How Culture Works

I just finished Julie Otsuka's beautiful, and deceptively grand, first novel When The Emperor Was Divine. The book tells the story of a family sent from their home in Berkeley to an internment camp in Utah for Japanese-Americans during World War II. It's a short read, but in the tradition of The Great Gatsby, it hits like a truck.

At some point the family returns to their home which they discover has been inhabited by people they do not know. All of their furniture is gone and there's (presumably racist) graffiti on the walls. When they lay down for bed, they all sleep in the same room. 

Here Otsuka painting the scene:

That night, the night of our first day back in the world, the world from which we had earlier been sent away, we locked all the windows and doors and unrolled our blankets on the floor of the room at the foot of the stairs that looked out onto the street. Without thinking, we had sought out the room whose dimensions--long and narrow, with two windows on one end and a door at the other--most closely resembled those of the room in the barracks in the desert where we had lived during the war. Without thinking, we had configured ourselves exactly as we had in that long narrow room during the war: our mother in the far corner, away from the windows, the two of us lying head to toe along the wall on the opposite side of the room. Without thinking, we had chosen to sleep, together, in a room, with our mother, even though for more than three years we had been dreaming of the day when we could finally sleep, alone, in our own rooms, in our old house, our old white stucco house on the broad tree-lined street not far from the sea.

When I read this, I thought of all our previous conversations around culture. Specifically, I thought of how brothers come home from prison institutionalized (acculturated) to their old lives, and have to struggle to make their way in the new. And of course, more broadly, I thought of the black community, whose entire experience in America has been marked by great violence.

What Otsuka gives us here--and for the rest of the book--is a traumatized family, reeling long after the initial trauma has faded. They struggle to regain their shape, their old easiness with their neighbors, their sense of beauty and self. It sounds so familiar. 

I highly recommend the book.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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