh, I just read The English Patient for the first time. It was gorgeous. I loved it so much. Each scene was so real. And the language—just beautiful. I was really touched.

There are a lot of writers I love. But, as for influence, Hemingway, in terms of the spare, pared down style that I admire. I love all his stories.

What are you working on now?

Well, I have an idea for my next book. I think it's a little soon to talk about it. I'm still sort of feeling my way into the material. But it would sort of take off where this one ended. Not exactly, but it would pick up on some of the same themes.

With the same characters?

Not exactly. But it would probably take off from that point—after the war. But I can't be very clear at this point.

You're going on tour soon. Are you excited?

I'm very excited and a little nervous. I've never been on a tour before. I have no idea how it'll be received. I don't know what to expect at all. It's very difficult. But I'll be going to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.

Actually, I went to Seattle in May. Symphony Space did a reading of the first chapter at Town Hall as part of their Selected Shorts series. The audience was so warm and receptive. A lot of history out there, too. I took the ferry to Bainbridge Island.

Oh, I've never been there.

That's the first place where the Japanese were rounded up; the first evacuation order was issued on Bainbridge Island. I wanted to walk around there.

Have you read any of your notices?

No, I haven't read anything yet. It's still too early. This summer I've just been trying to read and relax. But I know things are in the works. (Laughs.)

— interview by Kelley Kawano

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    Photo credit: Jerry Bauer