Collective Trauma and Its Narrative Techniques. Julie Otsuka’s "When the Emperor Was Divine" and "The Buddha in the Attic"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

26 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

0. Introduction

1. Collective Trauma and Its Narrative Techniques

2. Textual Analysis: When the Emperor was Divine and The Buddha in the Attic
2.1. Narrative Perspective(s)
2.1.1. The Communal Voice
2.1.2. The Oppositional Us. Vs. Them Dichotomy
2.1.3. The Role of the Narrattee
2.2. Discourse
2.2.1. Selective Individualization
2.2.2. Intermediality and Intertextuality
2.2.3. Tone
2.2.4. Time
2.3. Story
2.3.1. Figures

3. Trauma Symptoms: Amnesia, Denial, Dissociation and Loss of Identity

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

0. Introduction

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service struck the Pearl Harbor naval base in Honolulu, Hawaii. Shortly after, the United States entered the Second World War. In California, the government declared all citizens of Japanese origins as "alien" and started deferring them into internment camps or "relocation centers" as they were officially called. The last center was closed in 1946 (Taylor 2011). Most Japanese returned to find property, community, financial security and their social integration gone causing severe and long-lasting trauma (Romano 2018).

Their story has long been unknown to the majority of the world. Manis explains this with the fact that the contemporary age tends to glorify and "whitewash the past" instead of illuminating the actual historical trauma behind it (7). Julie Otsuka, daughter to first-generation Japanese immigrants, took up this topic in her two novels When the Emperor was Divine (2002) and The Buddha in the Attic (2011). Both novels aim at communicating to readers the scale and reach of the trauma experienced by the Japanese immigrants in America during the Second World War. With the help of different narrative techniques, the collective trauma is communicated. The Western reader needs to understand that this is not an individual trauma experienced by a single person but in fact a much larger group’s trauma. It affects and traumatizes significantly more people than assumed or known.

The reader, however, needs personal reference points to be able to identify and sympathize with other people's experiences. As Stalin had already pointed out during the war, “[o]ne death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic” (Ratcliffe 2016). A large group like the Japanese immigrants in California during the Second World War is not graspable for the reader, it is "statistics". It does not encompass a fixed number of individuals the reader can imagine. A collective can thus not "easily adduce sympathy or allow identification on the part of the reader" (Fludernik 188). That is why selective individualization within the narrative is needed. This paper will argue that even though both novels use the first-person plural voice to narrate collective trauma (albeit to different extents), it is only in combination with selective personal references that the collective trauma is communicated successfully in reach and scale. When the Emperor was Divine uses more alleged personalization due to its characters, however, fails to attribute a powerful communal voice to represent the factual reach and scale of the trauma experienced by all of the Japanese immigrants at the time. The Buddha in the Attic, on the other hand, manages to combine collective and individual voices more successfully. It thereby allows for a better transmission of reach and scale of the collective trauma to the reader and renders the communal voice more powerful.

This paper will start with a brief definition of trauma paired with some insights into the power of the collective narrative voice from a narratological point of view. The textual analysis section will then look at distinct narrative techniques that help transmit the collective trauma successfully to the reader. It will start with the narrative perspectives employed in both novels focusing on narrative voice, its identity as well as some brief remarks on the role of the narrattee. An analysis of the discourse will follow including techniques to accentuate individual experiences like free indirect discourse and dialogue, intertextuality, tone and time. A third textual subchapter will briefly look at the story level and the role of the presented figures. The penultimate chapter will expose distinct signs and symptoms of the trauma experienced by the collective as well as subtle signs of overcoming trauma. A brief conclusion will draw on the analyzed effectiveness of the communicated collective trauma.

1. Collective Trauma and Its Narrative Techniques

Even though originally defined as an exclusively physical "wound", recent definitions of trauma also encompass a psychological aspect. Trauma is a severe state of emotional stress or physical injury (Kühner 34). In the case of the Japanese immigrants in California during the Second World War, trauma encompasses the mental stress (and in some cases also the physical injuries) the Japanese experienced during their time at the incarceration camps but also the racism and the active alienation they experience after their return. As both novels address not only individual trauma but speak for an entire group’s trauma one needs to ask: What is collective trauma? Kühner argues that collective trauma is not a "traumatized collective" but rather a conglomerate of several, individual traumas affecting collective memory and identity (24). Alexander further relates collective trauma to "cultural trauma" which he defines as a joint feeling of a group which has been "subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon […] group consciousness, marking […] memories forever and changing […] future identity" (2004, 1).

