Diverse Books · Historical Fiction · Recommendations · Reviews · World Lit

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka – A Book Review

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka was a remarkable novel. To be perfectly honest, I finished it last week and I have been struggling with writing this review. I rarely cry when it comes to books, but this title was extraordinarily poignant that I was moved to tears. For the past five days, I have sat down at my computer, or grabbed a notepad and black inked pen, in an effort to compose all of my feelings and thoughts into a cohesive review. But the truth of the matter is that there’s simply no review that I could provide you with in regards to this novel that will ever be sufficient enough to portray just how profound it is. All I can share is what I felt and what I realised while reading this novel, and what I will emphasise is that this should be compulsory reading for everyone.
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When the Emperor Was Divine tells the story of a Japanese family at the start of the Second World War as they pack up their belongings and are re-located from their homes in Berkeley, California to the Utah desert. There are five hauntingly surreal perspectives that illustrate what their Japanese interment experience encapsulated.

The prose that is used in the telling of this story is utterly simple and completely evocative. As I hastily devoured the first few pages, I could feel my heart beginning to race because I knew what was to come. Yet more than knowing, I could feel their pain and empathise with their plight. I also have an intimate relationship with being treated terribly for being a part of something that’s tarnished with the title of “villain” and “murderer;” for being a part of something that’s far outside of my control.

They are Japanese people, but no one could see beyond their physical appearance and race to recognise them as American citizens who had been living in the country for upwards of 20 years. All they saw were the “yellow-skin” and “slanted eyes” and the echoes of what occurred in Pearl Harbor. This is quite possibly the worst feeling that anyone can ever experience; a prejudice so powerful that it moves an entire country of people to loathe and despise you without ever bothering to know who you are. This conjoined gathering of hate that just spews the worse onslaught of abuse possible because of something that a Higher Being as decided for you. It made me nauseous. It made me apprehensive and anxious. It made me empathetic. It broke my heart.

During our current day and age, it made me think about this happening to me and my people (which is very possible with a leader Hell-bent on genocide), and this made me fucking terrified.

Ordinary citizens of America were uprooted from their homes and sent away like criminals, or stray animals, to live in filth and cruel conditions based entirely on their race. They were then brainwashed into accepting that Japan was a terrible nation, and being loyal to these “murderers” made you just as much of a killer as they were. People were forced into assimilating with the threat of death, or far worse, hanging over their heads; forced to forgo their identities as individuals just to make others feel “safer.” When the war ended and these people were finally able to return (most didn’t have a goddamned thing to return to), they were given $25 like a criminal who’s been released from the chains of punishment. Most Japanese were in these despicable and horrifying places for three and a half years, and all they received was $25 to return them to their deracinated existences.

I have read books that discuss many aspects of uncomfortable and terrible atrocities committed by people during a time of war, and it will never seize to amaze me the ways that human beings create and implement malice on other human beings simply for being different; being different and believing in something different, especially if most people don’t understand it, will never stop being a callous and impertinent justification to belittle others just to make themselves feel like a superior being. Yet these folks who participate in such horrendous acts of violence never fully comprehend the people that they are damaging and dooming. The pain and psychological trauma alone that is caused from this realm of abuse is something that is exhibited within the 145 pages of this book with precision, depth, and a veil of sorrow that shook me to my core.

When the Emperor Was Divine provided me with many, many things to contemplate as well as opened up my eyes to the true nature of atrocities committed against Japanese-Americans. Even though we’ve seen it countless times in thousands and thousands of years of history, I will never stop being astounded by the effects of war on the citizens and the people of contending countries, people who don’t have a choice when it comes to war, but are left to the devices of those in charge. It’s wholly unacceptable and extraordinarily sad.

My emotional prattling aside, I do recommend this novel to everyone. There is something in it for all of us, in one shape or form, or another.

5 out of 5.

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