Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine

PALS is happy to have a guest post from Jessica Thelen, who is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware. Thelen writes about teaching Japanese Internment in her Introduction to American literature classses and, in addition to providing useful teaching ideas, Thelen makes astute observations about what subjects are and are not taught routinely in American schools. 

Introduction

In a fall 2017 survey that I distributed to both of my sections of English 215: Introduction to American Literature, one student suggested that in teaching this course next semester, I include a unit on Japanese Internment since this was an era of American history that they wanted to learn more about. When creating the syllabus for my Spring 2018 iteration of this course, I recalled this student’s comments and decided to teach a mini-unit on Japanese Internment. I had not taught Japanese Internment before, but I believed it would be a fruitful topic for the course, particularly since some of the objectives of this course are to “cultivate an understanding and appreciation of the value of creative writing in addressing historical and contemporary questions pertaining to the outlined themes of the course (race, ethnicity, and identity)” and to “critically examine our own biases and positionalities while recognizing and taking different perspectives into account.” In order to introduce my students to this era of American history, I decided to use Julie Otsuka’s 2002 novel When The Emperor Was Divine, which focuses on an unnamed Japanese American family, the majority of which is interned at the Topaz Incarceration Camp for most of WWII. Although fictional, Otsuka deftly uses historical accounts to create her narrative and constructs an accessible text for high school and college students.

downloadSetting Up the Novel: Historical Contexts and Supplemental Materials

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight. That class period I had planned to show a documentary on Japanese Internment, entitled Rabbit in the Moon, but unfortunately it was no longer available online, so instead I gave the class a general overview of Japanese Internment: anti-Japanese sentiment prior to WWII, Order 9066 (the executive order President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed on February 19, 1942, which officially began Japanese Internment), as well as the FBI raids where many Japanese and Japanese American men were arrested prior to Internment beginning in earnest.

Since the documentary was unavailable, I decided to spend the next class having students listen to and answer questions on Chapter 1 (“The Roundup”) of a new podcast entitled Order 9066. In this podcast, scholars discuss Japanese Internment and internees share their experiences in the camps. Before listening to the podcast in class, I introduced it by distributing a set of questions for students to answer while listening, which included questions such as:

  1. What were some of the reactions of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans upon hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?
  2. What were some stereotypes regarding Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans that were part of the popular consciousness (even prior to Pearl Harbor)?
  3. What was the FBI’s role in the beginnings of Japanese Internment? What were some reactions to the FBI raids on Japanese immigrant and Japanese American homes?
  4. What is your main take away from this podcast? What is something that your learned from it that you would like to discuss with the class?

This podcast and the related questions were very effective in encouraging student engagement, as seen in a survey I distributed at the end of this unit (two weeks after ending it). In completing the survey, one student wrote, “To hear the podcast and to hear what people went through is amazing.” After listening to and discussing this episode of Order 9066, I assigned two chapters (Chapters 10 and 11) of Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History (2015) that focus on Japanese Internment. I began that class with a Free Write, asking students to think about and do some writing on the following questions:

  1. How were Canada, Peru, and other Latin American countries involved in Japanese Internment in the U.S. and abroad?
  2. What helped to establish the premise of “military necessity” of Japanese Internment?
  3. How did some Japanese Americans resist orders before and during Internment?
  4. What was life like for Japanese Americans after they were released from the camps?

The students were, at that point, able to use their knowledge from Order 9066 and Lee’s book to discuss these questions, as well as possible reasons why Japanese Internment is not frequently taught in schools. Many students suggested that it was because the U.S. does not like to recall its wounds and shameful past, and would, rather, as they stated, “sweep it under the rug.” Once students had this context and had begun to consider such questions and their implications, we began to read When The Emperor Was Divine.

Teaching When The Emperor Was Divine

I taught Otsuka’s novel over the course of five 50-minute class periods. Since I run a discussion-based course with brief segments of lecture, I typically begin each class with a Free Write where students take some time to process their thoughts, answer questions, and come up with points and questions to discuss with the class.

