An interview with writer Julie Otsuka

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Date: Spring 2007
From: Sou'wester(Vol. 35, Issue 2)
Publisher: Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville
Document Type: Interview
Length: 3,026 words

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Julia Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is a graduate of Yale and received her MFA from Columbia. She lives in New York City, where she originally moved to become a painter. Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine (Knopf, 2002), focuses on one Japanese American family's life after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The novel opens in Berkeley in the aftermath of the father being arrested on suspicion of conspiracy and the official notice instructing Japanese residents to evacuate. The mother, son, and daughter spend over three years in a Utah desert enemy alien camp while the father lives out the war in captivity in New Mexico. The family eventually returns to their vandalized home, and is reunited, but they are completely altered. She is at work on a second novel, about the Japanese picture brides of the early 20th century.

During a two-day visit to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in late November, she read from her work and participated in a series of discussions with students and faculty on topics related to Asian American identity, ethnicity, family, and community, as well as writing, research, and creativity. In mid-January this follow-up interview was conducted via phone by Valerie Vogrin, co-editor and professor of creative writing at SIUE, and Elizabeth Moore, a graduate student in the program and graduate assistant to the magazine.

Sou'wester: We're really interested in the point of view decisions you made in When the Emperor Was Divine. Each section in the novel belongs to one of the characters, except in the section which is told in the joint voice of the brother and sister. But even when the section belongs to a single character, you still, sparingly, allow yourself access to other characters' minds. For instance, in the little boy's section, what the mother is dreaming about is revealed, whereas the conventional choice would be to strictly limit access to just one character's mind. Was that a conscious decision?

Julie Otsuka: The first two sections were written as standalone stories, the first from the mother's point of view and the second from the girl's, not as the first two chapters in a book. So that's why I continued to alternate points of view throughout the book. But I wasn't really aware in the boy's chapter of dipping into the mother's mind.

I do think that the entire book is a very interior book. I mean almost nothing happens and all the action is inside the characters' heads. I am more concerned with their psychological states of mind, a state of waiting. They're all very passive players...victims of history.

SW: So you were more concerned with fidelity to the psychological condition rather than fidelity to a single POV?

JO: Yes, but I was actually trying to stay within one character's point of view with each chapter. The third chapter is mainly the boy's chapter.

SW: I think it's very effective and doesn't really seem like a break in POV. Though strictly speaking he couldn't know what his mother was dreaming, it's not unbelievable that he has access to his mother's thoughts.

JO: He's a very intuitive child and he is very close to his mother, especially during that time.

SW: You could almost read "the break" to be what he's imagining that she's dreaming, based on what he knows of her ...

We're planning to include a brief excerpt from When the Emperor Was Divine to accompany this interview. One possible passage [the one featured here] has the boy remembering their first day in the desert when his mother is saying, be careful, don't touch the barbed wire fence, don't stare at the sun, or say the emperor's name.... Do you like that passage?

JO: I do. I do. I remember laughing as I wrote it. It is what a child would do but it means so much more also.

SW: How do you feel it connects to the bigger picture?

JO: It gives you a visual image, too. The fence and being enclosed. The irony is that these people weren't loyal to the emperor. They really weren't. But he's just too young to understand what's going on. He's very much a magical thinker. The only way he can make order of things in his own childlike way is to take responsibility for everything.

SW: At the same time, their lives were dictated by all these rules ... the passage introduces that theme as well. The idea of enclosure and how much of their lives was about prohibition and very little about what was allowed. That's what you capture so well. And then of course the book ends with the father, who has been the most damaged by having his volition taken away.

Since you've already mentioned how the book evolved from a pair of short stories.... when did you realize you were writing a novel? How is it that you define this as a novel?

JO: After I wrote "Train" I realized that this story, together with the story about the mother, could be the beginnings of a novel. When I decided to write another story, I decided to write what could be a third chapter of the book. And once I realized that it could be a book I also realized I didn't really know very much about the internment and so I started doing a lot of research.

SW: How much did the initial two stories have to change in order to be part of a novel?

JO: Actually very little. In an earlier version of the first chapter the mother had a name. I changed that because I realized it would be more effective not to give the characters any names.

SW: In your mind, is there one element that defines it finally as a novel rather than a novel in stories or interrelated stories?

