Julie Otsuka – The Buddha in the Attic

Those of you who’ve been following this blog might remember that I was born in Japan and that I lived there again for several years after finishing university. I tend to think of Japan as my second home—home in the sense of one’s origins, the place that helped create you. The US and Japan tend to flip-flop with Switzerland at the top of my list of countries that I think the most about – politics, history, literature. I’ll never have a Japanese passport and my Japanese has become woefully rusty in recent years, but the fact of my being born there means that I read books about Japan with more than just my usual curiosity.

This is the context that I couldn’t help carrying with me into my reading of Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. I read an excerpt of this very slim novel back in the Spring 2011 issue of Granta; it was called “The Children” and it absolutely stunned me. I’ve studied a considerable bit of Japanese history, especially the Pacific War and the issue of The Comfort Women, but I’ve never done much looking at the Japanese immigrant experience, which is the central question of Otsuka’s book. It begins with a boat full of young Japanese brides, clutching photographs of the men they’ve married but never met. Each chapter then moves forward through what happens to this collective body of women: meeting their husbands, working in American fields or as servants or running laundries, having children, raising first-generation Japanese-American children, and relationships with “white” people. Eventually Otsuka makes her way to World War II and the internment of the Japanese-Americans.

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the book is that Otsuka writes this novel in the first-person plural with the occasional bit of italicized dialogue to conjure up an individual voice. When I encountered this in the Granta excerpt, it is part of what gripped me, perhaps because it ends up reading like a long prose poem and creates a sustained emotional involvement in the narrative:

We laid them down gently, in ditches and furrows and wicker baskets beneath the trees. We left them lying naked, atop blankets, on woven straw mats at the edges of the fields. We placed them in wooden apple boxes and nursed them every time we finished hoeing a row of beans. When they were older, and more rambunctious, we sometimes tied them to chairs. (…) But when they tired and began to cry out for us we kept on working because if we didn’t we knew we would never pay off the debt on our lease. Mama can’t come. And after a while their voices grew fainter and their crying came to a stop. And at the end of the day when there was no more light in the sky we woke them up from wherever it was they lay sleeping and brushed the dirt from their hair. It’s time to go home.

Before starting the entire book, however, I worried that this particular narrative perspective would start to wear after fifty pages or so, but that isn’t the case, at least it wasn’t for me. I admit that my interest in Japanese history might make me less objective than others. In any case, the book reads really quickly (it’s only 129 pages) and is quite beautiful. Otsuka presents the diversity of the immigrant experience through a first-person plural narrator that manages, quite cleverly, to be both many women and one woman all at the same time. At the very end she affects a subtle shift in perspective that closes the story in a meaningful way; I thought this was really well done.

Apparently her earlier novel, When the Emperor was Divine, is more specifically about the internment experience. It is fitting then that The Buddha in the Attic doesn’t go further than the packing and the leaving and the subsequent emptiness. The disappearance of the Japanese from their homes.

My final comment about the book is that it was curiously uninterested in anger. Otsuka is writing about the treatment of “foreigners” in American society but she does this without laying blame at anyone’s feet. It’s quite fascinating how she manages to do this. It’s all very gentle, really. And yet still provocative.

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11 Comments on “Julie Otsuka – The Buddha in the Attic”

  1. imaginatemum says:

    Wonderful review, wbnderful book. My brother gave me this book and I savoured and relished every word. It was stunning.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I’ve been wondering about this book and you have convinced me that it is one I will like. So onto my TBr list it goes!

    • Michelle says:

      Especially with your love of poetry, Stefanie. I really do think you’ll enjoy this. I will be curious to hear whether the first-person plural starts to get old for you, but like I said, the book is quite short, so you don’t actually have that much time with it.

  3. I like the sound of this book and it sounds like a precursor to ‘The Hotel of Bitter and Sweet’ which I recently read. The prose sounds wonderful, thank you for an engaging review.

    • Michelle says:

      I’ll have to have a look for The Hotel of Bitter and Sweet then – so thank you for mentioning it.

      • You can check out the review on my blog if you are interested and one of my commenters also mentions some amazing photos which I linked to in the comments, stunning images which movingly portray this sad period in history.

  4. adevotedreader says:

    I was similarly moved and impressed by The Children in Granta and have been meaning to read this novel. I’m glad to hear you didn’t find the use of the first-person plural wearying over a longer narrative- I enjoyed both The Virgin Suicides and Then We Came to The End which use it, but admit I always approach such books with trepidation.

    Not being American, I first came across the history of Japanese-American immigration and internment via Snow Falling on Cedars, another gentle but provocative read. Very painful history I’m afraid- as these photos I saw recently illustrate.

  5. suejupp says:

    A rather belated comment (with apologies): if you ever have time in your extensive reading, I would recommend Canadian poet Joy Kogawa’s novel “Obasan” as a beautifully written story of internment … and more.

  6. I definitely want to read this. I remember reading about the Granta excerpt and the use of the “we”–and was curious about how it sustained.

  7. Biblibio says:

    I actually just checked this out of the library yesterday. I’ve been interested ever since you first mentioned it, and I’m really curious to see how the first-person plural plays out. A short, gentle yet provocative read sounds quite perfect right about now.


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