Textual Analysis

For the first segment of the novel, I had students focus on (pages 1-22). One of the Free Write questions I asked students to focus on for that day was: “How are the unnamed daughter, mother, and brother, reacting to Internment (physically and psychologically)? Some students were able to then make connections between the characters’ experiences and those of past Internees who told of their experiences in Chapter 1 of Order 9066. Connections made included the destruction of any family artifacts connected to Japan, feelings of uncertainty and fear, as well as the fracturing of families, as many heads of households, like the father of the unnamed family in When The Emperor Was Divine, were arrested and interned months before their other family members were.

Over the course of the novel, students also focused on the symbolism Otsuka employs to emphasize that Internment had both psychological and physical effects. This symbolism often takes the form of animal imagery: wild horses underscoring the desire for freedom and escape, and the tortoise standing for the family and their loss of identity (in one scene, the son/brother carves the family’s identification number onto a tortoise’s shell that he keeps as a pet). A few students also brought up that symbols also took the form of plant life: a tulip grown in the internment camp symbolizing hope, growth, and renewal, the lack of trees in the camp signifying isolation, harsh conditions, and homesickness, and the rose bush as the desire for normalcy.

Incorporating Visuals

In one class period, as a way to break up the pattern of large class discussions and small group work, I pulled up a series of photographs and paintings related to Japanese Internment, made available by the Japanese American Digital Relocation Archive (JARDA). Along with printing out the images and displaying them on the projector, I also passed out a list of questions for students to focus on as we looked at and discussed the images:

  1. What are the noticeable differences between the paintings and the photographs?
  2. As a viewer, which has more of an impact on you (emotional, historical, etc.) – the photographs or the paintings? Why?
  3. What is left out of the photographs that is depicted in the paintings and vice versa?
  4. General thoughts and comments regarding the photographs and paintings?

The first photograph I started with, however, was provided by one of my students—her grandparents’ neighbors in Arizona own a fire hydrant that had been used in one of the Internment camps. The neighbor had been a firefighter and had come into possession of this fire hydrant as a retirement gift. When looking at this photo, students remarked on the everydayness of it. This image in particular was useful in helping students understand that artifacts related to Internment still exist, and that such artifacts include everyday objects—objects that we still use today.

In looking at this photograph, copied below, taken of the Amache Relocation Center in Colorado on December 9, 1942 by Tom Parker, one student remarked on how big the camp was—while reading Otsuka’s novel he hadn’t realized how many barracks there were. Another student remarked on the barren landscape and the monotony of the scenery— how it reminded him of a modern prison—once again making a connection between the past and the present.

Overlooking the Amache Relocation Center, near Granada, Colorado. In the foreground is a typical barracks unit consisting of 12 six room apartment barracks buildings, a recreation hall, laundry and bathrooms, and the mess hall. Photographer: Parker, Tom Amache, Colorado

When looking at the painting included below, entitled “Goodbye My Son,” by Henry Sugimoto, circa 1942, students were drawn to the facial expressions of the family in the middle—how sad yet resigned they look, as well as the fear about what could happen to their son once he is overseas. Another student pointed out the vibrant colors, which makes the scene depicted seem more immediate. And yet another student called attention to the words included, words that were commonly seen in Internment camps: “Mess Hall,” “WRA,” and “Block 23,” as well as the people in the background hanging laundry and talking.

Goodbye My Son

When asked to reflect on what they remembered from our mini-unit on Japanese Internment a few weeks after finishing this unit, many students stated that these images were incredibly helpful in beginning to understand this period of American history: “The photos…provide the visuals to the stories;” “I definitely enjoyed the visual aspect simply because I feel like when you see something[s], especially for what they really were, you sympathize more with it.” Another student wrote that “the picture[s] were hard to look at ‘cause you feel the pain through them.” Looking at the paintings and photographs worked in conjunction with Otsuka’s novel by helping students visualize objects and emotions focused on in her novel, such as the barracks and the sadness that those interned experienced.

