With the coming of spring, this month’s selections spotlight three books that use the shift into the season of fertility and change as a platform to…spring from. And, fittingly, the characters they feature all undergo drastic transformations after migrating, in some tumultuous years between 1930 and 1945.
When the Emperor Was Divine Julie Otsuka
144 pp., New York: Random House, Inc.
Spring, 1942. In Berkeley, California, a mother runs errands along main streets where signs have come to cover every wall and window, from the pharmacy to the front door. Her husband is present every few days in letters that arrive marked “Detained Alien Enemy Mail.” Her daughter, eager to become adult, is ten, and her son, seven, is tough in his father’s black fedora.
The first chapter is devoted to the mother: procuring months of toiletries, clearing away extraneous belongings (framed pictures, clothing, the family dog), and preparing the kids to leave home. The following four chapters chronicle the family’s relocation, internment and return, to Utah and back, favoring a different character’s perspective in each.
In spare but lucid language, Otsuka expands the story before us like a series of images, with little explication to distract from the bare and beautiful descriptions. It serves as an illustration of how a community, a family, and the individual seek to take care of themselves when they are stripped and hollowed out, without the chance to speak if only because what comes out may be smeared with loyalty to a foreign, mysterious emperor. The world that forms around this ruin takes on brilliant colors in Otsuka’s words, making the history more tangible.
The New Sun Yashima Taro
310 pp., Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press
Spring, 1933. The neighborhood is poor, but the house of an artist couple is sunny, with a garden in front and friends around. If it weren’t for the times, the protests would be few between the pair, but as it were, the times were not so sunny.
In drawings and captions, The New Sun is the autobiography of a political refugee in pre-war Japan told in thick and mottled black ink, like a stream of aged images on a carousel whose wear only adds to the effect. Japan’s secret police, the tokkoka, is targeting Mr. and Mrs. Yashima (a pseudonym used by Iwamatsu Jun) as a perceived threat. Relocated to separate cells, they spend their days in darkness, nights sitting up against fellow battered prisoners wondering how or when or if they’ll ever be released.
When freedom is offered—in trade for compliance and a renouncement of political ties—Yashima refuses in the form of a truthful personal history, depicting for us his childhood and activist formation. The beatings that follow are brutal, but the fight that emerges from the inside, from within the newly-empowered prisoners, is something to revere, “one of the most moving evidences of man’s incalculably slow progress in this weary world.”
Kuroshio: The Blood of Foxes Terry Watada
268 pp., Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press
Spring, 1940. Yoshiko Miyamoto sits across an imposing desk from the Vancouver Oyabun, Morii, pleading for help. Here, where the story starts, this Japan-born widow is already nearing her end, having found herself entangled in the murders of two of her own—her husband and her daughter.
Two decades ago, it was Obon season and Yoshiko was falling asleep to the drone of a Buddhist priest. She had bigger plans. At eighteen, America was a dream, marriage a way out, and Vancouver, Canada was where the black current (kuroshio) brought her, a picture bride.
To explain how this wide-eyed emigrant came to be implicated in Vancouver’s Japanese immigrant crime scene, Watada pulls incidents from points of a timeline, 1905 to 1940. The styling traverses genres, history, poetry and murder mystery, to furnish a world built on decades of estrangement, shrouded pasts and romantic visions unfulfilled.
Though the narrative sometimes stalls in blocks of detail, and the mid-page leaps forward and backward through time are perhaps more of a hindrance than a help, the book acts as a welcome introduction to a trying and unfamiliar (to me, at least) time for Japanese immigrants.