Julie Otsuka's Poetic Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka
Anchor (144 p.) 978-0307744425
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This recent winner of a Pen/Faulkner prize is poetic point-of-view saga of Japanese ‘picture brides,’ young women arranged to be married to Japanese men who immigrated to San Francisco. As the term suggests, all they knew of their future husbands was what could be inferred from their photos and, in some cases, letters sent by the affianced. Otsuka follows these women from their stormy passage across the Pacific to their new lives, new families, new roles, and new social standings in America.

A shipboard line sums up much of what the women encounter: “This is America, we would say to ourselves. There is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.” The first shock was the discovery that the men in the pictures were often not as handsome or young in real life, or that the content of the letters was filled with exaggerations and falsehoods. Their new American "home” might consist of a chicken coop, a barn, a box car, or a room behind a shop; if one was lucky, perhaps a humble house.

Otsuka‘s story of immigrants coping to adjust and assimilate is now a familiar one; we’ve long known that the melting pot was ideal and myth, not reality. But Otsuka also makes us see, through women’s eyes, the manner in which gender, culture, and race complicated immigrant dreams. Very few names appear in Otsuka’s novel and it's almost entirely written in the first-person plural. “We” is used to make the reader see experience from women’s points of view and to infer both the variety of those experiences and their underlying similarity. Patriarchy, domesticity, and hard work for instance, were givens. In a short, but powerful chapter titled “First Night,” Otsuka captures the initial encounter with sex with a pointed and poignant sentence: “They took us quickly.”

Each of Otsuka’s chapter headings signal the life experience contained therein—“Babies,” the variety of circumstances in which women gave birth; “Whites” the encounter between East and West. Most of the women were strangers in a strange land whose only link between Japan and the United States were husbands—also strangers (in both senses). As the women gained some facility with English and, in some cases, acquired white neighbors, they learned exactly how ‘foreign’ they were perceived to be. Many felt the despair social and cultural disconnectuin. As Otsuka puts it, “We forgot abut Buddha. We forgot about God….” Many encountered overt racism, but all learned to be suspicious even when they encountered smiles and outward friendliness. That would prove wise. Otsuka’s action covers the decades up to and including World War II, when West Coast Japanese and Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Otsuka titles these chapters “Traitors” and “A Disappearance.”

This is a short book, a wise decision given that the (nearly exclusive) use of the first-person plural means we are drawn into a collective worldview in which there are few individual stories to follow for more than a few sentences. Otsuka’s prose is at once eloquent and spare, a style that elides detail to all that we need to comprehend, but which also threatens to grow tiresome. Sometimes it's as if we are reading a chronicle with commentary. But even when the points are belabored, one must give high marks to Otsuka for her bold approach, the clarity with which she shows cultural differences, and—above all—for putting us behind the eyes of often nameless women. She forces us to think of the things one takes on a journey and what one is forced to leave behind. More poignantly still, what would you, the reader, take and leave behind if you knew your journey was a one-way passage to a land utterly unlike your own?
 --Rob Weir

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