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: The boy is a little younger, he’s seven when the novel starts, and he’s a little bit too young to understand what’s going on. He’s a very dreamy child and very much a magical thinker and he thinks, in the way that children often do, that everything is his fault, that everyone is being sent away because he’s done something wrong. And I think he’s the character that I felt closest to, also, emotionally—just as a person—and I feel like it was also a good point of view to describe the experience of being in camp, I thought, from the point of view of a child. And even if he’s in a camp in the middle of the desert for three and a half years, I feel like children have this sense of wonder and connection to nature, so he’s still very compelled by the natural world around him–by the scorpions, by lizards, by snakes, by turtles—just in the way that children are. And so it’s not an utterly bleak and devastating experience—although in many ways it is—but I feel like there are these kind of moments, spots of color, and he’s very, very innocent and he kind of makes up stories about why he is where he is.

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