Julie Otsuka

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Date: Nov. 16, 2012
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,406 words

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About this Person
Born: May 15, 1962 in Palo Alto, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
Updated:Nov. 16, 2012

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born May 5, 1962, in Palo Alto, CA. Education: Yale University, B.A.; Columbia University, M.F.A. Addresses: Home: New York, NY.

CAREER

AWARDS

Guggenheim Fellowship; Asian American Literary Award; American Library Association Alex Award; Notable Book, New York Times, Best Book of the Year list, San Francisco Chronicle, and Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist, all 2002, all for When the Emperor Was Divine; finalist, National Book Award, 2011, for The Buddha in the Attic.

WORKS

WRITINGS:

  • When the Emperor Was Divine (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
  • The Buddha in the Attic (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2011.

Contributor of fiction to periodicals.

SIDELIGHTS

Julie Otsuka is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, When the Emperor Was Divine and The Buddha in the Attic. Otsuka, born in California, is of Japanese American descent. Writing in Poets & Writers, Renee H. Shea observed: "In both of her novels, Otsuka excavates and explores her personal Japanese heritage within a larger historical context." An award-winning author, Otsuka did not intend to become a writer. Instead, she majored in art at Yale, but suffered an artistic crisis. "I stopped painting and I was in despair, in sort of a creative breakdown. I just couldn't go on painting anymore," the author told Kelley Kawano in an interview on the Random House Web site. "I was filled with doubt. And so for three years, I did nothing. I just read all day long. ... That was really my only consolation. ... At a certain point I signed up for a workshop and decided to try my hand at writing. ... And I think I felt more comfortable with language; it seemed easier, to me, as a medium to work with than painting." Subsequently, Otsuka earned a creative writing degree from Columbia University; her master's project was the story of her family's internment during World War II and was reworked to become her debut novel.

In her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka examines, in minimalist prose, the fallout of the 1942 Executive Order 9066 which forced Japanese Americans to evacuate areas near the western coast of the United States and be resettled in internment camps. Otsuka uses her own family's history for this fictional representation of the injustices of that time. Her maternal grandfather was arrested shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and sent to prison as a possible spy. Meanwhile his family, including Otsuka's mother, seven at the time, and her grandmother, were rounded up from their Berkeley, California, home and sent to an internment camp in the high desert of Utah. Likewise, in the novel, the father of an unnamed family is sent to prison for the duration of the war, to return a broken man. In the meantime, his wife, son, and daughter, are sent to a Utah camp, having to put their dog down before hastily leaving their home. In the camp, they experience all the indignities of imprisonment, lodged in wooden barracks with no privacy and few comforts. The mother, son, and daughter are unnamed in this tale, which is told from their varying perspectives and points of view. The mother and her children try to maintain hope, and after the war, they return to the Berkeley home, which has been vandalized during their absence. The father also returns, but he is understandably bitter about his experiences, and the neighbors and onetime friends continue to treat them like pariahs.

Library Journal reviewer Reba Leiding found this debut a "spare yet poignant" evocation of the themes of "freedom and banishment." Leiding also felt that the author's "clear, elegant prose makes these themes accessible" to readers from young adult upward. A Kirkus Reviews contributor, however, was less impressed with this work, noting that it is "earnestly done, and correctly, but information trumps drama, and the heart is left out." Herizons writer Sylvia Santiago also noted the distancing effect of Otsuka's "scrupulously unsentimental" prose, commenting that while such an approach "works well when imparting historical details and describing circumstances, it prevents the characters from being fully realized."

Other reviewers found much more to like in When the Emperor Was Divine. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani directly addressed the spare prose of the novel, noting that it is Otsuka's "precise but poetic evocation of the ordinary that lends this slender novel its mesmerizing power." A Publishers Weekly contributor termed it "heartbreaking ... [and] bracingly unsentimental," further noting that the "novel's honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power." Similarly, Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman felt that "Otsuka universalizes [the family's] experience of prejudice and disenfranchisement, creating a veritable poetics of stoicism" in a tale told with "breathtaking restraint and delicacy." Kliatt writer Courtney Lewis also found that this "powerful book is characterized by sparse, contained prose."

Otsuka's second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, took almost a decade to create. It deals with the phenomenon of picture brides from Japan who came to the western regions of the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century to marry Japanese immigrants, many of whom were farmers. And, like her first, also looks at the uncomfortable history of Japanese American internment during World War II. Unlike her first novel, which draws heavily on her family history, this second work required a good deal of research, as she explained to Daily Beast Web site contributor Jane Ciabattari: "I read a lot of oral histories and history books, and old newspapers. I had to learn about two worlds: the old Japan from which the picture brides came, and the America of the 1920s and 1930s which they immigrated to. I kept many notebooks filled with detailed notes about everything." Indeed, her plentiful research made it difficult for Otsuka to narrow her story to a manageable level; there were so many fascinating stories and she wanted to tell them all. However, as she further remarked to Ciabattari: "One day, while reading over my notes for the book, I found, buried in the middle of a paragraph several pages in, a sentence I had written months earlier: 'On the boat we were mostly virgins.' I knew at once that this would be the first line of my novel." The result, noted Shea, writing in Poets & Writers, is a "powerful narrative told from the perspective of women who left an impoverished country to come to a prosperous one, where even marriage could not protect them from the racism and xenophobia that would eventually lead to the internment during World War II of Japanese Americans in so-called relocation camps."

