Perhaps because I am Asian American this resonated more for me. How much do you identify with being of Japanese heritage?
Very little. Although my father is from Japan, my parents only spoke English at home, and we were taught nothing about Japanese culture. It was only later, when I went to college and began to study Japanese, that I became more interested in my heritage. My father is from a small town in the countryside in the mountains. The experience was wonderful, but very disorienting.
When the Emperor Was Divine
I also think the numbness of the mother as she packs up the family to leave is very striking. She is very task-driven and when she kills the dog it reinforces this state of mind. Do you sense from your own family's experience that this is something that Japanese Americans would rather forget as a bad memory or do you find that this injustice has created a more politicized Japanese American community? They wanted to put the past behind them and just get on with their lives.
But I do think that, because of what happened, the following generations of Japanese Americans have definitely become more politicized. Your last chapter is very different from the rest of the novel. Some people might feel it is too abrupt but I found it to be a very powerful ending. Through the whole story the family is dealing with the day-to-day and don't express much anger.
But the last chapter feels like a culmination of all the anger that they, as well as Japanese Americans collectively, must have felt. How and why did you decide to write the conclusion this way? That ending simply came to me—it was a gift. You mentioned that you were also a painter before you started writing. It sounds like writing became a better fit for you than painting. How did you discover this? All through the night, while he slept, more dust blew through the walls.
NEA Big Read
By morning his name was gone. 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 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 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 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 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 But they're determined never to be seen as the enemy again, which, I think, in some way means further rejection of their parents. But then when he tried to remember what that horrible, terrible thing might be, it would not come to him. So, I thought the book, if I were lucky, might be respectfully reviewed as a historical novel.
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 It didn't really happen. 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. My mother was sent away to the camps when she was ten and my grandfather like the father in the book was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed and he spent several years in camps that were run by the Department of Justice for dangerous enemy aliens.
I'm Josephine Reed. What happens when your country considers you a national security threat and ships you and your family off to an internment camp for an unknown period of time? Based in part on the experiences of Julie's own family, the novel tells the story of a Japanese-American family forced to leave San Francisco after the start of World War Two. They are released after two years and allowed to return to San Francisco, but their homecoming is fraught with hardship and anxiety about their place in America.
When the Emperor Was Divine is a slender book--five short chapters--that tells a powerful story about a personal and historical tragedy. When i spoke with Julie, i asked her why she chose this topic for her first novel. I feel like the topic chose me. I feel like the book snuck up on me. I actually began the novel as a short story.
When the Emperor Was Divine Background
I wrote the first chapter of the book when I was a student at Columbia in workshop and up until then I had written only comedy and this was the first piece of serious fiction that I'd ever written and it seemed to come from nowhere, and so I wrote it just to get it out of my system and then I thought I would return to my real work, which was the writing of comedy. So I didn't know it was the first chapter of something that would grow to be much larger, but then I was just very compelled by this family, by their situation, by the emotions that I felt while writing about this topic.
I think it was something that my own family at least was very suppressed and not really talked about, which I think is typical of many Japanese American families who went through that-- through the war just to remain silent about their experience. So I think it was something that I needed to explore for myself in order to understand my mother better and why she was the way she was.
I mean I happened to be writing about Japanese Americans but I think I-- I could have been writing about any ethnic group at any point in history. I feel like there has always been an other 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. The idea of that kind of universal the woman, the daughter, the son married to the extraordinary detail of their everyday lives really provides this great insight I think. I mean I don't want it to be particularly clear to the reader in the beginning that they're reading about a Japanese American woman but it's too bad that just right away-- I mean some people don't notice until further on in the book that the characters don't have any names.
I mean I didn't want it seem like a too obvious device that I was using to make these characters universal, but I felt like I knew who they were, they knew who they were, and I feel like the details of their lives made them what they were. And I work very intuitively so I think a lot of my choices are just-- I just kind of-- they feel right so it just-- it felt right not to name them. The novel shifts; each character's point of view really tells the story of one section. And we should say the book has five chapters; it's a small book. Did you start writing the book with this structure in mind or did it evolve as the book evolved?
Again it was accidental. I wrote the first chapter again as a standalone story from the mother's point of view and then I wrote the second chapter not as chapter two but just as another short story, and so I happened to be telling it from the point of view of the girl on the train as they are being taken away to the camp.
And it was when I finished writing that second story that I realized that those two chapters put together might add up to the beginnings of a novel. I think if I had sat down at my desk one day just to write a book about the internment camps I probably would have chosen to tell it all from the point of view of the mother. The structure again it kind of evolved accidentally. Once I realized I had these two pieces pulled from two different characters' points of view, it made sense to write a third piece or now a third chapter from a different character's point of view and it also-- I think for me as a writer it just kept the material fresher; it was more interesting; I really-- I liked going into different characters' heads.
It just kind of gave me a new burst of energy each time I began a new chapter from a different character's point of view. And then tell us what the daughter does, etc. 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 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.
When the Emperor Was Divine by Angel Lim on Prezi
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 very, very innocent and he kind of makes up stories about why he is where he is. And then 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 the-- 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 very-- 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. Somehow that voice I feel like opened things up for me as a writer. And it gave me kind of a burst of energy and it-- there's almost a joyousness that I felt for the children, they're back, they're kind of elated to be back in the world or they think they're back but I think in many ways they'll never be completely back.
Initially they're so happy to be home and yet it's-- some things have changed and some things have not changed.
I mean I think it's a very difficult experience to reenter the world. Actually, I remember my mother telling me that when she came back from what we Japanese Americans call camp that nobody had asked her where she had been and her classmates just said, "Oh, hi, Alice," as if she'd never been away at all. So it's a very-- I think an-- it's an odd and very confusing experience to come back. So again it just felt right to use the girl and the boy together to tell that chapter of the story because I think in many ways they're the ones that are the most changed by that whole experience.
The executive order had come down for the evacuation and there's a whole list of instructions which I actually then went and downloaded to read the whole thing Yeah, I mean that was-- when I began writing that first chapter again as a story I just-- I knew that there was a sign-- there was a woman that read the sign and I knew that she had this very old dog and she would have to decide what to do about that dog. And then in my research I read so many accounts of animals and I remember reading "Bainbridge Island.