The last time my wife went back to the States I watched the documentary To Be Takei. I have to confess to not knowing very much about George Takei other than his work on Star Trek, frequent cameos and occasional guest star spots in shows like The Big Bang Theory and his renaissance as a wit on the World Wide Web. I didn’t know that after Japan entered the war in 1942 the Takei family had been sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Centre for internment and then later transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Centre in California. I knew that it’d happened just like I knew about the camps here in the UK for the internment of civilian enemy aliens but I didn’t know details and what the documentary makers did in the relatively short time they devoted to this time in Takei’s life was put a human face to the tragedy. It also helped us appreciate that there’s more to being Takei than any of us probably imagined.
When I picked up Julie Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, I knew little about it which is always the best way to approach a book if possible. I knew nothing about her or the fact her debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, was set in an internment camp in Utah. (In an article in Newsweek she talks at length about her family’s wartime experiences.) I might’ve been tempted to read it first because the documentary had piqued my interest. It’s good though that I didn’t because The Buddha in the Attic really serves as a sort of prequel—maybe prelude would be a better term—dealing with a group of picture brides who sail to the States in the 1920’s under a variety of illusions all of which are shattered within a few days of their ship reaching land:
ON THE BOAT we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were. That the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs. That the photographs we had been sent were twenty years old. That the letters we had been written had been written to us by people other than our husbands, professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts.
It is a most unusual book.
When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, ‘They say it once happened . . .’, we are the ‘they’. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria.
If one of them has not been there to see events unfold with their own eyes all they can do is report what others have told them. It’s a novel approach to narration but the story itself is a straightforward relationship drama and mostly we forget who’s telling the story. Imagine my surprise when I came across a second book written in the first person plural. (Since writing this article I’ve encountered a third: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.) Otsuka’s approach is very different. We are never in doubt, not for a moment, that the narrator is a ‘we’ and that we’re not getting one person’s story, we’re getting snippets from the lives of dozens upon dozens of young girls but eventually a different kind of story appears. It was a book the author struggled to give form to. In an interview she explains:
One day, while reading over my notes for the book, I found, buried in the middle of a paragraph several pages in, a sentence I had written months earlier: ‘On the boat we were mostly virgins.’ I knew at once that this would be the first line of my novel. There would be no main character. I would tell the story from the point of view of a group of young picture brides who sail together from Japan to America.
She expands on this here:
Using the ‘we’ voice allowed me to tell a much larger story than I would have been able to tell otherwise. At first I tried telling. Each sentence gives you a brief window into somebody’s life – it’s like catching a glimpse of someone’s house from a train... the story from the point of view of a single picture bride, but this approach felt too narrow and confining. In my research, I had run across so many fascinating stories, and I wanted to tell them all. Using the ‘we’ voice allowed me to weave them all in. It’s a very capacious and infinitely expandable voice. Each sentence gives you a brief window into somebody’s life – it’s like catching a glimpse of someone’s house from a train – and then we move on.
This, then, is the book’s opening paragraph:
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.
Many books begin like this but after a page or two we expect to learn who’s doing the talking, who amongst this group has decided to tell their story, but we never do. So to a certain extent this has the feel of a documentary—maybe a new genre, the documentary novel or is that what creative non-fiction is?—but here’s the thing, despite never dwelling on any one individual for more than a sentence or two what presented is an extremely personal picture of what life was like for these women. We begin with the voyage, then there’s the shock of the first night, the jobs they found themselves doing, babies they had (and so many!) and the children they grew up to be. And then, some twenty years on, there’re the notices that begin to appear around town and their newfound Americanness is put to the test.
There are many striking passages in the book and yet finding a clever quote is hard because of the nature of the writing. An image builds over several pages. Think of it like a camera pulling back. You begin with one detail—what am I looking at?—and then you pull back, pull back, pull back and suddenly you go, “Aha! That’s it!” Let me illustrate. This is how the chapter ‘First Night’ begins:
That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word. They assumed we were the virgins the matchmakers had promised them we were and they took us with exquisite care. Now let me know if it hurts. They took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel. They took us downtown, in second-rate rooms at the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time. The Kinokuniya Hotel. The Mikado. The Hotel Ogawa. They took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was we were told. Please turn toward the wall and drop down on your hands and knees. They took us by the elbows and said quietly, “It’s time.” They took us before we were ready and the bleeding did not stop for three days. They took us with our white silk kimonos twisted up high over our heads and we were sure we were about to die. I thought I was being smothered. They took us greedily, hungrily, as though they had been waiting to take us for a thousand and one years. They took us even though we were still nauseous from the boat and the ground had not yet stopped rocking beneath our feet. They took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them.
