Julie Otsuka did not start writing until she was 30 years old. This, her first novel, was published in 2003, when she was 40 years old. Almost immediately the book won acclaim for its evocative portrayal of a family’s upheaval.
The book is about the more than 127,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry who were interned during World War II, by executive order. They were put into 10 “relocation” camps, eight of which were in western states and in the desert. Some families were separated for the span of almost three years, from February of 1942 to January of 1945. Many sold all they had, having no guarantee that their property and homes would be waiting for them when they were finally released.
Otsuka tells her story swiftly and with resolution. She has three characters who speak: the Japanese-American mother, and her son and daughter. Their father has already been taken away and they will not see him for three years. They will eventually write to each other, but with lines blocked out by the censors.
Otsuka’s prose is spare, full of quiet detail which evokes not only the picture of the moment but also the feelings of the narrator. Many describe Otsuka’s style as non-emotional. But actually she makes use of how our perception of our environment carries emotion. Ostuka especially uses how a child, whose capability of reflection is not so developed as an adult, invests objects and words with submerged longings and desires. The boy remembers his father coming into his room when the boy had a bad dream, sitting and smoothing his hair, saying, “Hush, Puppy. It’s all right. Here I am.” Just to hear the pet names his father used makes us see the father and feel his devotion.
Eventually the family gets to go home. People have lived in their home, have camped out and wrecked parts of it. The mother’s prize rosebush was dug up and carried away, to be someone else’s pride and delight. They make do and start their life again, but no one welcomes them home. History tells us that some communities even erected signs after the war, discouraging those returning from internment from moving back. And some did not; they moved on and went somewhere else. The father in the story finally comes home. But he doesn’t look like their father, the one who was taken away. He is a changed man, suspicious, prone to sudden rages. When he asks the children what their day was like, he listens to their stories, but is abstracted, with his attention somewhere else.
Some readers have drawn parallels between what the Japanese endured from internment and how Arab-Americans have experienced harassment and discrimination in this country since the events of September 2011. But the novel is not just about persecution. One of the things the boy dreams of when they are journeying to the camp, during these long days filled with heat and thirst and discomfort, is being by the sea and seeing three black ships, with white sails, sent by the Emperor, slowly turning to the shore. The image is one of power and strength. The strength is almost unearthly, and perhaps something that Americans sensed in the Japanese culture, to make them do what they did. But in the dream, the ships are beautiful.
Otsuka has preserved sparseness and fragility in her writing by ‘only seeing’, a phrase she used to describe herself as a former artist. And this “seeing” helps us to see how we are not apart from the world, that we inform our experience. This is a quality of a great writer.
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