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Minnesota State University, Mankato
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Common Read Program Inspires Communal Art

Julie Otsuka's "When the Emperor was Divine," is this year's Common Read book.

Kristine Goodrich, Mankato Free Press, 9-18-2016

EDITOR'S NOTE: A complete list of Common Read events is available online here.

Minnesota State University, Mankato students and staff are folding hundreds of paper cranes while they read about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The book they’re reading is Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor was Divine,” chosen by Minnesota State Mankato as the annual Common Read book. “Emperor” is a novel about a Japanese American family sent to an internment camp during World War II. Published in 2002, the book was inspired by Otsuka’s family history.

Her grandfather was arrested by the FBI as a suspected spy and her grandmother, mother and uncle spent three years in a Utah internment camp.

The broader community is also invited to participate in Common Read, which includes multiple book discussions, a documentary viewing, photography exhibit and community art project.

“It’s a piece of American history that a lot of people aren’t aware of,” said Monika Antonelli, Minnesota State Mankato reference/outreach librarian and chairwoman of the Common Read planning committee.

Now in its seventh year, the aim of Common Read is to inspire dialogue across campus about history and social issues, Antonelli said.

“We look for books that make you think and hopefully grow as a person,” she said. It’s always a “tricky” selection process looking for a discussion-worthy book that has broad appeal and an author who is available to visit Minnesota State Mankato in the fall, the librarian said. The Common Read committee has four themes that it looks for: cultural diversity, coming of age, citizenship and life transitions.

After six years of discussions inspired by non-fiction books, the Common Read planners decided it was time for a work of fiction. They invited suggestions via an electronic survey and read each before selecting “When the Emperor was Divine,” Antonelli said.

Otsuka (pictured below) will visit Minnesota State Mankato on Oct. 19 and 20. In addition to a keynote speech, she’ll participate in a Q& A, book signing and discussion about writing.

The Common Read committee partnered with a number of campus departments and organizations to plan a number of additional book discussions and educational events about Japanese American internment, including a documentary showing and a display of internment camp photographs curated by art professor Gina Mumma Wenger. All events are free and open to the public.

Most unique this year is the 1,000 Peace Crane Project. Students, staff and the community are invited to make origami cranes and write a wish on them. Cranes are symbols of peace and prosperity, according to Antonelli. Japanese legend promises a wish to anyone who folds 1,000 cranes. An origami crane is depicted on the cover of “When the Emperor was Divine.”

Art department faculty member Liz Miller will lead her classes in assembling the cranes into pieces of art that will hang in the library, the student union and performing arts building. The design plans for the collaborative works of art are being kept a surprise; Antonelli only knows they will be suspended in the air. The art installations are scheduled to make their debuts on or around Oct. 8.

“The cranes idea just grew organically from meeting with campus partners. One thing lead to another and it became this big project,” Antonelli said.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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