<< Front page Arts March 19, 2004

Shansi reading is surprising success

Julie Otsuka is a writer who trusts her intuition. After receiving a B.A. in art from Yale, she dropped painting to write short stories on a whim. While other authors never read other writers’ stories while working on a book, she reads. In fact, she didn’t know how her novel was going to end until she was in the middle of the second to last chapter. If it surprises you that in Shipherd Lounge last Monday you could have found her in front of a small gathering of East Asian Studies and Creative Writing students and staff reading the first chapter of her novel, don’t worry. A couple of years ago Julie wouldn’t have predicted it either.

“It took me a long time to come to writing,” Otsuka said.

The California-born Otsuka moved to New York City after college. Dissatisfied with her painting career, she turned to fiction.

Her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, details the experience of a family in the summer of 1942 as they are forced to leave their Berkeley home for life in a Japanese internment camp. It is loosely based on Otsuka’s own family’s history.

The first chapter is titled “Evacuation Order #19” and focuses on the mother’s point of view. None of the characters have names, a choice, Otsuka explained, that was made on instinct. The woman, as she is called in the novel, first sees the evacuation notice hanging outside the library. The reader then watches her return home, run errands, and begin to deconstruct her home, packing her and her children’s belongings into boxes. The pace of the story is quick and just detailed enough to hold interest, but not bog the reader down with adjectives. Listening to Otsuka read is a bit like watching a movie without narration; all of the action is there, but the explanations and the inner thoughts of the characters are merely implied. Otsuka’s writing is subtle and clean.

Otsuka never planned to write a novel. She had intended “Evacuation Order #19” to be a short story, and an out-of-character one at that; she was used to writing humor, not historical fiction. But soon after “Evacuation” was finished, she was inspired to write another story about the family, which eventually became the novel’s second chapter. Looking at the two stories and realizing that she might have the beginning of a novel, Otsuka was terrified. She began to research the internment camps and decided to rise to the challenge: She spent the next five years writing and conducting research for her book.

Last year, When the Emperor was Divine was a finalist in the Barnes & Nobel “Discover Great New Writers Award” contest.

Currently, Otsuka is working on her second novel, which will also be historical fiction.


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