Skip to main content

Internment novel chosen for 2013 reading project

Laura Brown holds copy of book
Jason Koski/University Photography
Laura Brown in her office with the 2013 New Student Reading Project selection, "When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka.

Incoming first-year students, new transfer students and others in the Cornell community will be reading Julie Otsuka’s 2003 novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” this summer. The 2013 selection for the New Student Reading Project, Otsuka’s novel tells the story of an ordinary Japanese-American family caught up in extraordinary political circumstances.

The novel describes a family’s three-and-a-half-year-long experience in internment camps during World War II. From varied perspectives – the two young children, the mother, the internment community and the father – the novel offers a concrete view of personal struggle, dignity and tragedy in a context of exile and racism.

“When the Emperor Was Divine” has been praised for its clarity of detail and its integration of distinct viewpoints into a singularly powerful rendering of historical experience.

The subject matter was personal for the author – members of her own family were interned – but instead of incorporating family stories into the novel, Otsuka did extensive research. The FBI arrested her grandfather the day after Pearl Harbor, and her grandmother, uncle and mother, then 11 years old, were sent to Utah and interned for most of the war.

“I wanted to write a novel about real people ... their experience is universal not only for Japanese Americans, but for people of any ethnic group,” Otsuka said. “All throughout history people have been rounded up and sent away into exile. The predicament of the family in my novel – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances beyond their control – is a very human one.”

Otsuka is a recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim fellowship. She has also been a finalist for the National Book Award. “When the Emperor Was Divine,” her first novel, was started as part of her MFA thesis at Columbia University. The book has been translated into six languages and has sold more than 250,000 copies.

The book generates a range of topics for discussion and exploration including the political context of World War II, immigration and exile, post-9/11 experiences of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, cultural difference and intercultural dialogue, civil liberties and human rights, memory and trauma, scapegoating, the recording and documenting of internment experiences, and the impact of such experiences on children and families.

“Otsuka’s engaging novel will offer students a tangible, material sense of the experience of a family and of a generation of Americans, in a context that is similarly real to us today,” Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Laura Brown said in announcing the selection.

The New Student Reading Project will organize six presentations at Orientation in August, enabling students to explore topics, disciplines, programs and materials related to themes in the book, and faculty and staff will lead Reading Project Seminars. Incoming students will receive the book to read over the summer.

Now in its 13th year, the New Student Reading Project is designed to provide a common intellectual experience for the Cornell community. Before the winner was selected by Cornell’s academic leadership, suggested titles for the project were narrowed down to a shortlist of four that included Otsuka’s book, Toni Morrison’s “Home,” Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” and Geraldine Brooks’ “Caleb’s Crossing.”

The project is supported by a website <;, which includes background, study questions and related resources to explore a range of contexts.