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Author visits BC campus to discuss her works

The Cerro Author 2012 presentation was held on Oct. 10 in the Fireside Room. The featured award winning author, Julie Otsuka, spoke about the two books that she wrote, “When the Emperor was Divine” and “Buddha in the Attic,” both of which have been assigned readings in the past by various BC professors.

According to the representative of this yearly event Marci Lingo, having Otsuka be the Cerro author was relevant to many courses because the books focus on the immigrant experience in 20th century California and touch on the persecution of an ethnic group.

“This is my absolute favorite day of the year,” said Lingo. “It is just so amazing to watch how the author interacts with the students.”

Otsuka said she hadn’t set out to be an author; she graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in art and tried to be an artist for years. She later graduated from Columbia University with a master of Fine Arts degree. Otsuka said she wanted to write the books because she felt the stories had to be told of the Japanese-American experience.

“I grew up knowing this story but not really knowing this story. I feel like there is so much trauma involved with this story that has been passed on so I feel like I need to tell this story in honor of my mother.”

“When the Emperor Was Divine” is based on her family’s internment camp experience during WWII.

“Whenever I would talk to my mother on the phone, my mother would always say ‘the FBI and I will check up on you soon’ and then she would hang up. I never really gave it that much thought,” said Otsuka. “I do remember that my mom would use the term ‘camp’ sometimes and I never fully understood what that meant. No one seemed to want to talk about it.”

Otsuka said she got her inspiration because of letters that she had found in her mothers’ fireplace that were written between her mother and grandfather while he was in camp.

“I don’t know if she was intending to burn them because of the anger she felt but just couldn’t bring herself to do it ultimately or just kept them there because she knew no one would find them there,” said Otsuka. “But it opened the door to my family’s past and released confirmations of stories of my family’s struggles.”

According to Otsuka, she struggled with various portions of the work so she would often sit alone in a café in New York close to where she resides in order to ‘get in the zone.’

“As a writer I feel that the first sentence, the first paragraph is the most important in order to engage the reader to keep going,” said Otsuka. “It took me two and a half years to write one of the middle chapters.”

After five and half years of writing, “When the Emperor was Divine” was published in September 2002.

“It’s a very strange feeling to be working alone for almost six years to having my book take a life of it’s own,” said Otsuka. “I felt the ending to my first book was a release of anger.”

Her second novel, “Buddha in the Attic,” also deals with Japanese-American experience, following the lives of a group of young women brought form Japan to San Francisco as “picture Brides.” Otsuka said she got the idea for the novel while on a book tour for her first novel.

“These women would know nothing about their husbands besides the photos that were sent to them which often turned out to look nothing like them when they finally arrived in San Francisco,” said Otsuka.

“Instead of living the good life like they thought they would in America, they were put to work.”

Otsuka said that being a writer has changed her by making her feel a sense of opening up because she is telling a story. She said this is just one piece of history and that she would like to read other stories so she can get different accounts of the war.

“I am just telling of my accounts of the story, but I think it’s almost impossible to tell everything,” said Otsuka.

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