Currently Reading: When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

book cover for When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka - origami bird Situated in 1942, this short novel pulls the reader into the unfortunate situation of Japanese American internment during the second World War. However, if you’re expecting a run-of-the-mill historical fiction, you’ll be disappointed. Julie Otsuka walks a fine line between the fiction novel and the creative nonfiction gray area of the lyrical essay, pulling you into the turmoil while maintaining factual accuracy and a poetic style. Instead of simply reading about a character’s experiences, you are pulled into the lives of each of the main characters as they pass around the narration, nameless yet identifiable. Yes, that’s right—nameless.

The book concentrates on the experiences of what seems to be one family, though these characters are written entirely without names or identification. In this way, Otsuka makes the reader take a step back—this isn’t only one family, this is the story of many families that were uprooted and torn apart during this period of Japanese American internment and discrimination. While the story is being told emotions are, for the most part, absent. Each character’s narration seems to be somewhat detached from any expected emotional response. This gives the reader the power to infer the emotional state of the characters on their own, identify with them more closely, and draw conclusions about the internalization and repression of the characters as a result of their experiences.

All that technical, literary analysis mumbo jumbo is all well and good and yes, if you’re studying World War II, Japanese American culture, racial discrimination, emotional trauma, or any number of other things, I do recommend that you add this book to your reading list, but in addition to all of that—it is a beautiful and inspiring piece of writing to read. It is poetic and moving and had me hooked from start to finish. If it hadn’t been for class, work, and the desire to get at least a few hours of sleep, I likely would have finished the whole book in one sitting (fortunately, two did the trick).

Reading this book made me consider my own writing: What does anonymity do to the message of a story? What does a fixed, singular narrator bring to a text? How can I use anonymity, identification, and multiple narrators to tell a story? I highly recommend reading this book for the sake of reading a well-written historical novel, but as you read, consider how you can apply some of Julie Otsuka’s artistic choices to your own writing.

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