Monday, November 09, 2015

Forgetting Buddha

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

“We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.” 

“And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.”… except… “Haruka left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.”   ― Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

What an intense reading experience. Using simple prose and the first person plural the author creates a unique perspective on a very real historical episode. The story begins, "On the boat we were mostly virgins." That is they were innocents on a voyage to a strange new world; one that would not be what they expected. It would turn out to be a new life that they had dreamed about, but it would sometimes seem more like a nightmare. It is a story told from the point of view of many girls and women, none of whom is individualized as a continuing character, but all of whom are vividly described in a sentence or two.

The first chapter, "Come, Japanese!" describes a boatload of Japanese picture brides coming to California to marry men they have never met; men whom they have no true idea about, for they are entering the unknown. The next chapter, "First Night", tells of the consummation of their marriages with their new husbands, most of whom are nothing like the descriptions they had given. In the following chapter "Whites", the communities of the young women and their husbands are described: "We settled on the edges of their towns, when they would let us."(p 23) There was no assimilation as the women lived lives apart in this foreign country. Some of the women labor as migrant workers living in rural shacks, some become domestic workers living in the servants' quarters of suburban homes, and some set up businesses and living quarters in the "Japantown", or "J-Town", area of big cities. "Babies" tells about giving birth and "Children" about raising American-born children, who want to speak only English and are ashamed of their immigrant parents, but are discriminated against by most of their classmates, neighbors and merchants.

The final chapters depict the terrible impact of the Pearl Harbor attack and World War II on the families: the rumors and increasingly the reality of Japanese men being arrested without warning, the fear and eventually the reality of entire families being sent away to parts unknown. "Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. . . A few of us left drunk. Others of us left quietly, with our heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed." (p 105) "Last Day" tells of the departure of the Japanese from their homes, jobs and schools. Finally, "A Disappearance," is told from the point of view of the white American families left behind, who at first miss their Japanese neighbors but gradually forget about them.

This is a heart-rending look at a culture that was held together by the hard work and discipline of a group of warm-hearted young women. And which was tossed asunder by the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The author raises her prose to the level of poetry with the simplicity and rhythm of her writing. Brilliantly she manages to leaven the hardship with humor while allowing the women share their personal stories. The result is a short novel that cuts deeper and closer to my heart than almost anything I have ever read. It is an emotional look at history that I will never forget.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I cannot imagine what it was like for the picture brides.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War Ii was a terrible black mark on Twentieth Century American history.

It am glad that this books seems to handle such important topics so well.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. It is frightening to realize how easy it was for our government to erase the rights of a large group of United States citizens upending their lives in the process. Julie Otsuka's novel provides a vital perspective from inside one portion of the Japanese American culture. She accomplishes this with a beautiful and poetic style.

R.T. said...

Great review and posting! I have heard about this book, but now -- because of your analysis and assessment -- I'm adding it to my "must read" list. It seems as though it very much relates to one of my preoccupations: agon. As the ancient Greeks understood the concept, we are all engaged in an agon (struggle) against others, ourselves, the environment, circumstances, the Divine, etc. How each of us either embraces or avoids the struggle says much about our character. Again, thanks for the posting. All the best from R. T. at the revived and revised