John Marshall recaps readings given by Julie Otsuka for the Seattle Reads events that took place over the weekend. The city read Julie Otsuka’s novel, When The Emperor Was Divine.
[Otsuka] had been answering questions from the 130 people packed into the conference room when moderator Tom Ikeda took note of the number of Japanese Americans in the crowd and asked any former internees to please stand.
Hesitantly, they rose to their feet, former internees near the front of the crowd, but also sprinkled throughout, some in groups, others in pairs, a few by themselves, until there were 30 people standing, while many others in the audience felt their hearts rising into their throats, tears welling in their eyes. Then the rest of the audience started to applaud.
I found Otsuka’s novel arrestingly beautiful when I read it a few years ago. None of the main characters in When The Emperor Was Divine are named, and there is very little action, but something about the precise description of mundane events renders the horror of the Japanese internments incredibly real and dangerously close. Marshall asked Otsuka about whether these choices were motivated by the desire to create archetypes, but she says no:
“It just seemed the right voice to tell the story,” she related. “I definitely did not want to shout the story out. I didn’t want the reader to feel lectured. The material is very hot and the way to tell a hot story is with a cool temperature. That way, the awfulness of the story can well up from somewhere within.”