When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a historical fiction novel that follows a Japanese-American family during World War 2 as they are displaced from their home in Berkley, CA to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. There are three distinct stages that the novel follows: travel to Topaz, life at the internment camp, and the reverberating effect afterward.
The novel begins by following the mother, keeping the story grounded and practical as she must deal with the logistical problems of being uprooted. These activities range from burning items that tie them to Japan, packing or discarding their stuff, and killing their dog. Otsuka provides the characters distance from their own actions by supplying the narrative in third person while keeping the family members nameless. In effect, Otsuka is implying that it could be anyone that takes the place of these characters. Though that doesn’t mean that the characters are dimensionless. The son at first pass has an optimistic attitude towards the whole ordeal, but Otsuka may have used this as a thin veil to describe his obliviousness. This is because the son is young, while his sister is old enough to understand what is going on. She is more reactionary, which the mother interprets as rebellion throughout the train ride and their subsequent life in the camp.
Otsuka’s characters are painfully asked to wait: at an old horse race track, on a train to Topaz, at Topaz for the war to end, and for their father to come back. It is in these moments of waiting where Otsuka fleshes out the characters into whole beings with hope of their return, anxiety of the state of their home, and contempt for their living state. Otsuka forces the reader to realize how the immediate pause—or in some cases total destruction—of American lives should not have been justified by the government. But even so, these characters and those actually interned at the camps had to find a way to continue living. The mother in one scene after trying to be the stable foundation for her children breaks down by refusing to eat. While the sister separates herself from the family by being with other friends in the camp, and the son tries to act as the stable earth.
When the family is allowed to go back home, the experience then switches to the point of view of the son. And in this way, it reaffirms the idea that the characters tried to separate and distance themselves from their own experiences.
The backbone of the novel is the relationship between the family and the father. Otsuka provides flashbacks, letters, and stories of the father to build this idea of a strong, loving, and caring person. And throughout most of the novel, the father is experienced indirectly through memories of a rosier time. And without that hope to meet again, the characters would’ve broken down with no motivation to continue. Otsuka builds the father as one thing, but once reunited, the reader experiences the massive disconnect between reality and the idea of the father. This disconnect is also felt through the rejection of their friends, neighbors, and society as a whole when the mother tries getting a job.
The novel finishes with the payoff that Otsuka builds up to. The father, who had been taken in by the US government to be questioned about his allegiance and suspected of being a spy, is the focus of the final chapter. In the point of view of the father, who is innocent of all accusations, instead admits responsibility of the accused actions. And while the reader knows that he has done nothing of what he admits, the father’s willingness to take the fault shows his deep loyalty to America. It is a noble act to say sorry for something that one has never done, and Otsuka knows that making this the final sticking point makes an explicit comparison to the actions of the US government.
Final Rating: 4/5
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee takes a harrowing life experience as a child and uses it as fuel for an autobiographical novel. Those experiences documented damaging effects child sexual abuse can have on a victim. Told from the viewpoint of a child, Chee manages to weave the culture of his Korean descent into a sweeping narrative that contextualizes the abuse through metaphors and Korean fairy tales.
The story begins with a tale about the Fox-demon in Korean culture known to bring bad luck and creates the framing for the way the main character, Fee, interprets his eventual abuser. This use of the Fox-demon is one of the main metaphors drifting in and out of the narrative with imagery of foxes splintering the moments of greatest turmoil. Fee, being a member of a boys’ choir in a catholic church, also interprets life events through a layer of music in its movement and meaning. In the case of Fee, he uses singing as a way to cope with the choir director, Big Eric, who abuses him and the other members of the choir. The music itself is a point of contention where Fee both appreciates its beauty but dislikes its connotations of Big Eric. It is a double-edged sword that Fee battles with because it is difficult for him to give up the one thing holding him together.
Throughout the novel, Fee sees the way the abuse affected the rest of his choir with two of his best friends killing themselves. This aftermath forces Fee to truly interpret the way his abuser had always been the Fox-demon that he was warned about. Even still, Fee’s feelings are nuanced due to his realization that he is gay and that those feelings had been defiled by his abuser. Though once Fee ages, he finds himself becoming the person his abuser had been.
Edinburgh has strengths that go beyond its telling of the story and shines once the metaphors and form are fully taken into account. Edinburgh is written as if it were a poem in novel form in its use of fragment sentences and concise imagery. This attribution only strengthens how the book is supposed to be interpreted through the eyes of a child still learning to understand the world. The fragment sentences are invitations for the reader to finish the thought in a way that they are pulled deeper into the story itself. The problem is that those sentences are never usually finished with the desired punchline, but rather the needed one. In contextualizing the abuse with Korean culture, the reader takes a greater understanding of pain and trauma endured.
Edinburgh is a novel that acts as a canary in the coal mine for the abuse within the catholic church. While it wasn’t the first novel or allegation of sexual abuse within the catholic church, it acts as one of the first to take the endured abuse and provides a culturally framed lived experience. Many times, events of abuse are documented in a sterile way in which it is only written what happened rather than what was felt. This novel humanizes the victim and forces the reader to reckon with the fact that what happened was both experienced and felt. And in framing the experience through an Asian American lens, Chee works to create a context far beyond the abuse written about in his novel.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Obasan by Joy Kogawa is a historical fiction novel that focuses on the displacement and removal of Japanese Canadians during World War 2 and the years following. Obasan takes place within two time frames: the early 70’s after the death of the main character’s uncle, and when the main character is a child in the 40’s.
The first of these time frames has the main character, Naomi, traveling from her teaching position back to her aunt’s home. It is presumed that she will be helping her aunt, also known as Obasan, with the arrangements. This timeline acts as a way for Naomi to process and understand the relocation of her childhood. In these moments of waiting for the other family members, it is where Naomi reads through her other aunt’s journal. However, Naomi’s attitude towards the relocation is one of disdain and desires that it be kept in the past. Her feelings are contrasted with her other aunt, Aunt Emily, who strives for justice in rectifying the wrong doings of the Canadian government. Aunt Emily acts as the natural moral compass in Obasan, but again doesn’t align with Naomi’s motives.
The second timeframe follows a young Naomi as her family soon becomes displaced. Young Naomi observes her family breaking apart when her mother leaves Canada to go back to Japan after the government begins to strip the Japanese Canadian’s away from their possessions and homes. Naomi with the rest of her family is then shipped farther inland where a sense of childlike innocence persists. Then at the end of the war, she is again shipped to a farm where her family is forced to harvest sugar beets.
Throughout the novel, there is a light metaphor that acts to thread the experiences of young Naomi together. It is the idea that Japanese Canadians are chickens that are under the exact control of the Canadian government. Scenes such as Naomi watching a chicken being killed by another chicken and seeing a schoolboy try to kill a chicken by snapping its neck highlights this metaphor.
And while the story deeply explores what it means to be a Japanese Canadian, I felt some of the techniques fell short of what it was trying to achieve. In one instance, Naomi reads Aunt Emily’s journal entries without processing or guiding the internal dialogue along for 40 pages. Aunt Emily herself comes off as a not enjoyable character simply because her one focus is getting justice which is conveyed through some information dumping.
Overall however, Kogawa’s style of writing can at times be entrancing with distinct descriptions and poetic sentences. This moment in history must be told and retold so that it is not forgotten from the public consciousness and Kogawa has a unique enough voice to do so. At times Obasan can seem clunky, but in the end manages to land the leaps it attempts to make.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.