The Buddha in the attic

Julie Otsuka, 1962-

Book - 2011

Presents the stories of six Japanese mail-order brides whose new lives in early twentieth-century San Francisco are marked by backbreaking migrant work, cultural struggles, children who reject their heritage, and the prospect of wartime internment.

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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2011.
1st ed
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi book."
Physical Description
129 p. ; 20 cm
Main Author
Julie Otsuka, 1962- (-)
Review by New York Times Review

IN the Japanese art of sumi-e, strokes of ink are brushed across sheets of rice paper, the play of light and dark capturing not just images but sensations, not just surfaces but the essence of what lies within. Simplicity of line is prized, extraneous detail discouraged. Although Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California and trained as a painter in the Western tradition, she seems perfectly attuned to the spirit of sumi-e. Otsuka claims to have been a failure as an artist, but she might only have erred in choosing the wrong medium. Proof arrived almost a decade ago, long after she'd traded painting for writing, with the publication of her first novel, "When the Emperor Was Divine," a spare but resonant portrait of one Japanese-American family's daily life, at home and in the internment camps, during World War II. Now she returns with a second novel, also employing a minimalist technique, that manages to be equally intimate yet much more expansive. Like its predecessor, "The Buddha in the Attic" unfurls as a sequence of linked narratives, some no longer than a paragraph. While it appears to hold the characters at a formal distance, that reticence infuses their stories with powerful emotion. The central figures in Otsuka's first book, a mother and her children identified merely as "the boy," "the girl" and "the woman," were followed from their home in Berkeley to a barracks in the high Utah desert, then back again. As the string of vignettes proceeded, the questions they asked, the observations they made, the illusions they cherished created a bond with the reader. With their sometimes uncomfortably familiar hopes and fears, Otsuka's characters emerged as particular individuals even as their concerns took us far beyond the particulars of the Japanese-American experience. In these nameless people, we confronted our own uncertainties about where we truly belong, where our loyalties lie, where we should place our trust. There are plenty of names in Otsuka's new novel, but this time the cast is composed of an entire community of families. The voice that speaks to us here is the "we" of the Japanese women who arrived in California in the aftermath of World War I, most of them young and inexperienced, most bearing photographs of men they had agreed to marry, sight unseen: "On the boat we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were. That the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs. That the photographs we had been sent were 20 years old. . . . That when we first heard our names being called out across the water one of us would cover her eyes and turn away - I want to go home - but the rest of us would lower our heads and smooth down the skirts of our kimonos and walk down the gangplank and step out into the still warm day. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong." "The Buddha in the Attic" is, in a sense, a prelude to Otsuka's previous book, revealing the often rough acclimatization of a generation of farm laborers and maids, laundry workers and shop clerks whose husbands would take them for granted and whose children would be ashamed of their stilted English and foreign habits. Otsuka's chorus of narrators allows us to see the variety as well as the similarity of these women's attempts to negotiate the maze of immigrant life. Each section of the novel takes them one step further, from the ship to the farm or the shop or the servants' quarters, from bearing their children to watching those children grow up and away, from blindly obeying husbands and employers to making clear-eyed moves toward self-reliance, albeit often of necessity rather than choice. As their families become less Japanese and more American, the women gradually establish a new equilibrium, only to have it shattered in a passage, simply called "Traitors," that returns to the forced removals of World War II. Otsuka's incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry, but it's far from the genteel stereotype of "short, melancholy poems about the passing of autumn that were exactly 17 syllables long." The swift, mostly brutal encounters in "First Night" remove any such illusions: "That night our new husbands took us quickly. . . . They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them. They took us even though we insulted them . . . and screamed out for help (nobody came). . . . They took us cautiously, as though they were afraid we might break. You're so small. They took us coldly but knowledgeably - In 20 seconds you will lose all control - and we knew there had been many others before us. They took us as we stared up blankly at the ceiling and waited for it to be over, not realizing that it would not be over for years." Yet these new husbands are the women's only link to the lost world of their homeland. Some prove to be loving and kind; all, even the cruel ones, offer insight into the strange customs of the Americans on whom the future depends: "Why were they always shouting? Did they really hang dishes on their walls and not pictures? And have locks on all their doors? And wear their shoes inside the house? . . . How many gods did they have? Was it true that they really saw a man in the moon and not a rabbit? And ate cooked beef at funerals? And drank the milk of cows? And that smell? What was it? 'Butter stink,' our husbands explained." OTSUKA'S novel is filled with evocative descriptive sketches (farm women with their children sleeping "like puppies, on wooden boards covered with hay") and hesitantly revelatory confessions (domestic servants who "felt, for once, like ourselves" when "the whole house was empty. Quiet. Ours."), so it's disappointing suddenly to lose that connection - to find, at the close, that the narrative "we" has shifted to the Americans, who remark on the wartime "disappearance" of Japanese neighbors and employees. Disingenuous ("the Japanese have left us willingly, we are told, and without rancor"), even platitudinous ("after a while we notice ourselves speaking of them more and more in the past tense"), this complacent voice is presumably meant to provide a stark contrast with the vigilant, uneasy perceptions that have preceded it. But Otsuka has succeeded too well in drawing us into the precarious lives of her Japanese wives and mothers. We have no patience with these smug, anonymous overlords. We want to follow the women whose names have been chanted out as they're torn from their new lives: "Kiyono left the farm on White Road convinced she was being punished for a sin she had committed in a previous life. I must have stepped on a spider. Setsuko left her house in Gridley after killing all the chickens in her backyard. Chiye left Glendale still grieving for her oldest daughter, Misuzu. . . . Fumiko left a boarding house in Courtland apologizing for any trouble she might have caused. . . . Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day." Congressional committee members examine passports of Japanese picture brides at the immigration station of Angel Island, Calif., July 25, 1920. Alida Becker is an editor at the Book Review.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 21, 2011] Review by Booklist Review

