Interviewed by Andrew Duncan
Born and raised in California, Julie Otsuka is a graduate of Yale University and received her M.F.A. from Columbia University. When the Emperor was Divine is her first novel.
What made you choose Japanese-American internment camps as the subject matter for your first novel?
I feel like the subject matter chose me. I had never planned to write a novel about the camps -- too daunting, subject-matter-wise, and who was I to tell this particular story anyway? Would anyone even want to hear about the camps? But images of the war seemed to keep surfacing in my work, so clearly the camps were something I needed to write about.
What was it like writing your first novel?
Both terrifying and exhilarating. I tend to be a doubter, so of course I'm always wondering, "Can I pull this off?" At the same time, I'm never happier than when I'm writing. I enjoy the process -- immersing myself in a world, getting to know my characters, having an alternate reality to enter into every day, listening to the rhythms of the language.
Why did you decide to tell the story from different perspectives?
I never sat down and decided to tell the book in a certain way. All I can say is, that's the way the book came to me. I think I work very intuitively. Also, switching the points of view just made the telling of the story more interesting for me, as a writer.
How close are the events in the book to the actual experiences of your mother, uncle, and grandparents during the war?
Well, my grandfather was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and my mother, uncle, and grandmother were sent to an internment camp several months later. What my mother's family went through during the war is typical of what happened to other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. Aside from those basic facts, however -- the arrest, being sent to a camp -- the novel is entirely made up. The characters in the novel don't resemble anyone in my own family. And since my family didn't talk about the internment much, I had to recreate that time for myself.
Did you ever find out what happened to your grandfather during his imprisonment?
No, not really. My mother finally wrote away and asked for my grandfather's FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, but the file was not too revealing. Which makes sense, I guess, since not a single Japanese or Japanese-American in this country was ever found guilty of espionage or sabotage.
What was your family's reaction to When the Emperor was Divine?
My family is, how best to put it…quietly thrilled. The overall reaction to the book has been surprisingly positive. I was sure that no one would want to read about the camps because the subject matter is so grim, but this turned out not to be the case. People seem interested.
Also, when I was on a book tour of the West Coast, after every reading there were one or two older Japanese-Americans who'd come up to me and tell me which camp they were in and thank me for having written the book -- that was terribly moving to me, to hear them thanking me.
Why do you think the internment camps are almost never discussed either in or outside of classrooms?
Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe because the Japanese-Americans themselves have been so silent on the topic? I just don't know. I'm still surprised, when I do readings, at how little young people today actually know about the camps.
Why is it that Japanese-Americans don't talk about the internment camps?
I think that, for many Japanese-Americans, the war is just an episode they'd rather forget, because of the shame and the stigma they felt at being labeled "disloyal." And after the war so many families just wanted to get on with their lives, rather than dwell on the pain or the loss. Also, culturally, you don't complain, you just endure.
How did the internment camps affect the racial identity of Japanese- Americans?
Well, it stigmatized them. It made some of them feel ashamed of being Japanese, ashamed of not being "American" enough. After the war, many Japanese-Americans tried to "blend in" to mainstream (white) America as best they could. They destroyed their Japanese possessions, and they refused to teach their children Japanese, or even talk to them about the war.
On the other hand, I think that the internment created a special bond -- a bond of shared trauma -- among the Japanese-Americans living on the west coast. Often, when Japanese-Americans of a certain age meet each other for the first time, the first thing they say is not, "Hello, how are you?" but "Which camp were you in?"
What was the general Japanese-American reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor that began the war, and the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war in the Pacific?
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, I think the Japanese-Americans were as shocked as the rest of the country was, and then fear set in -- many of them stayed indoors for the next several days for fear of being attacked as "the enemy." Very similar to how Arabs and Muslims felt in this country after September 11.
As for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I actually don't know. Many Japanese-Americans in this country, however, had relatives back in Japan. Many immigrants came, I think, from Hiroshima in particular.
Do you have plans for another novel?
Yes, I've started writing the next one, but feel superstitious about talking about it this early on. Don't want to jinx it! Silly, I know.
What books are you currently reading?
- Sam Shepard's story collection, Great Dream of Heaven
- The O. Henry Prize Stories 2002
- Ian McEwan, Atonement
If you worked in a bookstore and had a staff picks shelf, what books would be on it?
- Julie Hecht, Do The Windows Open?
- Lydia Davis, Almost No Memory
- Gwen Edelman, War Story
Do you have a favorite bookstore?
Labyrinth Bookstore on West 112th Street in NYC.
 Labyrinth Bookstore, 536 West 112th Street, NY, NY, 212-865-1588
Photo courtesy of Random House.