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.

Maureen Howard: The father is off-scene, therefore in memory, and there's short letters. And the short letters say nothing personal, really. The short letters are, one imagines, what he was allowed to write. Kind of, "How are you? I am fine." They reveal nothing much at all. You feel, without it ever being said or written, that there was constraint upon what he was allowed to write to his family.

Julie Otsuka: The point of view of the father is kind of held back throughout the entire novel; he’s just this missing presence who we see glimpses of through the other characters, their memories of the father, their dreams of the father. And when we finally see him at the end of the novel when he’s reunited with the family he’s not the man that his wife and children remember. He’s a very bitter, angry man and clearly something has happened to him while he’s been away and detained, but we don’t know exactly what it is that happened to him. So there’s this outburst of anger at the very end of the novel which again came to me as a surprise, I didn’t think I would end on that note, but then looking back I feel like the novel’s just a very slow, simmering buildup of nerves; there’s all this tension that’s built up. And throughout I feel like the mother especially is—her emotions are very, very deeply buried. I think on the surface she tries to remain very calm for the sake of the children, but I think there has to be a release to that tension somewhere, and I feel like there is at the end of the novel with the father’s angry rant.

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