Otsuka's stunning debut, When the Emperor Was Divine (2002), a concentrated novel about the WWII internment of Japanese Americans, garnered the Asian American Literary Award, the ALA Alex Award, and a Guggenheim. Her second novel tells the stories of Japanese mail-order brides at the start of the twentieth century in a first-person-plural narrative voice, the choral we. This creates an incantatory and haunting group portrait of diverse women who make the arduous ocean journey to California buoyant with hope only to marry strangers nothing like the handsome young men in the photographs that lured them so far from home. Prejudice and hardship soon transform the brides into fingers-worked-to-the-bone laborers, toiling endlessly as domestic workers, farmers, prostitutes, and merchants. Every aspect of female life is candidly broached in Otsuka's concise yet grandly dramatic saga as these determined, self-sacrificing outsiders navigate the white water of American society, only to watch their American-born children disdain all things Japanese. Drawing on extensive research and profoundly identifying with her characters, Otsuka crafts an intricately detailed folding screen depicting nearly five decades of change as the women painstakingly build meaningful lives, only to lose everything after Pearl Harbor. This lyrically distilled and caustically ironic story of exile, effort, and hate is entrancing, appalling, and heartbreakingly beautiful.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In the early 1900s, numerous Japanese mail order brides came to America seeking better lives. Otsuka's (When the Emperor was Divine) latest novel paints a delicate, heartbreaking portrait of these women. Using a collective first-person narrator ("On the boat we were mostly virgins."), Otsuka looks at the experiences of these "picture brides," organizing their stories into themes which include: their arrival in America; their first nights with their husbands; their interactions with white people; their children; and finally, the experience of World War II. Each section is beautifully rendered, a delicate amalgam of contrasting and complementary experiences. Readers will instantly empathize with these unnamed women as they adjust to American culture, a remarkable achievement considering Otsuka's use of the collective voice. Otsuka's prose is precise and rich with imagery. Readers will be inspired to draw their own parallels between the experiences of these women and the modern experience of immigration. By the time readers realize that the story is headed toward the internment of the Japanese, they are hopelessly engaged and will finish this exceptional book profoundly moved. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Library Journal Review

In iridescent colors that flicker, blend, and shimmer between light and dark, Otsuka crafts a communal self-portrait of Japanese women who came to America as picture brides for California's Japanese laborers after World War I. Across four decades of anticipation, bewilderment, backbreaking work, survival, and disillusion, they seek fulfillment, but their hopes may die slowly from accumulating betrayals. Unforgettable. (LJ 8/11) (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

Otsuka, whose first novel (When the Emperor Was Divine, 2003) focused on one specific Japanese-American family's plight during and after internment, takes the broad view in this novella-length consideration of Japanese mail-order brides making a life for themselves in America in the decades before World War II.There are no central characters. A first-person-plural chorus narrates the women's experiences from their departure from Japan until they are removed from their homes and shipped to the camps, at which point the narration is taken over by clueless whites. Rather than following an individual story, Otsuka lists experience after experience, piling name upon name. Voyaging across the Pacific to California, the women's emotions range from fear to excitement, but most, even those leaving behind secret lovers, are hopeful. Reality sets in when they meet their husbands, who are seldom the men they seemed from their letters and photographs. And the men's reactions to their new wives vary as much as the women's. Some are loving, some abusive. For all their differences, whether farm workers, laundrymen, gardeners or struggling entrepreneurs, they share a common outsider status. Soon the majority of women who stay marriedsome die or run off or are abandonedare working alongside their husbands. They begin to have babies and find themselves raising children who speak English and consider themselves American. And the women have become entrenched; some even have relationships with the whites around them; many are financially comfortable. But with the arrival of the war against Japan come rumors. Japanese and white Americans look at each other differently. Loyalty is questioned. Anti-Japanese laws are passed. And the Japanese themselves no longer know whom to trust as more and more of them disappear each day. Once they are truly gone, off to the camps, the whites feel a mix of guilt and relief, then begin to forget the Japanese who had been their neighbors.A lovely prose poem that gives a bitter history lesson.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.