Julie Otsuka's novella When the Emperor Was Divine tells, in discontinuous sections and different narrative modes, the story of a Japanese-American family split up in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor - the father detained in military camps, the mother and two children interned in the Utah desert. The first part of the story - from Roosevelt's issuing of Executive Order 9066 to the family's leaving their home in Berkeley, California - is told, with superb assurance, through the eyes of the mother. The second part opens several months later, on the train journey from the temporary relocation centre (at the Tanforan racetrack south of San Francisco) to the desert camp; the point of view is the daughter's, who is 11. The voice in the third and longest part, which bears the title of the whole book, is that of her eight-year-old brother. The fourth part describes the family's return home; here both children combine in 'we'. A brief final section is 'spoken' by the father, or by the composite 'alien' he has been forced to become. Together these shards of perspective and time are used to reflect not just on what happened but on what it was like for it to happen - on fugitive interior impressions of injustice, exile, dispossession and breakdown. The Japanese-American presence and consciousness are central; white Americans appear only as they impinge on the characters (and black Americans not at all), as uneasy neighbours, impersonal authority figures, schoolfriends who 'forget'. With somewhat heavy-handed irony, whites are themselves represented as absent - those who had lodged in (and pillaged) the Berkeley house while the family was interned, and who left only traces of themselves behind: 'empty food tins . . . soiled mattresses and old magazines filled with pictures of naked young men and women'.
LRB 3 April 2003 | PDF Download