The Buddha in the Attic is a novella-length work that has no central character. Otsuka employs a chorus of voices in the first-person plural to tell the tales of many women who leave their homes and loved ones in Japan and set off on an ocean voyage into the unknown. The women confront a harsh reality once they arrive in the United States, for many of the men are quite different than the way they represented themselves in letters. Some are abusive, others simply indifferent, needing a strong woman to work alongside them on farms, laundries, or in gardens. Slowly these women begin to assimilate, learning a new language and having children. Some find a new life with white friends and success in their work. Then comes World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans. From this point, the whites narrate the short book, soon forgetting those Japanese Americans and their feelings of guilt at what happened to those people.

Otsuka's second novel was also greeted with generally high praise from reviewers. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called it a "lovely prose poem that gives a bitter history lesson." Booklist reviewer Seaman also commended this work, terming it a "lyrically distilled and caustically ironic story of exile, effort, and hate [that] is entrancing, appalling, and heartbreakingly beautiful." Likewise, Library Journal contributor Margaret Heilbrun found it "unforgettable and essential both for readers and writers." Writing in the Houston Chronicle, Jim Higgins observed that "by its end, Otsuka's book has become emblematic of the brides themselves: slender and serene on the outside, tough, weathered and full of secrets on the inside." And Jane Ciabattari, reviewing the novel in the San Francisco Chronicle Online, dubbed it an "understated masterpiece about our treatment of the 'other,' the distillation of a national tragedy that unfolds with great emotional power."

FURTHER READINGS

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 59; November 15, 2002, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 576; January 1, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 793; January 1, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 795; April 1, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 1388; August 1, 2011, Donna Seaman, review of The Buddha in the Attic, p. 32.

Herizons, winter, 2004, Sylvia Santiago, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 37.

Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), September 4, 2011, Jim Higgins, review of The Buddha in the Attic, p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 1068; May 15, 2011, review of The Buddha in the Attic.

Kliatt, July, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 5; January, 2004, Courtney Lewis, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 19.

Library Journal, September 1, 2002, Reba Leiding, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 215; March 15, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 54; March 15, 2011, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Buddha in the Attic, p. 100; August 1, 2011, Margaret Heilbrun, review of The Buddha in the Attic, p. 85.

London Review of Books, April 3, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 25.

New Yorker, October 28, 2002, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 111.

New York Times, September 10, 2002, Michiko Kakutani, review of When the Emperor Was Divine; October 13, 2011, Julie Bosman, "Finalists Named for National Book Awards," p. 3.

New York Times Book Review, September 22, 2002, Michael Upchurch, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 14; December 8, 2002, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 66; November 2, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 32; August 28, 2011, Alida Becker, review of The Buddha in the Attic, p. 12.

O, the Oprah Magazine, September, 2011, Celia McGee, review of The Buddha in the Attic, p. 168.

Poets & Writers, September-October, 2011, Renee H. Shea, review of The Buddha in the Attic, p. 50.

Printers Row, October 1, 2011, Elizabeth Taylor, review of The Buddha in the Attic, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly, August 26, 2002, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 44.

Times Literary Supplement, January 31, 2003, Karen Luscombe, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 23.

Tribune Books, December 1, 2002, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 3; November 9, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 2; November 30, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 6.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 2003, review of When the Emperor Was Divine, p. 142.

ONLINE

Daily Beast, http://www.thedailybeast.com/ (September 16, 2011), Jane Ciabattari, "Tragedy of the Picture Brides."

Julie Otsuka Home Page, http://www.julieotsuka.com (January 19, 2012).

Medieval Bookworm, http://medievalbookworm.com/ (January 19, 2012), review of The Buddha in the Attic.

Opinionless, http://www.opinionless.com/ (January 19, 2012), review of The Buddha in the Attic.

Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (January 19, 2012), Kelley Kawano, "Julie Otsuka."

San Francisco Chronicle Online, http://articles.sfgate.com/ (August 28, 2011), Jane Ciabattari, review of The Buddha in the Attic.

Seattle Times Online, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ (September 15, 2011), Michael Upchurch, review of The Buddha in the Attic.

Washington Post Book World Online, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ (November 16, 2011), Ron Charles, review of The Buddha in the Attic. *

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000205664