However, one catastrophic event shared by a number of people does not immediately lead to collective trauma. Instead, it is what the people socially attribute to the event that is eventually labeled as trauma: "[I]t is the meanings that provide the sense and fear, not the events in themselves" (Alexander 2004, 10). This means that trauma is a social construct created by the people who have jointly experienced it. It is therefore a sociocultural process. Since trauma is socially constructed, trauma narratives need to be looked at carefully regarding their degree of accuracy. Alexander defines the "trauma process", the trauma narration, as the "gap between event and representation" (2004, 11). He further elaborates:

Collective traumas are reflections of neither individual suffering nor of actual events, but symbolic renderings that reconstruct and imagine them. Rather than descriptions of what is, they are arguments about what must have been and what should be (2012, 4).

The trauma narration in Otsuka’s novels encompasses the overall cultural trauma (as per Alexander’s definition 2004, 1) experienced by the collective of the Japanese immigrants in California during the Second World War. More precisely, the "overall trauma" covers several "smaller" traumas as narrated in both novels: the effects of the internment camps (mental and physical) as well as the anti-Asian racism and stigmatization as "alien" and "disloyal" encountered by the Japanese both prior to and after the internments.

Yet how can trauma to be overcome? Caruth argues that trauma is only overcome if it is integrated in narration (153). This narration, however, can only occur after the actual traumatic event as trauma itself is "incomprehensible" and thus impossible to articulate (Berger 577). For survivors, the trauma is "so painful in certain respects that they will not or cannot tell the stories of their lives" (Peterson, qtd. in Manis 8). Parham stresses that if a trauma is too painful for an individual to recollect and narrate, it is also for a collective. An entire society can apply the strategy of "historical avoidance" and escape historical recollection of a joint traumatic past. This avoidance, however, is not beneficial to a group’s, or society’s, overcoming of a joint trauma: "if society will not tie itself fully to the past, how can it ever hope to reconcile with it in the present?" (Parham, qtd. in Manis 7).

Trauma thus needs to be articulated in order to be overcome. But this only occurs after a period of latency: "the impact of the traumatic event lies precisely in its belatedness, in its refusal to be simply located" (Caruth, qtd. in Berger 577). Survivors need to articulate their trauma, need to testify on history, in order to reclaim a voice (Gibbons 131). This process usually results in fiction as a scientific and factual recollection of horrid events and trauma is most frequently too traumatic to articulate: "[D]irect or phenomenal reference to the world means, paradoxically, the production of fiction" (Caruth, qtd. in Berger 578).

Yet how exactly should these narratives be articulated in order to be accessible and understandable to an external reader who is unfamiliar with the trauma? The text needs to offer an "experience (…) of living through testimony, of giving testimony" (Caruth, qtd. in Gibbons 148). The narrative recollection of past events thus does not need to be accurate but rather the opposite. It needs to be personal; it needs to be symbolic: "The truth of a cultural script depends not on its empirical accuracy, but on its symbolic power and enactment" (Alexander 2012, 4).

The symbolic and personal force of a narrative can be articulated with the help of various techniques. One significant technique is the plural perspective through which all of The Buddha in the Attic is told and through which one chapter of When the Emperor was Divine is told. The plural we- voice, as it is commonly referred to, operates as communal voice and representator of a larger group (Bekhta 165). It is ideal to represent collective trauma as it has the power to communicate it not as a compilation of individual traumatic experiences but as a true representation of a jointly shared experience. Those narratives carry one meaning for the entire collective. Instead of individualized mourning and dealing with trauma, they can represent an entire generation’s mourning, as in the case of the Japanese immigrants’ life during the Second World War (Maxey 28).

It is important to differentiate the terms under discussion properly before moving onto the textual analysis. Bekhta argues for a differentiation between we- narration and we- narrative, which is the differentiation between the process (narration) and the final product (narrative) (165). The two novels in discussion will thus be referred to as narratives. The Buddha in the Attic applies a consistent collective voice throughout the entire book whereas When the Emperor was Divine only uses the collective voice in one chapter.

