Julie Otsuka was born in Palo Alto, California, in 1962 to parents of Japanese descent. Her father, an Issei or Japanese immigrant, was an aerospace engineer. Her mother, a Nisei or second-generation Japanese American, was a laboratory technician before Julie's birth.
Otsuka excelled in school, and eventually moved east for college. In 1984 she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale University. Through her early 20s she studied to be a painter, but decided instead, after suffering a self-described “creative breakdown,” to turn her attention to another art form: writing.
In New York City the seeds of a highly successful career were planted when she enrolled in a writing workshop. Otsuka earned her MFA in writing from Columbia University in 1999. Part of her MFA thesis became the first two chapters of her novel When the Emperor Was Divine, published in 2002.
Otsuka's family history figures prominently in the novel. A day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her grandfather was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of being a Japanese spy. Her mother, grandmother, and uncle were subsequently interned at a camp in Topaz, Utah. Otsuka drew on both research and personal experience to craft this debut novel, which won the American Library Association's Alex Award and the Asian American Literary Award in 2003. Emperor has been assigned to incoming freshmen at more than 35 colleges and universities.
Published in 2011, Otsuka's second novel—The Buddha in the Attic—is based on Japanese “picture brides” who were brought to America to marry men they had never met. In 2012 it won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award, among other notable recognitions.
The literary journal Granta published three of her short stories, “Come, Japanese,” “The Children,” and “Diem Perdidi,” the first two of which were excerpts from her novel The Buddha in the Attic. Her short story, “Whites,” which is another excerpt from The Buddha in the Attic, was published by Harper's. Her work has also appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2012 and The Best American Non-required Reading 2012.
Otsuka currently lives in New York City, where she says she writes every day at her local café.
On February 6, 2014, Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Julie Otsuka. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Josephine Reed: The main characters (who are the narrators of the story) are nameless. Why did you make that choice?
Julie Otsuka: I actually had written an earlier version of the first chapter in which the mother had...a Japanese surname, and as I continued to write about these characters I thought it seemed more effective actually to un-name them. I was really interested in the psychology of the situation. [I] happened to be writing about Japanese Americans but...could have been writing about any ethnic group at any point in history. I feel like there has always been another 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.
“One evening, before he went to bed, he wrote his name in the dust across the top of the table. All through the night, while he slept, more dust blew through the walls. By morning his name was gone.”
—from When the Emperor Was Divine
JR: It's also interesting because each character is telling us a different segment of the story.
JO: [T]he daughter is right on the cusp of adolescence and I think she's in a semi-rebellious phase, even if she happens to be in an internment camp; she's a very kind of feisty girl. And 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 even if he's in a camp in the middle of the desert for three and a half years, I feel children have this sense of wonder and connection to nature. 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 moment spots of color and he's just—he's very innocent and he...makes up stories about why he is where he is.
[T]he 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. So there's this outburst of anger at the very end of the novel which again came to me as a surprise...[but] looking back I think the novel's just a very slow, simmering buildup of nerves; there's all this tension that's built up. And throughout [the mother's] emotions are very, very deeply buried. On the surface she tries to remain very calm for the sake of the children but...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.
JR: In the chapter where the family comes home, part of what you explore is the way they're coming to grips with their racial identity. In that chapter, they're very much rejecting things that are Japanese.
JO: [T]hey were ashamed and also they're children. They still don't quite understand, but I think they don't want to be identified with anything that's Japanese. And of course right after Pearl Harbor was bombed, American families were just burning all of their Japanese things. There were bonfires in everyone's backyard. And so they come back and all they want to do—I think all any child wants to do is on some level is just really to fit back in. They don't want to stand out, so they really try to downplay their Japanese-ness as much as they can, and yet they're still seen as being very foreign...by their classmates. But they're determined never to be seen as the enemy again, which, I think, in some way means further rejection of their parents.
“Sometimes he worried he was there because he'd done something horribly, terribly wrong. But then when he tried to remember what that horrible, terrible thing might be, it would not come to him.”
—from When the Emperor Was Divine
JR: The book was published in the year following 9/11, and it has a very particular resonance in that context.
JO: I finished writing the novel in June of 2001, so I had no idea that it would resonate in the way that it has post-9/11 as a sort of cautionary tale about what can happen when the government starts singling out ethnic groups as being the enemy. So, I thought the book, if I were lucky, might be respectfully reviewed as a historical novel. But I think for many, many Japanese Americans, 9/11 just brought back so many memories. It was just all so very, very familiar. You just had a group that overnight becomes the enemy. And I think it brought up a lot of unpleasant memories for many of the older Japanese Americans. You have people being rounded up in secret and sent away to secret detention camps and Guantanamo. I think being a dangerous enemy alien is not that unlike being an enemy combatant. And there are just all these eerie parallels, and I always thought while writing the novel that this could never happen again, but it just seems like in so many ways we never learn from history.... I've been traveling the country for years and speaking to many young people about the camps, but a lot of them have not heard about the camps still. I think it's not something that's included in most American history books, and so some of them are surprised...they'll say, “This is a work of fiction, right? It didn't really happen.” I'll have to explain that, yes, it is a work of fiction, but it is based on a very big and often omitted historical truth.
JR: And it was very moving in the period after 9/11, because as you say, Japanese Americans tend not to speak very often about the camps and their experiences, but many, many spoke up right after 9/11.
JO: They did, and many reached out to Arab American, Muslim American groups, too, and I think it's very hard for Japanese Americans to speak up and assert themselves, especially Japanese Americans of that generation. I think it was a very important thing for them to do, to reach out and to say, “You are not alone,” and just to be a living lesson in history on what can go wrong.