JO: I definitely don't think it's a novel in stories, but I don't really know what makes a book a novel--just because you think it is? It feels like a novel to me, but it's a very intuitive thing. I chose the moments in this family's history that were most interesting for me to explore and then I just sort of exploded them, like the moment when the sign [for the evacuation order] goes up. In that way I don't work in a terribly linear form. I leave out the stuff that doesn't interest me so much and I go to the places that do. So I do away with the connecting tissue.

SW: It works very well. Quite a few less experienced writers want to describe their characters from the moment their alarms go off in the morning until they brush their teeth at night ...

JO: [Laughs.] Never start a story with somebody lying in bed trying to get out of bed....

SW: Reading your book would be a great antidote to that--a way to recognize how much of a novel really does take place in moments and how much then can be omitted. And what's left out still has a presence, in your book particularly. Obviously there's much more that happens in those four years than you have on the page. Of course that's also related to the repetitious quality of their lives...there would be no point--

JO: Right. Because so much of it was the same. And so much of what is left out is supplied by the reader.

SW: You mentioned several times that when you started this book you really didn't know if anyone would ever read it, which seems like a really private space from which to write. Do you feel differently now that you know a readership is pretty much assured and that people are, in fact, waiting for this next book?

JO: It's different and it's not different. My process is very much the same and my daily routine is the same, except that I don't have my day job anymore so I have more time. I'm not really conscious of being watched or of people waiting. My concerns on a day-to-day level are, Can I get this scene to work? How is this chapter being structured? Are things falling together in the right way?

I think it was very good for me not to feel like I was being watched when I was writing the first book. I do feel some of the pressure of having to write a second book, but it doesn't weigh on me terribly. The most important thing to me is to write the best book that I can.

SW: You do seem to have a lot of equanimity about your writing. In several different contexts you said that although you have very high standards for yourself, you do the best you can, and at a certain point you let it go, along with other people's expectations and notions of what might have been. Is that just how you are, or is it something you've cultivated?

JO: I think maybe it is just my character. I am very patient and also very persistent in a very slow way. I don't really give up easily. But I also don't force things. I mean, I didn't know what the subject of the second book would be. It took me about a year after the first book, sort of floundering and trying out different story ideas. And that was a bit scary, but again, I had to be patient. And then things began to coalesce for the second book. But there were times when I didn't know if I would get it together or not. I don't know. Maybe because I came to writing a bit later, at 30, I'm not in a rush. I'm already late--put it that way. What's the point of rushing if I can take longer and put out a better book?

SW: You started out writing humorous short stories. Do you do any of that anymore?

JO: No, but I do feel there's humor in what I'm writing. But no, I don't write the kind of story I was writing before. But that doesn't mean I won't go back to that at some point. And I have no idea where I'll go next after I finish this second book either. I think I'll write a very personal piece about my mother. It's sort of on the back burner, but it's something I feel like I have to write. Other than that, I don't know. I don't know if I'll get back to humor or not.

SW: From observing you during your visit it's clear that you do have a great sense of humor, but that isn't something you'd know from reading this book. Obviously it isn't appropriate in every story. Still, there is a lightness to When the Emperor Was Divine. It's by no means a humorless book.

JO: I did want to tell it with a light touch because I felt being heavy-handed with this sort of material would be the kiss of death.

SW: One of the other things you emphasized during your visit was the importance of discipline, the importance of showing up. Probably not many writers or artists would disagree with that, but it did seem that you were downplaying the idea of ... inspiration, talent.... How do you feel about that? Certainly even if 99% of it is showing up--

JO: Inspiration is really important. It's usually during the genesis of the story when I feel most excited. When the right idea comes to me, or the right voice--that's what gets me going. And then once I get the idea, the hard part really begins, the execution. Talent? Yes, it counts for something--it could count for a lot. But certainly isn't everything. It's important to feel connected to your work emotionally, beyond just being intellectually engaged with it.

SW: Can you say a little more about that?

JO: I'm talking about an interior state that I feel when I'm working. It's like a state of intense focus. And I usually get it when I'm in my neighborhood cafe. I don't know why, but it's usually when I'm in a public space. It's a feeling of wellbeing and clarity. Maybe it's like meditating. It's something that I try to get to every day, if I can, in order to write.

