Julie Otsuka's novel When the Emperor Was Divine (2002) retells the trauma of the Japanese American imprisonment through the lens of fictional characters taken from their "white house on the wide street in Berkeley not far from the sea" to "the scorched white earth of the desert" (74, 23). The Topaz Internment Camp in Utah's Sevier Desert, where these characters were forcibly relocated, sits on the site of an ancient inland sea, Lake Bonneville, which submerged that barren desert ground some ten thousand years ago. The paleolake serves as a displaced but active character in Otsuka's novel that shapes the characters' understanding of their traumatic experience and their ability to work through it. Rather than serving as an actor in disorientation, the ancient sea actually enables reorientation, affording the characters a new understanding of self and place. In developing this sea-oriented analysis of the internment, I call upon theory from trauma scholars Judith Herman and Dominick LaCapra and archipelagic thinkers like Epeli Hau'ofa and Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, who have reoriented our understandings of islands, continents, and the concept of home. With these thinkers as interlocutors, my archipelagic reading of When the Emperor Was Divine advances a model for understanding the ocean as a mediator and a symbol through which traumatic experiences are acted out, worked through, refracted, and reoriented. This essay relies on the interaction of"”or the potential for mutual illumination between"”two emergent arenas of study: critical desert studies and critical ocean and island studies. It thus becomes a frame through which archipelagic thought can become a collaborator for the contingent working through of trauma and, ultimately, a reimagination of notions of home and reorientation.



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Humanities; English



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trauma, archipelagic thought, reorientation, Japanese American internment