“This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.”
The Buddha in the Attic is a small book, but man does it pack a punch. Part narration, part long-form poem, we follow a group of Japanese women as they make navigate through their new lives in America. There’s no singular character; Author Julie Otsuka writes in the first person plural, referring only to “we.”
In the opening chapter, the women are on a boat heading to America and their new husbands. Clutching photos of their new husbands, they eagerly wonder what these new men and their new home will be like. They pore over the letters their fiancées sent them, letters that boast “I own a farm,” “I run a bank,” “I manage a hotel,” and my personal favorite “I am 179 centimeters tall and do not suffer from leprosy.”When they finally arrive, they are disappointed by “the crowd of men in knit hats and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the deck…the pictures we had been sent were 20 years old.”
It’s the first in a string of disappointments. Their dreams of a happily ever after are swiftly crushed, replaced by the reality of being married to a stranger, to backbreaking work, to raising children more American than Japanese, to a hard assimilation into a country that doesn’t want them, and finally, to the terrifying and humiliating bus ride from their homes to an unknown internment camp.
The fact that the reader isn’t given one particular character to empathize with doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the book. Through the myriad of nameless women, we explore different facets of the immigrant experience. Some women work on farms, others as maids, and others in brothels. Some women have affairs, are happily married, are abused by their bosses. They raise children, bury children, and struggle with infertility.
No matter how different their experiences in America were, when Pearl Harbor happens, they’re all considered the same. Forced to surrender all they’ve worked for due to their traitor status, they leave their homes. The white people watching them go make up the final chapter. They become the “we” in Otsuka’s narrative. Some of them were glad to see the Japanese leave. Some thought they were enemies, others were just happy to take what they were forced to leave behind. Some are sad to see them leave. They think it’s terrible, and they know their neighbors aren’t the enemies. But they don’t care enough to do something about it and as time goes on, they forget about their former neighbors and move on with their lives.
I picked up this book after reading a glowing recommendation from Cannonballer ElCicco. I wasn’t disappointed. The Buddha in the Attic is one of a kind. It’s brilliant in its simplicity and stays with you long after you finish the book. Do yourself a favor and pick up this astonishing and haunting read.