Julie Otsuka’s Novels
©2018 by Alice Walker
Julie Otsuka’s novels The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Divine were given to me by a Japanese-American friend who knew of my interest in Japanese history and culture. I had been intrigued years earlier by her account of her family’s forced “internment” in an American concentration camp, during World War II.
What happened to Japanese -Americans during that war, uprooted and forced to relocate in barren deserts, and other such desolate places, is mostly an unknown among Americans. Partly this is because the Japanese- Americans, ashamed to have been treated so badly by white, European- Americans, rarely, if ever, wanted members of their communities to talk about it. But also, there was, there must have been, the belief that the suffering and humiliation they endured would eventually be forgotten.
There is a suffering – especially that which comes with humiliation – that goes so deeply into the soul that it can never be forgotten. It must be faced. And, a place must be found for it. That is what Julie Otsuka does in these two extraordinary books. She shows us what happened, the horrible treatment of the Japanese -American cooks and nannies and houseboys and gardeners, as well as the teachers, doctors, lawyers, and mothers and fathers and girls and boys, when the United States government decided that all yellow people were spies for the emperor of Japan. These overnight “enemy aliens” were perceived to represent a danger to their new country, and were deprived of goods and livelihoods and shipped off to parts of the country most of them had never known or even imagined. For years.
In their slender elegance – matched by a restrained, if tough and invincible pride of heritage -– these books represent a literary monument to all who were abused, all who suffered physical and spiritual wounds, all who managed to rise again, and all who fell.
Every word, chosen by Otsuka as carefully as if it were a flower, is laid on an altar of literary beauty, so that those who endured and those who could not, might know, if only through their descendants, that they have been remembered in just the right way, and may rest.
There are times one feels so grateful to be part of one’s profession; in this case, that of writer; that this world, for all its heartache, seems the right place to cast one’s lot.