Spotlight On: Julie Otsuka Wins PEN/Faulkner Prize: "When the Emperor Was Divine"

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Costco Connection
April 2012

“In the beginning, the boy thought he saw his father everywhere. Outside the latrines. Underneath the showers. Leaning against barrack doorways. It was 1942. Utah. Late summer. The wind was hot and dry and the rain rarely fell and wherever the boy looked he saw him: Daddy, Papa, Father, Oto-san.”

And so begins the third and title chapter of Julie Otsuka’s incandescent novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” a bittersweet glimpse into the internment of a Japanese-American family durinag World War II.

The boy, Otsuka says, is her favorite character.

“He’s a very dreamy 8-year-old, who is too young to understand what’s going on,” she explains. “But he is filled with yearning and hope, and he idolizes his father, whose return is what sustains him.”

In fact, Otsuka’s novel is based on her own family history. The FBI arrested her grandfather as a suspected spy for Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Soon after, her mother, uncle and grandmother were taken and held for three years in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah.

In addition to her own memories, research, and insights from her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s not long after the author began writing the book, many details are based on letters that Otsuka’s grandfather wrote while in custody.

“When we were cleaning out my grandmother’s home after she went into assisted living, my aunt and uncle found her wedding veil and a pair of white silk gloves that she probably wore on her wedding day shoved up into the flue of the fireplace,” Otsuka shares. “Down on the floor, they found a cardboard box of letters that my grandfather had written to her during the first year of the war from the camps. No one had ever known about the letters, but when I read them I could hear his voice.”

That voice found its way onto the page when the writer was working on her master’s thesis at Columbia University in the mid-1990s. Her advisor, Maureen Howard, encouraged her to expand the story into a novel, which was published by Knopf in 2002. Soon after, it became a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist.

Writing, however, wasn’t Otsuka’s first love.

“After I graduated from Yale with a degree in studio art, I went on to get my masters of fine arts at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, but dropped out after three months,” says the California native, who has lived in New York City for the last 25 years. “I was too young to handle the pressure of grad school, but more than that, I became extremely self-conscious and felt very inhibited. Eventually, painting wasn’t fun anymore. So I gave it up.”

For more than a decade, Otsuka, now 49, has been supporting herself as a full-time writer and author.

Her second book, The Buddha in the Attic, is the winner of the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, a New York Times Notable Book, and a Best Book of the Year (The Boston Globe, Vogue).

“The world of language, and writing of books, is a bigger and more stimulating world for me in the end,” she believes, noting that most every day she attends to her craft from a small table in the rear of the Hungarian Pastry Shop in the New York City neighborhood of Morningside Heights.

“The refills are free, the pastries are delicious, and about half of the people in the shop are regulars—including some pretty well-known writers. I love it because there’s no music, just the white noise of the place. And there’s no wireless, so I can’t check my email. I go for about three hours a day to read, write, and stare off into space. I have been to other great cafés, including several in Paris, but I can’t manage to get into that magical writing zone like I do at the Pastry Shop.”

It is here that she worked on “The Buddha in the Attic” (Knopf, 2011), a story Otsuka considers to be a giant epic song, about a group of young Japanese ‘picture brides’ who sailed to America in the early 1900s to become the wives of men they had never met and knew only by their photographs.

Otsuka is now at work on novel number three, about the beauty and pain of remembering and forgetting.

“Because my mother is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, this topic is obsessing me. I am fascinated by the things that we remember at the end of our lives, and also what it all ultimately means when we forget the people and details that once seemed so important.”

Mostly, Otsuka insists that she feels lucky to have a career that allows her to explore the themes and ideas that intrigue and haunt her.

“I’m very process oriented, and actually enjoy the fact that I can’t yet see where things are going. Writing is much like painting in that way, because you can’t get too fixated on any one corner of the canvas or you’ll miss the big picture. It’s difficult and complicated, but it’s beautiful.”

Otsuka’s fiction has been published in Granta and Harper’s and read aloud on Public Radio International’s “Selected Shorts,” and BBC Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime.” For more information, visit www.julieotsuka.com.

By Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer in Arlington, VA who longs to find her own perfect café to think, write, and dream.

This article was first published in the Costco Connection, April 2012.

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