Those we- narratives can appear in different forms. They can encompass an entire group all speaking together, a proper subset, individuals speaking in alternating terms on behalf of a larger group, and a single member of a group speaking through the first-person plural pronoun (Margolin 18). Opposed to Margolin, Bekhta argues that choosing the first-person plural perspective to communicate collective trauma offers a powerful tool. It creates a "holistic supraindividual level that supersedes a mere aggregation of individual characters and thus cannot be identified with or reduced to an 'I' speaking on behalf of such a group" (Bekhta 165). A we -voice is thus a technique that contributes to the construction of a powerful "communal voice" and therewith "communal story" (169).

The effects of we- narratives are not only the construction of a powerful communal voice but also a form of estrangement as the first-person plural perspective sometimes reaches its logical limits when narrating individual life stories: "Collapsing the individual and the collective under one pronominal schema" can affect grammar and a text’s logic (Fludernik 185). However, it still manages to represent what Alber calls the "social mind" (214). Through collective narration the reader is presented with the sum of several minds represented behind the plural pronominal. It gives the "communal story" a powerful voice as the reader is aware that there are several individuals behind the we.

The communal voice's identity can also be enhanced by opposing it with "other" groups. The plural pronoun can thus include certain members of a group, i.e. the Japanese immigrants, and exclude "others", i.e. the Americans (Fludernik 174). By actively opposing us vs. them, collective identity is created in opposition and relation to the "other". This is also essential to overcome collective trauma: "group members may turn to shared targets not only to patch up a disturbed sense of self, but also to establish grounds on which to reunite for mutual support and strength" (Volkan, qtd. in Brabeck & Ainslie 15).

We narratives are thus predestined to carry out "cultural work" according to Jane Tompkins (Morris 11). They have the power to communicate a culture’s trauma in an authentic and accessible way. According to Morris, it is the choice of the communal voice, the choice of the first-person plural perspective, that carries out this cultural work. The first-person plural pronouns can "respond to and shape our position in the social order: they react to specific historical pressures; they articulate problems and propose solutions; they summon others towards us or shove them away" (ibid.). This means that we narratives can authentically present collective trauma.

The role of the narrattee can also contribute to the successful transmission of trauma. Trauma, as already mentioned, needs to be articulated and integrated into a narrative in order to be overcome. This narrative needs to be consumed by someone, it needs to be heard, read, processed, it needs an "addressable you" as Levine argues (3). The witness narrating the trauma needs a witness listening to the testimony. This makes for a dialogical structure of the narrative (ibid.). It is thus not only about who is narrating the trauma but also who is listening.

Besides narrator and narrattee, the discourse, how trauma narratives are narrated, also makes up for the success of trauma narration. Use of dialogues, for example, can transmit interpersonal relationships and give insight into the individual’s interactions. Intermedial and intertextual references can link the fictional to the factual world thereby attributing more authenticity. On the story level figures as well as the direct representation of trauma symptoms contribute to the successful communication of collective trauma. How this is conducted in the two novels under discussion will be subject of the upcoming chapter.

2. Textual Analysis: When the Emperor was Divine and The Buddha in the Attic

Throughout the following textual analysis, the term "trauma" will refer to the overall cultural trauma (as per Alexander’s definition 2004, 1) experienced by the collective of the Japanese immigrants in California during the Second World War. It encompasses several "smaller" traumas: the effects of the internment camps (mental as well as physical) as well as the anti-Asian racism and stigmatization as "alien" and "disloyal" encountered by the Japanese both prior to and after the internments. Two chapters per novel will be analyzed for major narrative techniques that are used to communicate the communal trauma. The chosen chapters are "In a Stranger’s Backyard" and "Confession" for When the Emperor was Divine and "Traitors" and "A Disappearance" for The Buddha in the Attic.

2.1. Narrative Perspective(s)

The collective trauma experienced by the Japanese immigrants during WWII is simply put what Bekhta defines as "communal story" (169). The "communal voice" telling the "communal story", however, can either be produced as "singular form in which one narrator speaks for a collective, a simultaneous form in which a plural ‘we’ narrates, and a sequential form in which individual members of a group narrate in turn" (Lanser, qtd. in Bekhta 169).

2.1.1. The Communal Voice

When the Emperor was Divine employs a sequential communal voice as the narrative perspective differs from chapter to chapter. The two chapters under discussion, "A Stranger’s Backyard" and "Confession", employ different narrative voices yet still manage to contribute to the overall construction of the collective voice of a representative Japanese family. Whereas first, second and third chapters are narrated from a third person perspective, "In A Stranger’s Backyard" is written in a first-person plural perspective triggered by the resumption of the "old" life in California. After Lanser, the narrative form is simultaneous with the two children narrating on behalf of the entire family.

