Life Writing, Cultural Memory, and Historical Mediation in Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor was Divine

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Reading Julie Otsuka's, When the Emperor was Divine, this article analyses the novel's relationship with life writing, memory and the present. Blurring the line between fact and fiction, Otsuka's novel enters the field of life writing as a semi-biographical family memoir, loosely based on the wartime experiences of her mother's family. It also creatively and skilfully invites readers to make intertextual connections with such internees’ memoirs as Miné Okubo's Citizen 13660 and Yoshiko Uchida's Desert Exile, and incorporates two first-person narrative forms, letters and confession, to engage readers in the generation of postmemory. As a Sansei, Otsuka may have started writing the novel as a way to involve herself in an evolving relationship with the past events and people. Yet, her novel serves as a mnemonic trigger that prompts the reader to remember what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII, while associating the meaning of the past to today's post-9/11 world. Storing, transferring and reincorporating the cultural memory of the Japanese-American internment throughout generations, Otsuka's narrative suggests the limits of ethnic minority groups’ self-representation, the ethical demand to keep marginalised memories of past violence alive and collective, and the importance of the freedom to speak and write about one's life.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)505-521
Number of pages17
JournalLife Writing
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Oct 2

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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