When the Emperor was Divine takes place at the beginning of WWII. From the nameless and alternating perspectives of mother, daughter, and son, we slowly learn what it was like to be of Japanese ancestry living in California at that time. Basically, it was not pretty.
The story is not exactly riveting, but it is compelling, mostly in a way that makes me regret being a white American. I feel sick to my stomach at the things we people do to each other. I feel deep guilt about the masses of white folks who let Japanese Americans be packed up and carted away to a prison camp. The suffering this unjust policy caused to so many people is mind-boggling to me. Families were separated, homes were lost, and respect for life was utterly ignored. I find what America did to Japanese Americans one small step removed from Hitler's concentration camps. And in this past decade, I think many Americans were one step removed from wanting to create a similar policy in regards to Middle Eastern Americans.
It is rampant tribalism. A fierce dedication to one's own national tribe. Any person or creature or idea that does not fall into the neat little safe package must be pushed away and isolated. If we continue to treat each other, and our Earth, like this, there is no way our species will make it.
Otsuka's story follows one family. But tragically, it is everyone. It is about everyone who has been isolated, psychologically defeated, disenfranchised from the life they created for themselves, and stripped of their dignity.
When the Emperor was Divine is the Tompkins County Public Library's Community Read. It's a good one to discuss. Check out the community discussions and events here. Read this book. It is a reality check in our world of ever increasing divisions.