Buddha in the Attic is a unique novella told in the first person plural “we”, narrating the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago.
In eight chapters, that read like a rhythmical chant, it traces the brides’ lives, beginning at the point of departure after leaving their predictable village lives, to the much-anticipated, though often frightening, boat journey and their arrival in San Francisco.
Some of us were so dizzy we could not even walk, and lay in our berths in a dull stupor, unable to remember our own names, not to mention those of our new husbands. Remind me one more time, I am Mrs. Who?
It recounts their first nights as new wives, the hard manual labour in new fields, cleaning house for white women, their struggles to master the language and understand the culture, to experiences in childbirth, as mothers, raising children who will lose their heritage and history, though continue to be marked by it, with the terrifying arrival of war and it damning label of them as the enemy.
At night we sat in our kitchens with our husbands as they pored over the day’s papers, scrutinizing every line, every word, for clues to our fate. We discussed the latest rumours. I hear they’re putting us into work camps to grow food for the troops.
Julie Otsuka has created a unique and original way to narrate the collective story of these Japanese mail order brides and their many experiences around common themes, we imagine the narrator as one of them, though we do not know which of the experiences are hers, as she balances them equally, one beside the other, in repetitive, elegiac prose.
This collective storytelling in effect brings our perception of them together, creating a sense of community, despite the suffering. It s as if, through sharing their experiences in these paragraphs, they become stronger, better able to cope, the author bringing them together. The “we” narrative unites them, we read and feel for them as a group, as if they are together. Otsuka brings them together in a lyrical expression of tasks, sufferings, looks, sighs, memories.
Apart from the initial boat ride over the seas from Japan to the US, there is little joy, they discover they are the lowest of low in the pecking order, equivalent to slaves, seen as quiet and submissive, hard workers. Some take it in their stride, others will fall by the wayside.
They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands/ Our stamina. Our discipline. Our docile dispositions. Our unusual ability to tolerate the heat, which on summer days in the melon fields of Brawley could reach 120 degrees. They said that our short stature made us ideally suited for work that required stooping low to the ground. Wherever they put us they were pleased. We had all the virtues of the Chinese – we were hardworking, we were patient, we were unfailingly polite – but none of their vices – we didn’t gamble or smoke opium, we didn’t brawl, we never spat. We were faster than the Filipinos and less arrogant than the Hindus. We were more disciplined than the Koreans. We were soberer than the Mexicans. We were cheaper to feed than the Okies ad Arkies, both the light and the dark. A Japanese can live on a teaspoonful of rice a day. We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives.
And as if it couldn’t get any worse, war happens, and they discover they are the enemy, they are regarded suspiciously and in time sent away.
This part is narrated by “them”, the communities within which they have existed alongside, though never really been a part of, certainly not appreciated – at least not until the Orkies and Arkies move in, who are not quiet and hard-working like the Japanese.
It is a soulful lament, a long sad narrative of a life of toil and disappointment that is endured, a disappearance that is unwarranted, a tribute to those who dreamed of a better life, who travelled across an ocean believing they would find it only to be betrayed bitterly.
It reminded me, not in style, but in subject of Jamie Ford’s The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story of childhood friends in Seattle, second generation immigrants caught up in the brutal reality of being perceived as untrustworthy, having the skin of an enemy.
Their plows weighed more than we did, and were difficult to use, and their horses were twice the size of our horses back home in Japan. We could not harness them without climbing up on orange crates, or standing on stools, and the first time we shouted out to them to move they just stood there snorting and pawing at the ground. Were they deaf? Were they dumb? Or were they just being stubborn? “These are American horse,” our husbands explained. “They don’t understand Japanese.” And so we learned our first words of horse English. “Giddyap” was what you said to make the horse go forward, and “Back” was what you said to make it back up. “Easy” was what you said to make it slow down, and “Whoa” was what you said to make it stop. And after fifty years in America these would be the only words of English some of us could still remember by heart.
Julie Otsuka speaks here (in English) about the inspiration behind Buddha in the Attic, which won the French Prix Femina Etranger 2012 translated as Certaines n’avaient jamais vu la mer for the French edition.