Writer’s block, the election, and When the Emperor was Divine.

I’ve got this paper due tomorrow and I’m not sure where to start. As you can see, I’ve got the necessary elements there – coffee (decaf, yes it’s almost 9pm.), computer, dog, book that I’m supposed to review propped up next to me.

Look, I’m even technically writing SOMETHING. I’ve got to buckle down on this thing.

It’s an essay for class comparing Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor was Divine with the current state of affairs. Comparing? That’s not exactly right. It’s about the current election and how Trump was elected president and the xenophobia that he’s been spouting.

Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor was Divine is about the Japanese internment camps during World War II. It’s told from the perspective of the mother, then the daughter, then the son, and finishes with the father who was taken away from his family and returns by the end of the novel. It’s not overtly about the politics behind the interment camps. It doesn’t tell the story from a policy perspective. It’s a small book about small things. That’s not a slam against it. It inhabits a small world about specifics and emotions- how the mother needed to put the dog down and get most of their things out of the house before they left for the camp. It’s about the little rituals and magical thinking that the boy does when he’s in the camp, like keeping his father’s shoes and putting his hands in them to see if he can still smell his father who’s been taken away to another camp. It’s about the normalcy the daughter is looking for. She’ll earn a nickel at bingo just to buy her brother a coke. She’ll make friends and disappear with them for a while to hang out as young kids do and come back to their small barrack.

Because Otsuka’s book is about specifics, in some ways it’s hard to link to the election and present state of politics. Big things are happening, not small things. Donald Trump won the election but lost the popular vote. Was it the electoral college is what allowed him to win, or maybe it was that he appealed to poor white voters who didn’t vote in other elections, or maybe it was because the Democratic party splintered their base by having insider tactics to help ensure Hillary Clinton got the nomination?  We’re still too close to when it all happened. Absentee votes were still being tallied a week after the Tuesday of the main election. And I admit to being out of my depth as far as analyzing how and why an election was won. I’m one of the millions of Americans who clicks on stories they see on Facebook, which inherently skews the bias toward whatever the Facebook algorithm thinks will appeal most to the specific reader. What is actually true?

Otsuka deals with this idea of truth with relation to the camps. The final monolog by the father includes him telling his interrogators what they want to hear. Yes, he’s the enemy, the sniper, the saboteur, the houseboy, the cook, and the gardener. They’re all lies, ultimately. And in this part in particular, Otsuka illustrates the fallacy of extracting truth from torture. It’s not said outright but it’s implied in this chapter.

What Otsuka captures through intimate scenes is absurdity and dread. Conversations between characters feel like something out of a Samuel Beckett play where a question is asked but the answer is slightly askew from any sort of normal response. The daughter throws a lemon out the window of a moving train for no reason. The son puts loose strands of his father’s hair in an envelope and places it under the floor boards, pledging not to look at them because if he doesn’t, then his father will be okay.

This absurdity rings true for our time in light of the election. America elected a president who has had no political experience whatsoever. He’s been bankrupt several times over. He blatantly flaunted to the media that he didn’t pay taxes. He called Mexicans rapists and murderers. In a time when every politicians’ words are scrutinized, he doubled down on making the worst gaffs in history. But at the same time, Trump contradicted himself at every turn. When journalists held his feet to the fire for something he said, Trump just denied it.

There’s the obvious connection between the current Islamophobia and what happened to the Japanese at the internment camps. My Facebook feed is full of headlines stating that Japanese internment is setting the precedent for deporting Muslims and creating a registry. If that happened, Otsuka’s book can give us a perspective on how a Muslim family might feel going through it all.

But there’s a difference between our time and theirs, during World War II. Julie Otsuka said that there was no public or organized protest at the time, at least judging from the research she did while writing this novel. We don’t see much of the neighbor’s response in the book, but we get a glimpse at the tacit approval of what’s happened to the Japanese family. I don’t see how that situation would occur in our current climate. We are all interconnected through social media, television, and radio. Self-publishing thanks to the internet allows word to get out in a way that wasn’t possible during World War II. The fact that our nation has such a loud voice and is so contentious I think, I hope, would prevent the situation from getting anywhere near as bad as it was for the Japanese Americans in Julie’s book.

Hey this accomplished what I wanted it to- I actually got most of my paper written.

Now to shower and maybe drink the rest of this beer. Golden Monkey.

 

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