Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the AtticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lovely poemovella. Or novellem? How would one categorize this hybrid poem-novella? Whatever its genre, it is without a doubt eloquent and unforgettable. Within this slim volume the history of 20th century Issei and Nisei – first and second generation Japanese immigrants to the western hemisphere – is told by Japanese women, who must “blend into a room”, who must “be present without appearing to exist.” Otsuka gives these women fearless, tender, angry, sorrowful voices and dares you to not hear.

Countless ships of “picture brides” arrived at docks in California from Japan at the end of World War I. These young girls clutched photographs of handsome young men they would meet for the first time. The mail-order brides were terrified by the uncertainties of living in America, of becoming wives and lovers to strangers. They were ill from the long voyage at sea and desperately homesick – although most had been sent to America to relieve their families of financial burden; they knew their only future was before them, their only home the one they would build with their stranger-husbands. “Deep down, though, most of us were really very happy, for soon we would be in America with our new husbands, who had written to us many times over the months.” Their men had written of good jobs, large homes and shiny cars.

Of course, with very few exceptions, these promises were lies. These women left lives as laborers in Yamaguchi rice paddies or Osaka brothels to become laborers in California fields or maids in mansions. But they survived, creating homes and businesses with their husbands and children, most keeping to the shelter of the local Japanese community – either by choice or by expectation – until the onset of Word War II. And then they, along with their families, neighborhoods and communities, disappeared.

The story is familiar; it is Otsuka’s style that makes this work revelatory. It is told in an incantatory fashion, by a chorus of a thousand unified voices. Rather than relying on the traditional arc of plot and character development, Otsuka reveals the experience of a generation of immigrants through the poetic sweep of images and emotions. It is a song of oral history tamed by a pen, but only just so.

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

  1. Absolutely fascinating book! Was familiar with removal of Japanese during WWII – as I was a teenager at that time. Also have read some other books dealing with topic. However, this book – and the style in which it is written – just grabbe me and kept me reading. I’ve already recommended this book to several friends – and look forward to hearing their reactions. Hope my discussion group will also read it. Thanks so much
    to Ms. Otsuko for writing it. Liz

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  2. Eloquent and unforgettable – I’m loving it already. Always good to read well written, unique voices that remind us of events that invite our compassion and empathy. Thank you for highlighting it.

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    1. Claire, I am struck by the history revealed and emotion conveyed with such economy of words. One of the greatest sources of my reading frustration is over-long, over-done narratives. Otsuka’s writing underscores the value in telling only the story that wants to be told. Nothing more. I’m humbled.

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  3. I will have to try this book again. Started it on the Clipper heading to Seattle with Allie and just could not connect with the style. It certainly is a fascinating topic. Perhaps when I am better able to foucs I will appreciate this book and its meditative style

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  4. Nice work on your post, I used to be an Asian Studies major in college, and I still have a soft spot for Japanese history/culture. I somehow missed learning about “picture brides” and so forth, but I am familiar to some degree with all the movement of the Japanese to camps on the west coast during the time of WWII. Interesting stuff, thanks again!

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my review, James!
      I spent a summer in Kyoto teaching English and returned to the Tokyo area a few years later on an extended business trip. It is a culture that holds endless fascination for me- so many contrasts, such a rich history. It is a beautiful, complex country. One of few places where I would like to live again for a long stretch.
      The story of their oppression and internment in the United States is too easily forgotten, not to mention the bravery of and sacrifices endured by the young women who were sent as “brides”. This is such a lovely, sad book.

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