SW: You've said that you wrote When the Emperor Was Divine--and this is probably a bad paraphrase--to figure out why there was so much anger and silence in your own family. Is there a similar sort of motive for this next book--the picture bride book? A personal exploration of some sort?

JO: No. There's not a parallel in my family's history. Nobody in my family was a picture bride. Yet I do feel that on some level you're always working out personal stuff in whatever it is you're writing. I'm certainly interested in the lives of women, and in the lives of women and men, and fate. I find all that really fascinating. And race relations, which is something that I'm really looking at in this book, too. So, in a way it's not as personal, which also makes it easier to write. I do feel connected to the material, but in a different way.

SW: In discussing the tone of When the Emperor Was Divine you said you wanted the book to whisper. You hoped that people would sort of lean in to hear.

JO: I knew I didn't want to hit the reader over the head with the awfulness of the internment, because that's obvious, and at that point I was reading a lot of Hemingway's short stories. I think I was very much influenced by his spare style and the way he left a lot unsaid.

SW: So what kind of relationship do you want to have with the reader in this next book? Are they going to be leaning in to hear?

JO: No. For one thing, I'm telling it in the "we" voice, so it's a choral narrator, with "we" being all these young women who have come over from Japan. So it's a more exuberant voice and it's a bit quirkier too. It's definitely not quiet, but I think it's also Japanese. I mean, the Japanese young women who come aren't shouters by nature. Some people might see similarities, but it's a very different voice for me. It may be some sort of a variation of the fourth chapter of my first book that's told in the "we" voice, weaving the girl and the boy together. But it's a much larger "we." And it's fun. I have say it's really a lot of fun to write in that voice.

SW: Are individual characters developed?

JO: Individual I's do emerge. You'll see a brief flash from somebody's life, or a quote. But, no, there are no specific characters. You can't track one person's life. It's very much a communal story.

SW: That's a brilliant idea. That hasn't exactly been done before, right?

JO: I have read very little fiction in that point of view. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides--a book I love--is told by the guys of the town focusing on an external object, a particular family and what happens to them. But I don't have an external object like that to focus on. So it's really "we" talking about "ourselves" and "our experience" and "us." Whereas with The Virgin Suicides I think it was more "we" talking about "them." It's kind of a risky thing to do, but it also seems appropriate to the material. I feel like I can say so much more. For awhile I had thought I would tell the story of just one young woman's journey to America, but the more I read ... there were so many different stories and I wanted to include them all if I could.

I don't think we've heard a lot about what these women's lives were like, in part for reasons of language. The journals these women wrote are in Japanese, which I can't read. The stereotype of the first generation is that they were very hard working and sacrificed everything for their children, but it's not terribly fleshed out. These young women decided to leave their villages, their families, their culture and language, and come to a land they knew very little about. They came from very, very poor villages. Japan was a very poor country at the beginning of the 20th century. This really isn't the image we have of the Japanese women who came over--that they were very tough, brave young women. Just the idea of not having met your husband until you step off the boat in San Francisco--I mean that alone--it's just a very striking story.

SW: It really does capture the imagination and gives you so much to work with. Your challenge really is--

JO: How to structure it. I do feel like it's a goldmine. That really is important, I think, to find the right story to tell.

Excerpt from When The Emperor Was Divine

On their first day in the desert his mother had said, "Be careful."

"Do not touch the barbed-wire fence," she had said, "or talk to the guards in the towers.

"Do not stare at the sun.

"And remember, never say the Emperor's name out loud."

The boy wore a blue baseball cap and he did not stare at the sun. He often wandered the firebreak with his head down and his hands in his pockets, looking for seashells and old Indian arrowheads in the sand. Some days he saw rattlesnakes sleeping beneath the sagebrush. Some days he saw scorpions. Once he came across a horse skull bleached white by the sun. Another time, an old man in a red silk kimono with a tin pail in his hand who said he was going down to the river.

Whenever the boy walked past the shadow of a guard tower he pulled his cap down low over his head and tried not to say the word.

But sometimes it slipped out anyway.

Hirohito, Hirohito, Hirohito.

He said it quietly. Quickly. He whispered it.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A168091201