The Buddha in the Attic
By Julie Otsuka
Published in 2011
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
I purchased this book myself for the purposes of book club.
What possesses someone to pack up everything they own and move to a country they have never been to before, especially when they don't speak very much of the language nor understand very much of the culture of their destination country? Necessity? A dream of a better life? Wanderlust? Love? For the group of young Japanese women in this novel it was a bit of everything. They were to be married to men who they had only heard about through written letters and a single photograph. Leaving their lives, their families, their culture and their comfort zone, they set out across the ocean for America. When they arrived the reality that faced them was devastatingly different to their hopes and expectations.
Through first person plural narration, Otsuka presents the collective experiences of these women, divided thematically by significant events – from their first night as wives to childbirth to their removal from the towns and cities along the Pacific coast during World War Two. As a result of this narrative style and thematic organization there isn't a traditional plot with a beginning middle and an end. Rather the experience of reading the stories of many comes to be almost like a meditation on lives past. The choice to present this material in this way is a wise one, I think, as to do anything other than present the simple facts could create a potential emotional overload for the reader. This is not only because of the number of different perspectives and stories but also because of the confronting nature of the content within.
I remember very clearly the first time I discovered that Japanese Americans and Canadians had been removed from their homes and livelihoods during the Second World War when I read Obasan by Joy Kogawa for a postgraduate trauma literature paper. I'd had no idea that this kind of thing had happened and to be honest, I was shocked by what I learned. It hadn't mattered if these people had lived there half of their lives, or if they had been born there and were therefore citizens – in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt authorized the exclusion of all people of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific coastline and housed them in war interment camps inland. Like I said – it's confronting stuff. But let's forget for a moment all of the why's and the wherefores of this decision. Let's hold off on the pointing of fingers and the placement of blame and guilt and focus on what it is that Otsuka is telling us to do – to listen to the voices that couldn't be heard back then.
These voices are not only of the Japanese who were interred but also of their neighbors who were very much affected by their removal. The last chapter is written from the perspective of these neighbors which shows that at first they were worried, upset and guilty about the way the Japanese had been treated. But as time passes and new stores open in place of Mr. Harada's grocery or the Imanashi Transfer, and the Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry notices fade and blow away with a stronger breeze than usual, so too do the feelings and the memories. People move on. It seems cold but it is after all, human nature to let go of things that do not continue to affect you on a daily basis. Especially when your country is about to become involved in the worst war this world has ever seen.
Otsuka's novella is an attempt to reestablish these lost stories and assure their place within the narrative of America's history. As the title suggests, it is time for it to be taken down out of the attic, dusted off and examined, honestly and with an open heart and mind. As with many novels that deal with subjects of uncomfortable moments in history this is not an uplifting read. It presents us, the present day reader, with a slice of a time gone by told through the imagined voices of those who experienced it. It's a tale of belonging, of inner strength, of cultural struggles and of real life. It's a timely reminder of how far we have come in this world, but also, perhaps, how much further we have yet to go.