Reflections – The Benefits of an American Studies Approach

In finishing up our discussion of Otsuka’s novel, students deftly connected course materials to the family’s difficulties post-Internment. What really struck the students was the indifference and cruelty aimed at Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans post-Internment. One student brought up that this was also discussed in Chapter 11 of Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History—how the fictional mother in Otsuka’s novel and the nonfictional parents that Lee mentioned struggled to find work post-Internment due to continued discrimination against the Japanese. Another brought up that the internalized racism experienced by the siblings in Otsuka’s novel was similar to that expressed by Gabe and Tomas, two of the main characters in Brian Ascalon Roley’s novel American Son (2002), our first novel of the semester.

In the survey distributed to the class a few weeks after finishing this mini unit, one of the questions I asked was if students enjoyed learning about Japanese Internment in our Introduction to American Literature course, and of the 25 of 28 total students who completed the survey, 23 students responded that they did, mainly because they did not previously know about it, that it was a big part of American history that people should have more knowledge of, and that they were interested in learning more about American history. The overwhelmingly positive, critical, and engaged response from my students when reading Otsuka’s novel and learning about Japanese Internment underscores my belief in the benefits of taking an American Studies approach when teaching American Literature courses (encouraging interdisciplinary thinking by using art objects such as paintings, visual artifacts such as photographs, first person accounts like the podcast, and historical analysis such as the chapters from Lee’s book), as well as my belief that effective teaching is a collaborative effort between students and instructors, resulting in a creative, nuanced learning environment.

Works Cited

Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. Simon and Schuster, NY: 2015. Print.

“Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA).” Calisphere, calisphere.org/exhibitions/t11/jarda/.

“Order 9066 Podcast | APM Reports.” APM Reports – Investigations and Documentaries from American Public Media, www.apmreports.org/order-9066.

Otsuka, Julie. When The Emperor Was Divine. Anchor Books, NY: 2002. Print.

Roley, Brian Ascalon. American Son. 2002. Print.

 

Bio:

Jessica Thelen is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware, pursuing their Race and Ethnicity research track. She taught as a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Westfield State University from 2016-2018, where she taught courses ranging from English Composition, Introduction to American Literature, and World Literature.

 

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Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay

 

Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, Screenshot 2018-04-09 08.26.52and author of The Weight of Shadows visited us at the University of Missouri last September.

The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.

He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.” As I understand it, the wall provides the impetus for Orduña’s research, and likely also guides his aesthetics.

“The occasion to write” is a useful concept for writers and students of writing. It is also useful for readers. The concept thus helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one major goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another major goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.

Ekphrasis: Ancient to Contemporary

  1. What’s ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis, from the Greek, combines ek and phrásis (literally “out” and “speak”) into a verb for “proclaiming” or “calling an inanimate object by name.” At its simplest, any work of art that is “about” or enmeshed in another work of art (usually of another medium) can be understood as participating in the ekphrastic tradition.

I insist—in this post, as in life—that we be as expansive as possible in our thinking about what constitutes art. Example: ekphrastic writing may dialogue with a rock opera, a painting, a violin concerto, a capoeira performance, a piece of jewelry, a digital mashup… The real key is that ekphrastic writing is crucially more than description. It is also distinct from art history or criticism. Ekphrasis engages another artwork to enter into creative communion with it; ekphrastic writing is writing that thinks alongside art.

  1. Why teach ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay?

Ekphrastic approaches are flourishing in the contemporary essay. Off the top of my head, here is an incomplete list of 21st century books of ekphrastic nonfiction:

Visual artworks are central to the project:

  • Terry Tempest Williams, Leap (2000)
  • Michael White, Travels in Vermeer (2015)
  • Jericho Parms, Lost Wax (2016)
  • Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001)

Dialogues with visual artworks less centrally, but significantly and recurrently:

  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
  • José Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016)

Dialogues with nonvisual artworks (namely music):

  • Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire (2015)
  • Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (2016)
  • Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat (2012)
  • Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991—okay, not the 21st century, but a favorite)

On to the practical application portion of this post.

The Lesson Sequence, Part One: Reading Orduña

In celebration of Orduña’s contribution to my thinking vocabulary, I assigned “A Civilized Man,” the fifth essay in his 2016 book, The Weight of Shadows.

