When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When I was in college, I heard an author speak. I did little research about her before I went to hear her read a passage from her book, When the Emperor was Divine, but I do remember a poignant passage she read about a woman, a shovel, and a dog. I won’t say more, but if you read it (or heard her read it), you will know.

The whole novel is a fast read, a poignant account from various perspectives, of a family displaced from their home during the 1942 Japanese internment relocations. What I like about the novel is the way it allows the emotions of the characters to come through using simple actions and details. We don’t need an angry tirade against the United States to see how wrong it was for the family to be relocated, their house abused in their absence, and the best years of their lives stolen from them. These details come out in an understated way that stays with the reader—in my case, even years later (I hadn’t read the whole novel in college, but I remembered it as soon as I read the first chapter again, decades after I heard the author read the same passage).

This is an important novel for everyone to read, as I believe this is a time period in American history that is glossed over. It’s a fast read at only 144 pages, and an important one. I like that the book shows how and why Americans would become complacent with the relocation of Japanese American citizens—while at the same time pointing out the irony and blatant wrongness of the fact that these are American citizens who happen to be of Japanese ancestry. They were guilty without being allowed to be proven innocent. It’s easy to judge atrocities like how the Nazis were able to come to power—how could a people allow that?—but then equally easy to overlook how easy it is for such fear of generalized groups can lead to inhumane actions. Perhaps it’s fitting to pre-post this to go live on the eve of Independence Day, a reminder that we always must strive to be fair to others and not give in to fear. It’s a fine balance to achieve, for sure, but books like this help us to see multiple perspectives and gain wisdom even if we were not alive to witness these events first-hand.

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