Julie Otsuka has been awarded the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic. Otsuka, a California native who studied art at Yale and later took her MFA at Columbia, opened her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, in Berkeley, a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when, by Executive Order, all Japanese and Japanese-Americans were being removed to internment camps. Here’s how it opens:
The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth’s. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue. The woman was returning a book to the library when she saw the sign in a post office window. It was a sunny day in Berkeley in the spring of 1942 and she was wearing new glasses and she could see everything clearly for the first time in weeks. She no longer had to squint but she squinted out of habit anyway. She read the sign from top to bottom, then still squinting, she took out a pen and read the sign from top to bottom again. The print was small and dark. Some of it was tiny. She wrote down a few words on the back of a bank receipt, then turned around and when home and began to pack.