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.
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.
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.
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?