~Camping for all the Family~
'When the Emperor was Divine' by Julie Otsuka is the story of one family and their experience during the Second World War. The family, who are never named and whose members are only ever identified as 'the woman', 'the man', 'the boy' and 'the girl' are Japanese Americans who find themselves caught up in the USA's reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Even before we join their story, 'the man' is arrested and taken away, still in his dressing gown and slippers and locked up as a dangerous enemy alien. His wife and children stay in the family home in Berkeley, California, where they wait patiently for his return. Next the government decide that enemy aliens are a security risk and must be rounded up and sent away to internment camps in the inhospitable Utah desert. We follow the family through their ordeal starting with the days when they prepare to leave for the camp, through their experiences there, back to Berkeley to reclaim their home and finally to wait for the father's eventual return.
The book begins with our introduction to 'the woman' who is preparing for their departure to the camp. There's a lot to do - the family pets need to be dealt with, the family silver is buried in the garden and their precious items are locked up in the spare room. Bags are packed and they leave on the long train journey. The children pick up the tale, telling us of life in the camp, bearing the seering heat of the summer days and the chilling nights of the winter. Families are accommodated in makeshift buildings, scores thrown in together with no privacy and little dignity. These are not the concentration camps we are more familiar with from the literature because nobody is at risk of being killed (unless of course they try to escape) but just because you feed and clothe your internees, it doesn't mean they are well treated. We watch as the mother starts to lose her grasp on time and place, as old people around the family go crazy and lose their grasp on reality. The message is clear - you don't need to beat or starve people in order to destroy them.
And then after three and a half years the camps are closed and the mother and her children go home to the house that's been abused by tenants. Their things have been destroyed, their home and belongings damaged and ill treated. They're out of the camp but the world of 'home' is a scary place. The local people won't look them in the eye, won't speak to them and night-time becomes a terrifying ordeal as they lie in the dark waiting for the next bang and the sound of breaking glass. We're left to wonder if they're really better off out of the camp where at least they were protected from the anger of their neighbours. They continue to wait for the father to come home and eventually we hear his story, how he came to be arrested and what he was forced to say to incriminate himself. All of this takes place in just 140 pages.
~Fashion in Fiction~
'When the Emperor was Divine' is the second book I've read in the last two months about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. The other was the much better known (and much better selling) book, 'The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet' by Jamie Ford which looks at the issues of internment through the eyes of a young Chinese boy in Seattle whose Japanese friend and her family are sent to the camps. It's impossible not to compare the two books, given the events covered by both. 'When the Emperor was Divine' is almost certainly the more technically beautiful of the two but the author's decision to write in the mix of first and third person, giving each of the players a section to express their perspective, means that we readers struggle to get sucked into the story so much as when it's presented consistently by just one voice. 'The Hotel' is written in a much more populist style; you can just tell the moment you start reading that it was designed to claim a place on the American best seller lists and that somebody's probably already bought the rights to make the film or the TV mini-series. By not naming or personalising her characters, Otsuka creates a family which simultaneously represents every Japanese American family caught up in the internment and none of them at all. 'When the Emperor was Divine' is the sort of book that I would expect to get nominated for obscure literary prizes but never to achieve particular fame or popularity.
The US internment of Japanese Americans seems to be a popular topic at the moment. The background to the round-up was that a large number of Japanese nationals had settled on the west coast of the USA in the years between the wars and this had led to anti-Japanese feelings being high long before the attack on Pearl Harbour. For many of the resentful locals who didn't like to see the success of the immigrant families, internment must have seemed like a perfect opportunity to get rid of the people they accused of taking their jobs or their housing. No wonder Otsuka's characters feel uncomfortable when they return to Berkeley after the camps are closed.
Internment of this type is not something restricted to the USA or to the Second World War. Most countries have interned potential enemies during times of conflict. In the UK we did similar things during both World Wars, sending most of the 'enemy aliens' to camps on the Isle of Man. More recently, we did it in Northern Ireland in 1971 during the 'troubles'. Such activities are covered and monitored under the Geneva Convention so the basic human rights are protected but that doesn't mean they're an easy situation to live with. With the modern day patterns of emigration and immigration, you have to wonder what we would do today if we were put into a war situation - can there be any countries with whom we might find ourselves in conflict which don't have nationals living in the UK today? It seems such an old-fashioned approach to just round people up and put them behind barbed wire and I can't help wondering how we would deal with such situations 70 years later.
Despite 'The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet' being more than twice the length of 'When the Emperor was Divine' it's the latter book that lingers in my memory. Nowhere in the 300 plus pages of the first book did that author come up with anything to stop your heart and move your emotions as much as Otsuka does in the very first chapter where 'the woman' buys a shovel at the hardware store and then uses it in a way that the store owner couldn't possibly have imagined. Her attention to detail is what makes the book so special - that the father is wearing his slippers throughout his long incarceration, that the silver is buried under the Buddha in the garden, or that the girl's hair ribbon is broken and then knotted back together by a stranger on a train. These are the tiny details that make Otsuka's book so special. Some would argue its short length makes in a 'novella' rather than a novel but like a perfectly crafted haiku, every word and every syllable seems to have been chosen carefully.
When the Emperor was Divine, Julie Otsuka
Published by Viking