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The Buddha in the Attic

Aug 30, 2015

Japanese_brides_1920sIf I were to write a novel about the experience of a large group of people, I might choose to identify one or two characters and examine their lives in depth. I think most authors would go this way.

But in her novel, The Buddha in the Attic, Pen/Faulkner Award winner and National Book Award Finalist Julie Otsuka successfully tells the story of an entire population of immigrant Japanese women. From their appearance on western America’s shores as picture brides in the early 20th century, to their almost-disappearance in the Japanese internment of World War II, Otsuka gives voice to their lives with the most effective use of first person plural I’ve ever seen. Such an unconventional style (“we” instead of “I” or “they”) demands a good reason for using it.

 

Newly arrived picture brides in the registry room at Angel Island, 1916. Kichiko Okada (third from the right) recalled putting on her silk kimono “to look her best” for her husband Jiro Okada just before the ship landed in San Francisco. / Courtesy California State Parks, 2010

Newly arrived picture brides in the registry room at Angel Island, 1916. Kichiko Okada (third from the right) recalled putting on her silk kimono “to look her best” for her husband Jiro Okada just before the ship landed in San Francisco. / Courtesy California State Parks, 2010

 

Each new wave of immigrants to America is and has always been the new group to hate. The Japanese were hated when they first arrived, vilified by their neighbors and finally imprisoned when, even after some of them had raised families and grown old here, their country of origin attacked Pearl Harbor. Otsuka tells the whole story—everyone’s story—in a kind of poetic list that gives the novel a feeling of universal experience.

 

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The story begins on the ship, with the women making the arduous voyage to America. They share secrets and fears. Like mail order brides, they’ve never met the men they are to marry. But they have hopes:

On the boat we crowded into each other’s bunks every night and stayed up for hours discussing the unknown continent ahead of us. The people there were said to eat nothing but meat and their bodies were covered with hair (we were mostly Buddhist, and did not eat meat, and only had hair in the appropriate places)…The language was ten times as difficult as our own and the customs were unfathomably strange. Books were read from back to front and soap was used in the bath. Noses were blown on dirty cloths that were stuffed back into pockets only to be taken out later and used again and again. The opposite of white was not red, but black. What would become of us, we wondered, in such an alien land?

The story unfolds in a chronology of their shared experience: the ship, the men, the sex (some terrifying, some satisfying), the work, the children…

A few of us were unable to have them, and this was the worst fate of all. For without an heir to carry on the family name the spirits of our ancestors would cease to exist.

The children grow, change, assimilate and aspire to their own dreams. Their parents become part of their communities, at least in some ways. But when World War II looms they all learn how tenuous was their neighbors’ acceptance of them. They are betrayed. Rumors, fear and mysterious threats all begin to freeze the Japanese out of American society further than they already were.

 

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Otsuka is deft in showing detail even when she speaks broadly of a group experience. Each sentence tells a story.

Every evening, at dusk, we began burning our things: old bank statements and diaries, Buddhist family altars, wooden chopsticks, paper lanterns, photographs of our unsmiling relatives back home in the village in their strange country clothes. ‘I watched my brother’s face turn to ash and float up into the sky.’

This list-like pattern gives the prose a relentless and at the same time rhythmic progress to the inevitable end. In this way, as the author itemizes struggle after sentiment after hope, we live the lives of the mothers, the wives, the cleaning ladies, the laundresses, the prostitutes, the cooks and the farmers. Otsuka tells all their stories as one abundant, over-filling heart of a story in a mere 129 pages.

The Buddha in the Attic refers to everything they leave behind when they depart for the camps. As they walk away from their homes and farms and towns and friends toward an uncertain future, they carry few possessions except, once again, their hopes. And we are awed at the enormity of the tragedy of internment, and wish we could go back and change it.

 

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Congressional committee members examine passports of Japanese picture brides at the immigration station of Angel Island, Calif., July 25, 1920. Credit Bettmann/Corbis

Congressional committee members examine passports of Japanese picture brides at the immigration station of Angel Island, Calif., July 25, 1920. Credit Bettmann/Corbis

 

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Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.

Petrea’s novel, Camelot & Vine, can be bought locally at the Pasadena Museum of History, Hoopla! in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse. The ebook version is available on Amazon.com.

Petrea’s new release Act As If is available from Amazon (Kindle and paperback), and locally at Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, as well as at Hoopla! in Altadena.

 

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