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.