Convocation 2013 Featured Author Julie Otsuka

September 04, 2013

Otsuka stimulated community-wide discussion around the Japanese-American WWII internment camps from her novel "When the Emperor Was Divine"

When the Emperor Was Divine book coverWheelock College continued its unwavering commitment to social justice through its selection of lauded author Julie Otsuka as the 2013 Convocation keynote speaker.

In her address, Otsuka told students they should not be afraid to fail, noting that she abandoned her first passion, painting, after years of struggling unsuccessfully to transfer the pictures in her head onto canvas. When she turned to writing, she found that her words usually flowed if she began by conjuring an image. For example, the first chapter of "When the Emperor Was Divine" centers opens with a woman staring at an official notice posted on the wall of a Woolworth's.

Otsuka's debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, was selected as Wheelock's summer reading book, which was distributed to the incoming class of first-year students and the senior class.

Inspired by the experience of her family members in the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, Otsuka's novel is a spare and intimate portrayal of one Berkeley family over the years that the U.S. government detained them.

It is narrated from the points of view of various members of the family, and while it is emotionally compelling, it is also historically illuminating and artistically bold.

"When I wrote it, I didn't know it would serve as a cautionary tale for what happens when the government starts singling out particular ethnic groups; in today's case Arabs," Otsuka told the Wheelock Convocation audience.

Special Event for First-Years and Seniors

Convocation is Latin for "coming together" and refers to any group of people formally assembled for a special purpose. It is an important Wheelock tradition to launch the academic year and provides a special learning opportunity for seniors and first-year students. All incoming first-year students read When the Emperor Was Divine prior to arriving on campus, discussed the book during Orientation, and will continue the conversation throughout their first-year academic experience.

This year, Wheelock also launched its First Annual Senior Symposium Luncheon with the senior class and our guest author. Otsuka lead a conversation with seniors on "The Power of Healing through Story."

Author Julie Otsuka"We are pleased to have Julie Otsuka as our 2013 Convocation speaker; Convocation is a special time that provides an opportunity for the entire community to join together in conversation around important issues of social justice," said Wheelock President Jackie Jenkins-Scott. "By sharing her experience and wisdom, Otsuka offers inspiration to our students and helps them envision the impact they can make in our world by improving the lives of children and families."

When the Emperor Was Divine was chosen as Wheelock's summer reading book through a rigorous process overseen by a committee comprising faculty and staff members. All nominations were evaluated according to three principles: alignment with Wheelock's mission of "improving the lives of children and families," balance between intellectual merit and accessibility, and connection to the transformative first-year college experience.

Discussion Guide to Facilitate Conversations

Wheelock faculty and staff lead discussions about the book with students. Wheelock recommends checking out the Cornell University Library discussion guide.

When the Emperor Was Divine was greeted with rapturous praise on publication and won several prizes, including the American Library Association Alex Award and the New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age Award. The book has been selected frequently by universities and cities for One Reads and is extremely popular with informal book clubs. Otsuka grew up in California, is a graduate of Yale and received her MFA from Columbia University. She has made many presentations to various groups about her novel and the history of the Japanese-American internment during World War II.

Learn more about the book and author Julie Otsuka on the author's website:  www.julieotsuka.com/about.

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