When Fiction and Nonfiction Collide
Julie Otsuka’s debut novel, When the Emperor was Divine—one of our new Big Read titles—is a somber and insightful historical narrative of contemporary fiction. In her novel, Otsuka masterfully captures and illuminates the infamous tensions in the United States during 1942. Fueled by the tensions of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed controversial legislation in his third term that gave the Secretary of War unprecedented power to impose federal restrictions on anyone he deemed a threat to national security without due process of the law.
Because of strategic preparations for the Pacific battle, Americans of Japanese descent were deemed disloyal threats to America’s national security, and were interned and relocated to remote, heavily guarded camps across the U.S. Violent racist acts stimulated by fear also ran rampant, as Americans believed Japanese descended people were concealing their loyalty to the Japanese emperor. This is precisely the moment when we are dropped onto the pages of Otsuka’s narrative. She then brings us through a poignant and transformative journey of the internment experiences of a Japanese mother, her seized husband, and their two small children.
Today, many of us might find it difficult to make sense of this policy in the U.S. How did the federal government—without protest—force its own citizens to abandon their homes, businesses, and other worldly possessions for a life in an internment camp? To truly ascertain the pulse of this period, I decided to look to where nonfiction finds its origins. I didn’t have to look too far: one of the NEA’s own, Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa, has a firsthand account of what it was like to be interned in the U.S. She was living in California when she and her family were relocated to an internment camp in Tule Lake, California. The following interview offers her memories of the experience.
NEA: What was your impression of When the Emperor Was Divine?
SHIGEKAWA: I thought the book was wonderful. It was so spare and at the same time, so full of feeling, and that's such a hard thing to write. Her eye for detail, for the detail that caught the feelings, especially of the children, was amazing. Since I was interned at five, I could relate to the fact that the story was told from the point of view of the children.
NEA: Since you said you were five years old, I imagine you've heard stories from your family about what life was like before the camp. Can you give me a sense of what life was like before you were interned, and how scary that whole process was?
SHIGEKAWA: Do you remember in the book when the dad would not speak of his experiences? It's very common in the Japanese-American community for the parents to not speak of the experience that they went through. I tried and tried to get my own mother to tell me the story of what happened. She said, "I lived through it once, I don't want to live through it again." There was a documentary we watched about being interned that was incredibly moving, but that generation does not want to look back. I couldn't get her to talk about it. They only want to move forward with their lives. A famous scholar's version of this time is quite strong. He said it's like rape; the victims never want to speak of it. It was a violation. What I can tell you are the memories of a five year old who had her sixth birthday in the camp. So the book for me resonated with my personal experiences, the physical experience of being very cold and having only two thin Army blankets and shivering every night.
NEA: Was that the only thing they gave you all?
SHIGEKAWA: Yes, at the beginning when they rounded everyone up. They weren't really prepared either for what they had done, for what they had started. The government that is. I remember that we were very cold and that my mother used to go out and try to find scraps of wood, something to keep us warm. While we were in the camp my brother got whooping cough.
NEA: Were there medical facilities available?
SHIGEKAWA: Yes there were, and I remember the sentries with guns. The fact is when you're very little and uprooted with only what you can carry, you miss the small things, if you're a kid. Like having no cookies. When are you ever going to have a cookie again? I remember my sixth birthday. The kids came and one little boy was furious. His present was a box of vanilla wafers. I remember him stomping into the party—to this day—and throwing the box on the table. He was so furious that he had these cookies and his mother was forcing him to give them away.
NEA: So there was a sense of a forced community?
SHIGEKAWA: I think that people were all in the same boat and it didn't matter who you were before. Everyone was equally imprisoned. There was a sense of community and support to be able to get through the experience.
NEA: Did you know the distinction between the different camps?
SHIGEKAWA: No, we didn't understand that. When I found out there was this distinction, for years I wondered why our family was sent to Tule Lake. Tule Lake was rumored to be the camp where they put the troublemakers. I learned, actually this year, at the Department of Interior, the head of the Park Service told me that certain parts of Sacramento where just automatically sent to that camp, but I hadn't understood that before.
NEA: While you were at the camp was there any sense of when you would leave?
NEA: While being there, were you aware of the progress of the war?
SHIGEKAWA: Yes, people had radios. We were not allowed to have cameras, but they were allowed to have radios and so they could get the news. I went to school there as well, I went to first grade there. I also remember at nights going to the bathroom, which were all outside and I would wander out by myself while people were playing pranks to scare me.
NEA: How long where you there altogether?
SHIGEKAWA: Parts of my family were there until the end of the war. We were fortunate and I think were able to leave after a year-and-a-half. I don't know what the criteria was for that though.
NEA: What was life like after leaving the camp?
SHIGEKAWA: Well, if you think about being a kid, kids are playing in the school yard. Guess who the little Japanese children get to be? The enemy. My parents tried to live more in the country than the city because they thought people would be kinder, and maybe they were, but you were certainly always aware and could never forget that you were a Japanese-American child. To this day the stereotype runs deep and wide and persists.
NEA: Given the climate in America now, Muslims are often labeled with a broad stroke aligning them with terrorism. Do you fear a repeat of this time?
SHIGEKAWA: I'm hoping that the scholarship and criticism of what happened to Japanese-Americans will protect Muslims living in America. There was never a single proven incident of treason. There was an official government apology. Today when this time is taught in schools, it's taught as a low point in American history. It's still legal and it could happen again, but I think the awareness of the Japanese-American experience and of how destructive it was to incarcerate that many people and this novel also help. We're all Americans and we should be treated equally.