Otsuka Discusses How Emotions Led to Writing
September 15, 2010
During the Wolf Lecture on Thursday evening at Mount Union, Julie Otsuka discussed how her emotions led her to writing When the Emperor was Divine.
Told from a different point of view in each chapter, When the Emperor was Divine, offers a quiet glimpse of a father, mother, daughter and son forced to assume the role of political prisoners. Inspired by the experience of her family members in the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, Otsuka made her debut in 2002 with a spare and intimate portrayal of one Berkeley family that was detained by the U.S. government.
Otsuka explained that she had no intention of writing a serious novel, much less one about Japanese-American internment camps. She began writing comedy after having little success as a painter and sculptor.
She had heard stories about what her family went through during the internment camps, and there was a silence in them that was filled with repressed sadness and anger.
“I didn’t sit down to write a novel about Japanese internment camps. It simply evolved accidentally and organically,” said Otsuka. “I thought I would write it to get it out of my system and get back to writing comedy.”
The two short stories she began writing turned into the first two chapters of her book and led Otsuka to an “exhilarating and terrifying” journey as her writing started to evolve.
Utilizing newspapers and letters her grandfather had written to her grandmother, photographs and many history books, Otsuka pieced together the story of her family and their experiences in the internment camps.
“Writing the chapter set in the camp was the most difficult,” noted Otsuka. “I was discouraged; perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this writing business.”
After discussing the stories she had been told and the five and a half year writing process, Otsuka discussed the ending of the book. While she had planned to have a beautifully written ending that would quietly fade away as the book came to a close, Otsuka realized she needed to share the anger Japanese-Americans felt.
She explained that the editors strongly encouraged her to omit the satirical ending written from the perspective of Japanese-Americans, but she decided to take a different route and keep the ending.
When the Emperor was Divine was greeted with rapturous praise on publication and has won several prizes including the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award and the New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age Award. It was also a Booklist Choice for Young Adults and chosen as this year’s LS 100 summer reading assignment for incoming freshman at Mount Union.
Referring to her time at Mount Union, Otsuka found the campus very friendly and open. “There was not a student I met that wasn’t friendly and engaging,” she said. “Being able to share this story with so many of them was a great opportunity.”
The John and Eleanor Mincks Wolf Lecture in Music Education and English was established with gifts in 1999 and 2009 to honor the memory of John ’47 and Eleanor (Mincks) Wolf. John was a teacher of music for 30 years in the Strongsville schools and Eleanor was a teacher of English and Latin in Richfield and Highland school districts. Distributions from the endowed fund are used to bring professionals in the disciplines of music education or English to campus.