National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

Mostly though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.


Julie Otsuka. Copyright Robert Bessoir.

Julie Otsuka: I actually had written an earlier version of the first chapter in which the mother had a name; she had a Japanese surname, and as I continued to write about these characters it seemed more effective actually to un-name them. I was really interested in the psychology of the situation. I mean I just saw her as a woman confronted by history and by circumstance and I feel like I was almost—I was following her. I mean I don’t want it to be particularly clear to the reader in the beginning that they’re reading about a Japanese American woman. I happened to be writing about Japanese Americans but I think I could have been writing about any ethnic group at any point in history. I feel like there has always been an other, a group that’s been expelled and sent away and I also thought that my characters were people from whom everything had been taken, their liberty, their belongings, their sense of self. And I think that the one thing that you can’t take away from someone is their name so I wanted to leave them just some tiny shred of self so only they and they alone know who they are.

Maureen Howard: The mother is a very interesting, wise woman who knows what is coming upon them. The white dog—White Dog is killed by the mother, actually killed and buried. Because she knows what would happen to White Dog. That's the family pet. The father has been taken, the children are there with the mother. The mother knows what would happen to that dog. And so she takes it upon herself to eradicate the poor dog. And it's a powerful, strange idea of the mother who is a gentle, loving person, doing that to the family pet.

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