Monday, 13 January 2014

When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

How do you write about trauma? Are you verbose and expansive? Terse and straighforward? In this case, you use elegant and spare prose that brings home the extent of the wrong by never quite stating it in so many words.

When The Emperor Was Divine is a short book, but exactly as long as it needs to be. It is not stridently angry, it is quiet and sorrowful, and I think, anger simmers slowly below the surface, but is not and cannot be let out.

Julie Otsuka has told the story of the Japanese internment in the United States during the Second World War through an unnamed Japanese family. The unnaming, which I only noticed near the end, is deliberate and powerful. The main characters are the son and the daughter, the mother and the father. Mirroring how much was stripped away from them during the war, this one family exists without names. This both universalizes their experience while allowing it to remain particular. I can imagine many ways in which this particular narrative trick could backfire, but it works here.

As the book starts, the mother sees the posters announcing the upcoming internment, the preparations she is required to make, what she is allowed to bring. The father has already been taken away, months earlier. They are not to be sent to the same place. She makes her preparations calmly, methodically, and they depart.

And spend years in an internment camp, where the days go by, and they try to keep a sense of self in a world where most markers of identity have been stripped away. They are not harmed, they are not physically injured, but the writing style emphasizes the dehumanizing nature of such an action, and perils of monotony and captivity.

The world outside is not let off the hook, either. They return, eventually, and had created stories of how they would be welcomed back, but the hates the war fostered have not dissipated, and nationalistic anger still simmers under the surface. But the violence that takes place in this book is never overt, never physical. It is nonetheless present.

Will they be able to find a sense of self again? Or who will? When fear surrounds you, when the government can cut you out of a crowd, divorce you from your life, and hold you apart from the rest, what else could they do?

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