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What It Was Like: Building Empathy with Historical Fiction

This post is written by member Jessica Tyson. 

jessicatysonJulie Otsuka’s beautiful novel When the Emperor Was Divine begins with a quiet moment. A woman stops on the street in Berkeley, California. She reads a sign posted to a telephone pole. She writes a note to herself on a scrap of paper and heads home.

This quotidian scene doesn’t promise much for some restless ninth graders in my English classes. Reading aloud, as I always do when we begin a novel together, I move around my classroom to ensure that everyone stays with me. But a few more pages in, my vigilance is no longer needed. The story turns, students sit up in their chairs, and by the time the bell rings, the class is arguing heatedly about what they’ve just read: back at her house, the woman beckons an obedient family pet. The dog does what it’s told—and she kills it with one determined stroke of a shovel.

The dominant reaction to this scene in the classroom every year is one of vehement recrimination. Even for those who aren’t animal lovers, the idea of killing one’s family dog is anathema. However, before long a student or two will usually raise a different perspective: what if the woman has no choice but to kill her dog? What if this terrible thing is actually a good thing?

The reasoning behind this seemingly topsy-turvy logic is sound. The students who bring it up are the ones who are first to make the connection between this strange scene and the larger historical context we’ve been studying. Otsuka’s novel is a work of historical fiction set during World War Two. It is about Japanese internment, when the United States government removed more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, from their homes and sent them to camps and detention centers scattered across the country. By the time I begin reading the novel with my students every year, I have introduced the basic outlines of this history. When we finish reading the first chapter of the book, I pass out a reproduction of a sign much like the one the woman in the book reads on the telephone pole. Students confront the same sign the woman sees, and formulate a new question: Is the woman, in committing this cruel act, being kind?

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Civilian exclusion order #5, posted at First and Front streets, directing removal by April 7 of persons of Japanese ancestry, from the first San Francisco section to be affected by evacuation

Yes, some students begin to argue. Perhaps, they say, the woman kills the family dog because she wants to spare her children some small uncertainty in the face of looming unknowns. The sign on the telephone pole tells her that no pets will be allowed where they’re going. She knows that her children will be upset if they have to consider what to do with the dog. So she gets rid of the dog.

Not all students are convinced. (Couldn’t she just give the dog to a neighbor?) But they are all wrestling with a question whose answer had seemed straightforward but now appears much more complex than they realized. Otsuka’s novel is one of my favorites to teach because it engages my students in precisely this way. It asks the reader to contemplate a moment in history which so distorted people’s lives that killing a dog might have been a kind act. This adjustment of assumptions, and the attendant discomfort of changing one’s mind, is the very mechanism of building empathy. In considering the woman’s action kind and not cruel once we understand its larger context, we put ourselves in the woman’s place, at least for a moment, moving from judgment to empathy.

Last year, I asked my students to reflect on what they had learned from reading When the Emperor Was Divine as part of their study of Japanese internment. Many of their responses used the phrase “what it was like.” “I learned what it was like to be in the internment camps,” one student wrote. Another said, “I learned what it was like for people who experienced incarceration.” Students didn’t just learn what happened; they learned what it was like to live through it.

There are good reasons to teach Julie Otsuka’s novel today. In addition to helping students build historical empathy, I believe there is a chance that reading about distant lives can help us learn empathy for those around us today. When the Emperor Was Divine is a difficult story about difficult history. It can be deeply unsettling to teach and to learn about a moment in our country’s past that was identified at the time and has been rightly described ever since as a source of national shame. It can be hard to reconcile the historical reality of Japanese internment with American ideals, past and present. However, the difficulty of this story does not excuse us from teaching it. Indeed, in our present moment, filled with xenophobic rhetoric, building empathy is more important than ever.

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Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war. Photographer: Dorothea Lange

Jessica Tyson is a public high school English and history teacher from Oakland, California. This year she is on sabbatical in Philadelphia, working on projects ranging from assisting student researchers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to helping Philly teachers implement curriculum from Poetry Inside Out