The we- narrator on discourse level, however, does not necessarily correspond with the same referent on the story level (Fludernik 174). In When the Emperor was Divine, the narrating we on discourse level may initially seem to refer to the entire family. Upon closer analysis it becomes evident that the plural voice is exclusive of the mother as well as the father and encompasses solely the children. This is indicated by several references to the mother as "third person": "she had warned us", "she reached into her blouse and pulled out the key" and "[w]e turned our heads away. The key had become a part of her" (Emperor1 107, my emphasis).

While the mother plays a consistent part throughout the entire narrative and is even used as focalizer in the opening chapter, the father is only ever referred to by the third-person narrator in the first three chapters and actively excluded in the fourth. Whereas the mother is mentioned frequently in "In a Stranger's Backyard", it is only in the second half of the chapter that the father is finally mentioned in a pragmatic and distanced tone: "We had gone away and now we were back but our father had yet to come join us" (Emperor 115). His physical absence has caused a lack of the representation of the father figure in the minds of the children. This is further supported by the fact that the children do not recognize their own father upon his return: "Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place. That’s not him, we said to our mother, That’s not him" (132). Even though the chapter is narrated in a representative communal voice for any Japanese family, the father has neither say nor place within this collective.

In "Confession", however, the father is "rescued" from his exclusion and given an individual voice. The chapter is narrated in the father’s first-person perspective and transmits the physical and mental abuse he experienced during internment as well as his final surrender and confession: "My feet were cold. I was tired. I was thirsty. I was scared. So I did what I had to do. I talked" (Emperor 140). This chapter gives the father, the victim, the voice he needs to articulate the trauma experienced and to start the healing process. Not even encompassing five pages, the chapter gives an emotional insight into one of the novel’s major characters. The final words "Now can I go?" can be either read as his final resignation (Gibbons 131) or the beginning of his healing process. Even though he might not be able to "let go" of the trauma mentally, he manages to reclaim agency and voice – a first step in the right direction to overcome trauma (Caruth 153).

The Buddha in the Attic tells the communal story in a consistent first-person plural perspective. The "we-voice" is simultaneous. This means that the main group behind the we shares one dominant collective subjectivity through a "consistent collective self-reference" and "collective physical action and shared thoughts, feelings and emotions" (Bekhta 173). The chapter "Traitors" provides several references to the "collective physical action" Bekhta refers to (ibid.): "Every evening, at dusk, we began burning our things: old bank statements and diaries, Buddhist family alters, wooden chopsticks, paper lanterns […]. We set fire to our white silk wedding kimonos […]. We poured gasoline over our ceremonial dolls" (Buddha2 86). Further, the "shared thoughts, feelings and emotions" (Bekhta 86) are expressed through the following quote: "We tried to think positive thoughts (…). Often though, at the end of the day, we felt uneasy, as if there was something we had forgotten to do" (Buddha 94). The group behind the "we -voice" thus does not only act but also feel communally.

This changes in the final chapter of the novel. In "A Disappearance", the referentiality shifts and the we no longer refers to the group of Issei women but to their white American neighbors. The collective voice, however, does not only refer to the side protagonists on the story level who share a neighborhood with the majority of the Issei women. Rather, it is inclusive of all Americans of the time who stood by and watched Japanese immigrants being interned and labeled as "alien". The opening sentence of the chapter is already telling: "The Japanese have disappeared from our town" (Buddha 115, my emphasis). They consider the town to be their own – a place where they "allow" the Japanese to settle. This oppositional "us vs. them" approach is not only an evident technique in the final chapter to characterize the Americans in relation to the "other", the Japanese. It is also efficient the other way around.


1 Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine (2002) will be referenced as “Emperor” throughout this paper

2 Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (2011) will be referenced as “Buddha” throughout this paper

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Collective Trauma and Its Narrative Techniques. Julie Otsuka’s "When the Emperor Was Divine" and "The Buddha in the Attic"
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
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collective, trauma, narrative, techniques, julie, otsuka’s, when, emperor, divine, buddha, attic
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Marnie Hensler (Author), 2020, Collective Trauma and Its Narrative Techniques. Julie Otsuka’s "When the Emperor Was Divine" and "The Buddha in the Attic", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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