It goes on and on and on. It’s a single paragraph of almost a thousand words but it feels longer. Never has sex seemed so unsexy. But this technique illustrates how very different the Japanese mentality is to the egocentric western mindset with all its Is, mes and mines. (This article which attempts to summarise the characteristics of the Japanese people makes interesting reading.) It can be tempting to compare the Japanese work ethic to that of bees or ants and although they do work exceptionally well in groups those groups are still made up of individuals and that’s what comes across more than anything in this kaleidoscopic text. The Washington Independent Review of Books says:
Though Knopf, publisher of The Buddha in the Attic, classifies the book as a novel, it is more like a beautifully rendered emakimono, hand-painted horizontal scrolls that depict a series of scenes, telling a story in frozen moments. […] The Buddha in the Attic is a tessellation of the fragments of these women’s stories. Pieced together, the novel comprises a gorgeous mosaic of the hopes and dreams that propelled so many immigrants across an ocean to an unknown country.
This is the most poetic of novels. One reviewer called The Buddha in the Attic a “lovely poemovella. Or novellem? How would one categorize this hybrid poem-novella?” But it’s not poetic like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept or Eugene Onegin. This is a Japanese book. So think Japanese poetry. Haiku does not use metaphor, personification, simile, or many other poetic devices so popular in other forms of poetry. It is about the essence of a moment, stated simply. And that’s what we have here: moment piled upon moment. It shouldn’t work. It should be exhausting to read. But unlike a writer like David Markson or Padgett Powell (I’m thinking about his novel written entirely in questions) although on the surface you might call this an experimental novel what we have here is accessible writing, the kind you get wrapped up in. You feel for these people. Not just Katsuno or Matsuyo or Roku or Chiyoko “who had always insisted that [people] call her Charlotte”. The names of individuals really don’t matter. Occasionally you recognise one or think you do but there’re simply too many to keep track of and most are nameless. On the subject of innovation the author had this to say:
I wasn’t thinking about genre or how a story “should” be told while I was writing the book, I was just . . . writing the book. And I never thought of myself as being an innovator. I do believe that every book just has its own organic form—and the voice I chose for Buddha was the voice that seemed right for the material. Once I decided to use the “we” voice, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I don’t think it was until I finished the book that I realized it was a little different. Which is probably best. One doesn’t want to get too self-conscious while writing, you know.
The book’s garnered mixed reviews: 709 readers on Goodreads (that’s 3%) and 55 readers on Amazon (that’s a whopping 8%) give the book only one star. The biggest single complaint is that this is not a book but a “laundry list”. Cindy Lutz’s one-star review is particularly creative:
Some of us read "The Buddha in the Attic" because we like well researched historical fiction. Some of us hoped it would evolve into a story. Other of us thought it was fun to read pages of lists. We thought it might narrow down into a real story, but some of us grew bored at 41% and started to guess that each new thought would be followed about how the rest of us did something else. Then some of us readers kept going. It made us feel smart, like scrambling through James Joyce for bragging rights. Some of us got to chat it over in book club. Oh if only Oprah were still on regular TV! Some of us deleted it from our Kindle. Some of us wrote fan fiction listing all of the possible outcomes about another historical event, just to show we can do lots of research and fit it into one book.
Some of thought it was extremely clever to write an entire book suggesting every imaginable outcome to every variation of a situation. Some of us thought it was completely silly and shows a lack of ability to sift through a mountain of excellent research and create a real story. So we wrote an Amazon review in first person plural.
Well, I’m sorry, but I loved this book. I fully understand why others have hated it. But not me. Telling a story is relatively easy. Hundreds of books appear every day telling stories: Girl meets vampire, girl loses vampire, girl meets vampire again. Enough. This was creative and imaginative. It was something unique and risky. I believe she pulled it off and I highly recommend it to you.
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Asian American Literary Award, and the American Library Association Alex Award.
Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, is about the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II. It was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist. The book is based on Otsuka’s own family history: her grandfather was arrested by the FBI as a suspected spy for Japan the day after Pearl Harbour was bombed, and her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. When the Emperor Was Divine has been translated into six languages and sold more than 250,000 copies. It has been assigned to all incoming freshmen at more than 35 colleges and universities and is a regular ‘Community Reads’ selection across the US.
Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, was nominated for a National Book Award for Fiction (2011) and won the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction (2011), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2012) and the Prix Femina Étranger.
Otsuka’s fiction has been published in Granta and Harper’s and read aloud on PRI’s Selected Shorts and BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. She lives in New York City, where she writes every afternoon in her neighbourhood café (the Hungarian Pastry Shop) which she talks about here and here. Apparently the walnut macaroons—not the cafe's famous strudel—are the must-order.