Years ago, I attended my first Selected Shorts reading at Symphony Space, where I saw an actress read the first chapter of The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. The last line of that first chapter–what I thought of, at the time, as a story–has stayed with me since.
The novel is told in the first person plural voice of a group of “pictures brides” who, at the turn of the last century, left Japan for the Bay Area in order to meet the new husbands who had sent away for them and to start what they thought would be better lives. Their story is written as if an incantation; Ms. Otsuka uses repetition and accumulation to tell their collective story in a way that also, amazingly, accounts for their differences. It starts like this:
On the boat, we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years–faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiance, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and not it was time for us, too, to move on.
The novel goes on for a slim 129 pages, telling the story of hundreds of people (these women, but also their husbands, their children) over the course of years. Their time on the boat is a section, their first night in San Francisco another, their marriages, their jobs (in brothels, as migrant farm workers, as florists, dry cleaners, waitresses, maids, nannies…), their children. The descriptions of childbirth were matched or raised in horror only by the devastating descriptions of the way some of these children renounced their culture, and their mothers, as they grew up American.
I almost think of writing about the final two sections of this book as writing a spoiler. But, that may be a defense mechanism–spoilers are about stories, movies, fiction. What happened in these last chapters is, sadly, fact. The penultimate section of the book finds the women’s lives beginning to be touched by the specter of war, and then vague rumors that Japanese are being taken away. As we know from history, these weren’t rumors. The final chapter is told from the point of view of absence: California after the Japanese were disappeared.
This is a novel of sadness, loneliness and resignation. I thought of Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis, and ideas of how these women were doubly oppressed: for being women and for being Japanese. Near the end of the book, Ms. Otsuka gives lines from one of Donald Rumsfeld’s post 9/11 speeches to a Bay Area mayor speaking of the interment camps, showing that the terrible events of this novel may not be as far in the past as we may think, and may, like so many lines in the novel, repeat.
It seems strange that a book about women who were robbed, from the start, of options and who did not manage, in most cases, to rise above their circumstances, could be so beautiful. Lovely imagery and crystalline details aside, much of the power of the novel came from the special balance between the collective and the individual. The Buddha in the Attic told the story of a group bound together by their ethnicity and their origins, but simultaneously showed their uniqueness–not just because some were from the city and some from the country, because some married terrible men while some actually found love, but because they were all their own women, women who held vast differences within themselves. This, more than anything, made their shared fate so hard to accept.