Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is extraordinary. I’ve read nothing quite like it. It’s a novel that reads like a short history (130 pages) and a free-form poem. The characters are not particular individuals, but rather the Japanese American community and white America. The time frame is from the turn of the century until 1943, when Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps. In all my years as a reader, I can think of only two novels made me truly cry: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and J.K. Rowling’s Deathly Hallows. Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic has joined the list.
Let’s start by saying that Julie Otsuka is an absolute marvel of a writer. The story she tells is rooted in the history of 20th century Japanese immigration to California and the experience of that generation and their children. Otsuka is meticulous with historical detail, which she provides in abundance. In her acknowledgements, she provides a lengthy list of the materials she consulted to inform her novel. The story unfolds in chronological order from the female perspective. The first chapter shows young Japanese women on a boat to California, going to marry men they’ve never met but with whom they have corresponded. Then comes the arrival in California and the reality of this new life with a man who is not what they expected, hard work, then childbirth, continued work, raising children in an alien culture, trying to assimilate, learning to keep a low profile, and finally, the round up and shipment out of California.
Yet it’s the way Otsuka constructs this novel from those historical facts that blows me away. I can only describe it as a sort of verbal pointillism. Rather than giving the reader a handful of fictional characters who might serve as examples of a type of Japanese experience in America, Otsuka describes simply and beautifully every type of experience. It’s a daring approach to novel writing and could have become a muddled and overwhelming mess, but Otsuka exercises the deft touch of an artist. Here is part of her description of the young women on the boat to California:
Some of us …were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of use were farmers’ daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine. Some of us were from a small mountain hamlet in Yamanashi and had only recently seen our first train. Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others.
Even though we don’t have one particular character to follow, the reader is drawn into the frightening new lives that these women must lead: the various experiences of a first night with their husbands; the disappointment at finding that he is neither handsome nor prosperous; the reality of hard work that might have shamed them at home or was similar to the work they thought they had left behind. Otsuka takes readers to the fields, where Japanese sharecroppers grow fruits, vegetables and tend orchards; to brothels; to private homes, where Japanese women worked as maids, a most shameful occupation and hidden from their families back home; to laundries, grocers’ shops and restaurants, usually located in the “Japantowns” of California cities. We learn about the experience of childbirth for these women, as well as the experience of child death. And we learn about the Japanese community’s relationship to white Americans. Their husbands, who have lived in the US longer, tell them to avoid interaction with whites if possible but to be polite and accommodating if they must. We made ourselves small for them …and did our best not to offend. Still they gave us a hard time. In order to save the money to get back to Japan or lease land or start a business, immigrants worked very hard and very long hours, and rarely achieved their dream. This industriousness caused resentment, jealousy and vicious rumors:
We were taking over their cauliflower industry, We had taken over their spinach industry. We had a monopoly on their strawberry industry and had cornered their market on beans. We were an unbeatable, unstoppable economic machine and if our progress was not checked the entire western United States would soon become the next Asiatic outpost and colony.
After Pearl Harbor, it was easy for white resentment to turn into fear and hatred of the Japanese. Otsuka’s final three chapters, entitled “Traitors,” “Last Day,” and “A Disappearance” are heartbreaking. She takes us into the experience of Japanese fear as rumors build of the Japanese being rounded up and sent away, as husbands disappear overnight, as white neighbors take advantage of the travel restrictions and curfew placed on Japanese (who also had to register with authorities) to loot and burn their property, and even turn a profit selling their Japanese neighbors the supplies they would need to take on their journey to who-knows-where. When the notices are posted instructing Japanese Americans when and where to congregate for their forced evacuation east, some experience relief; the wait is finally over. On that last day,
Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. One of us left with her hand held over her mouth and hysterically laughing. A few of us were drunk. Others of us left quietly, with heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed…. Most of us left speaking only English, so as not to anger the crowds that had gathered to watch us go. Many of us had lost everything and left saying nothing at all. All of us left wearing white numbered identification tags tied to our collars and lapels.
The final chapter is told from the white American point of view and demonstrates a sort of “white privilege” obliviousness that should serve as a lesson to us all. Some are glad to be rid of their Japanese neighbors who made them feel “uneasy,” and, as they purchase exotic items from the Far East in pawn shops and second hand stores, they prefer not to think about how those items got there. Others miss their neighbors, worry about them, pray for them, but over the course of a year, it becomes harder to remember them. All traces that the Japanese lived among them are gone.
The Buddha in the Attic is perhaps the most creative novel that I’ve read both in its form and its content. Small wonder that it won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. This is the sort of novel that you wish everyone would read — students, legislators, presidential candidates. But the sad fact is that some people are so damn dumb and hateful and fearful that even this exquisitely written novel wouldn’t be able to pierce their invincible ignorance. Still, even those of us who “mean well” are screwing it up if we aren’t paying attention to who is missing from the table, who is not included, whose voice is not being heard. This novel is a timely reminder of that. If I could, I would give The Buddha in the Attic 10 stars, but I’ll have to settle for five.