NEA 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.

Otsuka and Her Other Works

“This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.”
—Julie Otsuka, from The Buddha in the Attic

In Julie Otsuka's writings, perspective plays an important narrative role. Whether it is the multiple character voices in When the Emperor Was Divine, or the first-person plural “we” that both welcomes and implicates the reader in The Buddha in the Attic, Otsuka's characters speak with quiet, precise voices that demand to be heard. Because of the historical subject matter of her two novels, and because that subject matter has had limited or faulty treatment in media or fiction, her narrators' acts of speaking “out loud” to the reader should be seen as moral and civic events. Moral, because the narratives encourage readers to consider their relationships with others on the basis of right and wrong; civic, because the narrators force us to consider how fragile our place in our own country could be in times of political or social upheaval.

Listen to writer Maureen Howard talk about Julie Otsuka's narrative voice.

Even the order of the perspectives in Emperor reinforces this message. The novel moves from a distanced third-person—three chapters told from the perspective of “the woman,” “the girl,” and “the boy”—to a more personal “we,” and then to a still more intimate “I” in the father's final chapter. This movement from the distant to the proximate is both stylistic and prescriptive. It follows a similar path to the intellectual and emotional experience of living history. One graduates from an impersonal series of facts to a closer examination and connection with characters whose faces ultimately emerge not in the sepia tones or black-and-white imagery of a historical photograph, but through the rich coloration offered by a masterful author's paintbrush.

Listen to Julie Otsuka talk about how her characters speak with different points of view.

In addition to the immediacy of these character portrayals told in the singular voice, Otsuka's first-person plural holds equal interest for readers. The choral “we,” as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times refers to it, of both Emperor's fourth chapter and the entirety of Buddha, allows Otsuka to express a more universal viewpoint than had she only offered a range of singular narrative perspectives. Otsuka speaks to the simultaneity that this method provided—that many voices could speak as one:

“I wanted to tell everyone's story, and this voice let me weave in these emerging ‘I’s.... There was something joyous, almost ecstatic, about the ‘we’ voice. I think of it being more like a song.“
—Julie Otsuka, from an interview in Poets & Writers

This chorus offers her novels their specific and powerful civic urgency. America, after all, is a country founded and made special by “we the people.”

But as a nation, our greatest strengths and weaknesses are often bound up in how our government has both defined and responded to the “we.” Racism, xenophobia, and the treatment of immigrants in times of national stress are betrayals of this relationship, and it is on this particular topic that Otsuka's works are so revelatory.

Listen to writer Maureen Howard talk about the treatment of immigrants.

Themes of Otsuka's Novels

Otsuka's second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, was published to much acclaim in 2011. Buddha tells the story of Japanese “picture brides” who sailed to America after World War I for arranged marriages. In a series of linked and parallel narratives, Otsuka's characters share with us their brutal struggles, small joys, and eventual betrayals by the country in which they had worked so hard to make a home.

The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Divine both are stories about power and the abuse of it. In Emperor, the United States government wields the power in ways that damage the rights of its citizens. In Buddha, it is the men to whom the brides are promised who steal the women's sense of independence, purpose, and individuality.

In each of these slim but lyrical books, Otsuka examines the effects of this abuse of power on the characters' identities. The internees in Emperor are pressed to forsake their Japanese heritage, while the husbands in Buddha rob the women of their self-respect and self-identity.

At the heart of both novels are beautifully written stories that engage readers on the themes of race, identity, and freedom. Otsuka's concern with moral and civic issues is translated compellingly by characters whose personal and colorful voices have become indispensable testimonials for all Americans to hear.

Listen to writer Maureen Howard talk about why Julie Otsuka writes.
NEA Big Read
Get involved with NEA Big Read!
Learn More

© Arts Midwest