Having tackled the subject of Japanese internment camps in her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, Julie Otsuka turns now to the American dream. The Buddha in the Attic tells the collective story of a community of women who emigrate from Japan to marry the handsome and successful young Japanese-American men that have been courting them in letters. These men, they believe, will save them from a host of problems facing them in their native land: poverty, social ostracization, spinsterhood, a lifetime of hard labor. When they arrive, they are greeted by older men, many of them farm laborers, and it becomes clear that they have been lured to California to pick strawberries, clean houses, wash other people’s fine clothes, and stay perpetually pregnant.
Their stories will end in the internment camps, to which they are whisked away one by one and then everyone all at once. “Some of us went out and began buying sleeping bags and suitcases for our children, just in case we were next. Others of us went about our work as usual and tried to remain calm. A little more starch on this collar and it’s be fine, now, don’t you think?”
There is not one set of named main characters. Rather, using repetition and first person plural, Otsuka creates a community of voices that articulates the contrast of cultural experiences between the categorized Japanese new immigrants and their individualized American counterparts. Though each woman has her own story, it is told through the sieve of the group. The community is in and of itself a unique character. This style of writing has the similar effect to walking through a holocaust museum; the many thousands of discarded shoes, glasses and clothes; the profound and oppressive realization that each item has its own unique story and, yet, the individual has been erased, replaced with the collective identity of “victim.”
The immediate impression is that Otsuka’s writing is more like poetry than prose. From the beginning: “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 as young girls and had bowed legs, and some of 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 may more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years…” The repetition continues and we flit from one woman’s thoughts to another, sometimes in the same sentence, to great emotional effect. Even as the characters’ experiences vary to the extreme, there is no divorcing them from the collective.
The style poses many questions regarding identity, the immigrant experience and our cultural perception of the individual/the community. But most appealing is Otsuka’s fresh approach to narrative style. It is the perfect example of form-bending to suit an author’s thematic needs (rather than mere self-indulgence), and it is done as only an artist-turned-writer could. By eliminating the role of traditional named characters, Otsuka charges the narrative with a foreignness (what, no individual? This is not something we American readers are used to.) that is exotic and uncomfortable and completely other, which exactly reflects the experiences of the Japanese immigrant women.
Thank you, Leslie, from Inkwood Books for the recommendation.