If it’s possible to encapsulate a story within one sentence, Julie Otsuka’s 2011 novel The Buddha in the Attic rises to the challenge. The short volume borders on prose poetry as a collective voice tells the experience of Japanese mail order brides coming to America in the early 20th century. Strung together with the pronoun “we,” every sentence seems to hold a tale unto itself and melds the individual experiences of boat passage, first meetings with husbands, work life, letters home, and child-rearing in California into a shared journey of suffering.
The success of Otsuka’s narrative lies in her ability to weave each collective sentence as a filament into such a strong web that when she breaks her pattern, the moment is decisive and impossible to ignore. Once the young Japanese women have begun to settle into their homes and have children, the “we” describes the experience of laying them in ditches in the fields as they work, of losing them often to illness, and ultimately of losing them to the English language and an American identity. But while the children are introduced and grow up as “them,” there is a distinct moment when they become individual: when their mothers allow them to dream in a way that they have themselves been denied: “One swore she would one day marry a preacher… One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw the darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.” To let their children blaze ahead singularly seems like the ultimate sacrifice until Otsuka admits the entrance of history’s sweeping tide, as the Japanese families are sent to internment camps and effectively erased from memory.
The Buddha in the Attic is preceded by Otsuka’s debut, When the Emperor Was Divine, which in a way picks up where her later novel ends, telling the story of a Japanese American family’s experience in the internment camps during World War II. While both novels are embedded in history, the voices contained within resonate with our present moment—the task of being “othered” in America that so many now face. Otsuka’s innovative style captures the erasure of identity that occurs through the dominant culture’s denial of marginalized groups, while in the same stroke managing to remind us that a collective narrator feels foreign precisely because whether we are Japanese or American, we do act, speak, and feel in a profoundly personal way.
If Otsuka’s experimental novel motivates you to further explore literature related to Japan, or you seek a different book to fit the bill, our collection offers a variety of authors and narrators to take you on a Travel the World with Walker trip to Japan. Try your hand at the whimsical and nostalgic journey of an elderly woman and her beloved cat in Hiro Arikawa’s recent Traveling Cat Chronicles or one of the many works in Haruki Murakami’s often surrealistic oeuvre. For those interested in a directly historical approach, John Hersey’s 1946 Hiroshima, originally published in The New Yorker and shortly thereafter in book form, blends journalism with the riveting sensory and emotional experiences of six survivors of the atomic bomb. As The Buddha in the Attic implies, there are a wide variety of voices within every culture and nation.