Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha In The Attic
by Julie Otsuka
Published August 2011 by Knopf 
144 pages

Publisher's Summary: 
A novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as "picture brides" nearly a century ago. 

In eight unforgettable sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces the extraordinary lives of these women, from their arduous journeys by boat, to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; from their experiences raising children who would later reject their culture and language, to the deracinating arrival of war. 

Julie Otsuka has written a spellbinding novel about identity and loyalty, and what it means to be an American in uncertain times.

My Thoughts: 
This is one of those books that's been on my radar for years, but like so many books, it just keep sliding down the list of books to read (because, you know, shiny new books). But when I made my book club read a 500 page book in February, I knew I needed to give them a short read in March and suddenly this one popped to the top of the list. The Buddha In The Attic has everything in a novel that I want when I pick books for my book club: diversity, uncomfortable themes (and history), and timely themes. 

The Buddha In The Attic has the added advantage of being written in an entirely unique way. Told from a first-person-plural point of view, there are no characters that readers will follow throughout the book. Repeatedly Otsuka refers to "we" or "our," allowing her to tell many stories at once, in a cadence that is nearly poetic and often hypnotizing. It would have been impossible, without needing 800 pages, to tell so many stories if each option of what these women lived through had been told by a specific individual woman. These women come to the United States as "picture brides" for Japanese men who were already here. Most had been deceived into accepting the marriage but most had very little choice, regardless. Many found good lives with good men, more had very hard lives, often with very hard men. Some ended up in brothels. 
"On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some o us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the oat we wore the same old kimonos we'd been wearing for years...Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters o fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives." 
The women adapted. Areas developed that were strictly for the Japanese. Many became housekeepers or worked in shops, or did laundry. They farmed. They had families. Their children sometimes died, sometimes turned from their Japanese heritage, often found themselves ostracized both the whites and the Japanese. 

Only in the final section do we get the point of view of a white woman, describing the town she lives in after the Japanese have gone. Some she says, are happy to see them gone, some sorry, others wondering if they should have done more. 
"We wonder if it wasn't somehow all our fault. Perhaps we should have petitioned the Mayer. The governor. The President himself. Please let them stay. Or simply knocked on their doors and offered to help. If only, we say to ourselves, we'd known." 

"People begin to demand answers. Did the Japanese go to the reception centers voluntarily, or under duress? What is their ultimate destination? Why were we not informed of their departure in advance? Who, if anyone, will intervene on their behalf? Are they innocent? Are they guilty? Are they even really gone? Because isn't it odd that no one we know actually saw them leave." 

But how quickly the Japanese are forgotten. They're places in society taken up by others; their names blurring, their faces even more so. It feels a bit jarring to end the novel with a chapter told from the white point of view but it works as a reminder of how easy it is for those of us with power and privilege to stand by in the face of injustice, to move on with our lives, to succumb to fear mongering. It's a reminder to readers that, while this novel is a work of historical fiction, it could just as easily have been written about current events. History does, indeed, repeat itself. 

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