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Community Reflections: Vigo County Public Library

Early this year, the Vigo County Public Library brought Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine to the Wabash Valley. Today, they share with us some of their reflections on their NEA Big Read: the importance of inclusive programming, honoring collective histories, and holding conversations beyond the easy or familiar.

From the beginning

When we chose When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka as our Wabash Valley NEA Big Read, we were intentional in highlighting the fact that this story was not about a Japanese family, but that of Japanese-American citizens. Rather than focusing on the “otherness” in the novel, we tried to highlight the similarities we all share while not minimizing the injustices that took place in our collective history.

The goal of the NEA Big Read program is not only to encourage an entire community to read the same novel but to facilitate meaningful conversation. One of the first decisions we made was to make sure our programming was meaningful and genuinely connected to the text. We wanted to steer clear of cultural appropriation and instead highlight the true themes of the novel.


A community collaborative display at the NEA Big Read closing event. Photo courtesy of the Vigo County Public Library.

Fostering deeper conversations

The most highly anticipated program was the visit by the author of When the Emperor was Divine, Julie Otsuka. As with every other detail of our Big Read program, when picking the menu we decided to avoid Japanese cuisine, not only because we lacked traditional options in rural Indiana, but also because it was unnecessary to focus on just one part of the characters and Julie’s cultural heritage. And when Julie arrived and found out the menu wasn’t sushi and there wasn’t an origami crane in sight she was not only pleased, but relieved.

Though we did have some stereotypical Japanese elements, such as a drop-in origami program and making rice balls with children, these were entry points to facilitate deeper conversation. We pulled audiences in with elements they were familiar with and expected, then used those elements to delve further into the more difficult themes in the novel. Other programs focused more extensively on Japanese culture. Discover Japanese Culture was hosted by the Japan-America Society of Indiana and taught attendees about both traditional and modern Japanese culture. This program was especially important because the speakers not only focused on what day to day life is really like in Japan but also what it’s like to be a recent Japanese-American immigrant.


NEA Big Read participants learning origami. Photo courtesy of the Vigo County Public Library.

Learning through partnership

We also partnered with Arts Illiana ’s Tablescapes in early March, a fundraiser for a local arts’ organization. We designed a table place setting based on When the Emperor was Divine that drew attention to the novel and stayed true to the themes. During the Tablescapes Tea opening event, Zenshin Florence Caplow and Sherri Daily recounted Caplow’s experiences visiting the Manzanar Japanese internment camp in California with an emotional reading of the poem “Shikataganai.” The reading was particularly pertinent because it told the story from a Caucasian woman’s point of view and didn’t try to claim a disingenuous perspective.

One of our partners, The Swope Art Museum in downtown Terre Haute, also hosted an exhibition that perfectly connected to our Big Read novel. In Collaboration: Roger Shimomura & the Lawrence Lithography Workshop was based on Shimomura’s experience in an internment camp himself as a young boy. His work juxtaposes classic Americana imagery with typical depictions of Japanese portraiture. Viewers were moved and left wanting to know more about the Japanese-American experience at this time in history. This led us to have a separate program hosted by Amy Guess from the C.A.N.D.L.E.S. Holocaust Museum and Education Center about the artwork that was created in internment camps.


The Tablescapes display and NEA Big Read team for When the Emperor Was Divine. Photo courtesy of the Vigo County Public Library.


Reading at the Tablescapes Tea. Photo courtesy of the Vigo County Public Library.

Honoring our community

One of the most meaningful programs we hosted was the Local Women’s History event. Rather than looking back or looking forward to the future, we looked around at our neighbors to discover strength and decided to honor Phung Ly, a local small business owner, chef and former refugee from the People’s Republic of China. Ms. Ly told the story of her escape from China during the economic reform period and her subsequent flight from Vietnam by boat during the Sino-Vietnamese War. Ms. Ly’s experience was closely connected to the novel because she did whatever she needed to keep her family safe during difficult times. She was also separated from her husband for thirteen months while he was held in a communist camp in Vietnam leaving her to care for her four children alone. This program was truly powerful and moved many to tears.


Local small business owner, Phung Ly, preparing her remarks. Photo courtesy of the Vigo County Public Library.


Vigo County Public Library’s Sarah Trover presenting Local Women’s History honoree Phung Ly. Photo courtesy of the Vigo County Public Library.

Connecting to younger generations

A challenge we tackled with this NEA Big Read book was how to address the difficult topics in this text in an age-appropriate way to children. Not only did we make read-alike bookmarks with book suggestions for preschool, kids, and teens, but we also held four one-hour programs at our West Branch Spring Break program during the last week of March. During these programs, we highlighted elements of family togetherness and how we communicate with those we love. Attendees made peg dolls to resemble their families and wrote letters to those they care about that were far away. These hands-on experiences were a unique, meaningful way for younger audiences to experience the book.


Children learning to make rice balls at one of the West Branch Spring Break programs. Photo courtesy of the Vigo County Public Library.

Writing the next chapter

Lastly, the most difficult decision we made was how to host a Big Read finale, which has traditionally been a party. It felt inappropriate to host a party about the themes and topics in this book, but eventually, we came to the decision to host an event titled “Writing the Next Chapter.” At this event, we highlighted the progress we have made in building a more inclusive society since the novel’s time period. This event gave attendees the opportunity to connect with their neighbors and to recognize and celebrate both our similarities and differences. Our English as a Second Language program attendees were invited to this event and were a welcome addition. We honored the diversity of the Wabash Valley at this event with music from around the world, unique cultural foods, and opportunities for engagement. It was the perfect closure to a program that truly encapsulated both When the Emperor was Divine, and our community.


Guests conversing at the Writing the Next Chapter event. Photo courtesy of the Vigo County Public Library.