“A Civilized Man” takes place in a waiting room in the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa. Orduña observes a young couple whose attorney might be coaching them for the inhumanity of a Stokes interview, the interview that scrutinizes a couple’s request for immigration relief based on their marriage (thus coldly judging the legitimacy, moral standing, and substance of legal partnership itself). Because they “look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting,” Orduña studies the scene as he would a canvas. Ultimately, Orduña draws from the Venetian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” linking contemporary power dynamics to historic consciousness of 1500s Europe. We learn not only about U.S. immigration policy, but also about strange resonances with the Medici Bank, its financing of the Catholic Church, the resulting erosion of absolute monarchy, the rise of trade- and transaction-based power—discovering uneasy echoes with the Department of Homeland Security at every step.

In class, our analysis focused on disentangling one core question: what is the role of the artwork in this essay’s whole assemblage of meanings and effects?

To piece together an answer to this question, I had students track exactly what percent of the text describes “Adoration of the Magi,” what percent of the text teaches context about “Adoration of the Magi,” and what percent of the text explicitly connects “Adoration of the Magi” to the waiting room or to the “present-dayness” of the essay.

Students created a retrospective structure of the essay, and discovered that the bulk of the essay is not about artwork at all. Yet of course the closer they looked, the more tacit connections they discovered. Is it an essay that “just touches” on a Renaissance painting here and there, or is that painting actually woven in between the lines on every page? The latter, of course.

The Lesson Sequence, Part Two: Research and Writing

Second, we took a field trip to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, where students did a good deal of freewriting. They had a few days to expand this initial work and complete a five-hundred word ekphrastic essay responding to any artwork they encountered at the museum. Examples: I read two essays dialoguing with Rembrandt paintings, an essay about an ancient Indian carving of Ganesha, another one taking a work of American Impressionism as muse, and several essays rooted in sculptures and photographs from the museum’s curated exhibit of works by emerging young artists with disabilities.

In the next stage of research exploration, students turned to print and online sources to gather historic research. They found sources on their artists, on the medium (one student learned about the development of acrylic paints, for example; another researched the history of photography), and on the countries/social contexts in which their artworks were created (the student writing about Ganesha, for example, made a valiant effort to scrape the surface of Hindu literary/mythological tradition). Most students came away from this research less satisfied with their initial take on their chosen artwork (which is to say, more curious). Regardless, in a 500-word mini essay, students had to marshal new information and creatively convey the most intriguing things they learned.

Finally, part three of this research exercise required students to have a conversation. They identified a theme/topic in their ekphrastic writing assignment. And they had to think of a person with whom they’d be able to have a lively, 5-10-minute conversation about this theme/topic. Another 500-word mini-essay came out of this exercise.

Ultimately, students assembled their work into longform essays that—via ekphrasis, historic research, and the human voice—explored a range of convictions, questions, memories, and experiences. Students discovered that from the headwaters of their initial required research (mimicking Orduña’s methods of connecting art to life by freewriting in front of an artwork), their thinking had traveled unexpected distances.

Takehome Points

Takehome points from this exercise and discussions emphasized craft strategies and “how-tos” (how to write about art, how to connect art to something else you’re writing about, etc.).

But the literary studies component of this sequence is probably more significant. Students came away with new recognition of a notable trend in the contemporary essay: nonfiction writing about art is flourishing right now. Popular conceptions of nonfiction rarely see past the memoiristic “story of my life” intent on understanding one thing, the “I”—but with ekphrasis, my students experienced an occasion to write that exceeded their individuality. Ultimately, my hope is that they leave the semester seeing the essayist as part of a wider thinking community, someone in conversation with the world in which they’re embedded—and responsible to and for it.

IMG_2234
“Le Badaud” (meaning “the idler” or “the onlooker”). The sculpture is in Sarlat, France, birthplace of Montaigne’s dear friend, Étienne de la Boétie. I am persuaded this idling, onlooking badaud has centuries of essays on the mind as he gazes upon the passing people. The sculpture is by Gérard Auliac.