Fiction – hardcover; Fig Tree; 129 pages; 2012.
Chances are you have never read a book quite like Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. It has no dialogue, no main character, no plot. And yet the story is strangely beguiling and deeply moving.
Picture brides from Japan
It traces the history of “picture brides” of the early 1900s. These were Japanese women who sailed to America to marry the Japanese men based there with whom they had established a correspondence and exchanged photographs. (A bit like internet romances before the internet.)
The entire novel — or should I say novella? it is only 129 pages after all — is told in the first person plural. The opening paragraph provides a good example of the narrative style:
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 had slightly bowed legs, 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 fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.
In eight brief but incredibly poetic chapters, Otsuka charts the life and times of these Japanese women, from their first arrival in the US — including the disappointment at meeting their new husbands-to-be who had often lied about their looks and prospects, the menial jobs they had to undertake (they worked mainly as fruit pickers or maids) and the difficulties they experienced learning a new language and culture — to their sudden deportation, along with their husbands and children, after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.
A racist, sexist world
Otsuka recreates an entire world, separate from the rest of the USA, where these women, who worked hard and dedicated their lives to others, were always seen as outsiders. And despite the lack of a main character with whom the reader can identify, the story gets under the skin and creates a momentum of slow-building anger. I’m not sure which issue affected me more deeply: that these women were only ever seen as objects (or slaves) or that they had to live in a world so starkly divided along race lines.
They learned that there were certain things that could never be theirs: higher noses, fairer complexions, longer legs that might be noticed from afar. They learned when they could go swimming at he YMCA—Coloured days are on Mondays—and when they could go to the picture show at the Pantages Theater downtown (never). They learned that they should always call the restaurant first.Do you serve Japanese? They learned not to go out alone during the daytime and what to do if they found themselves cornered in an alley after dark. Just tell them you know judo. And if that didn’t work, they learned to fight back with their fists.
If I was to find fault with this spare but resonant novel it would be that it offers no light relief, no sense of humour. Indeed, it is so relentless it is probably just as well that it is only 129 pages long.
Giving voice to a lost generation
But as a novel that gives voice to a generation of women who lived in the shadows, it is an amazing — and important — achievement.
The Buddha in the Attic was a finalist in the 2011 National Book Awards and last month it won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.