The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic

by Julie Otsuka

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307744425
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/20/2012
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 56,882
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is the author of the novel When the Emperor Was Divine and a recipient of the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

Hometown:

New York, New York

Date of Birth:

May 15, 1962

Place of Birth:

Palo Alto, California

Education:

B.A., Yale University, 1984; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1999

Read an Excerpt

Come, Japanese!

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.

On the boat the first thing we did-before deciding who we liked and didn't like, before telling each other which one of the islands we were from, and why we were leaving, before even bothering to learn each other's names-was compare photographs of our husbands. They were handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished. Their chins were strong. Their posture, good. Their noses were straight and high. They looked like our brothers and fathers back home, only better dressed, in gray frock coats and fine Western three-piece suits. Some of them were standing on sidewalks in front of wooden A-frame houses with white picket fences and neatly mowed lawns, and some were leaning in driveways against Model T Fords. Some were sitting in studios on stiff high- backed chairs with their hands neatly folded and staring straight into the camera, as though they were ready to take on the world. All of them had promised to be there, waiting for us, in San Francisco, when we sailed into port.

On the boat, we often wondered: Would we like them? Would we love them? Would we recognize them from their pictures when we first saw them on the dock?

On the boat we slept down below, in steerage, where it was filthy and dim. Our beds were narrow metal racks stacked one on top of the other and our mattresses were hard and thin and darkened with the stains of other journeys, other lives. Our pillows were stuffed with dried wheat hulls. Scraps of food littered the passageways between berths and the floors were wet and slick. There was one porthole, and in the evening, after the hatch was closed, the darkness filled with whispers. Will it hurt? Bodies tossed and turned beneath the blankets. The sea rose and fell. The damp air stifled. At night we dreamed of our husbands. We dreamed of new wooden sandals and endless bolts of indigo silk and of living, one day, in a house with a chimney. We dreamed we were lovely and tall. We dreamed we were back in the rice paddies, which we had so desperately wanted to escape. The rice paddy dreams were always nightmares. We dreamed of our older and prettier sisters who had been sold to the geisha houses by our fathers so that the rest of us might eat, and when we woke we were gasping for air. For a second I thought I was her.

Our first few days on the boat we were seasick, and could not keep down our food, and had to make repeated trips to the railing. 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'm Mrs. Who? Some of us clutched our stomachs and prayed out loud to Kannon, the goddess of mercy-Where are you?-while others of us preferred to turn silently green. And often, in the middle of the night, we were jolted awake by a violent swell and for a brief moment we had no idea where we were, or why our beds would not stop moving, or why our hearts were pounding with such dread. Earthquake was the first thought that usually came to our minds. We reached out for our mothers then, in whose arms we had slept until the morning we left home. Were they sleeping now? Were they dreaming? Were they thinking of us night and day? Were they still walking three steps behind our fathers on the streets with their arms full of packages while our fathers carried nothing at all? Were they secretly envious of us for sailing away? Didn't I give you everything? Had they remembered to air out our old kimonos? Had they remembered to feed the cats? Had they made sure to tell us everything we needed to know? Hold your teacup with both hands, stay out of the sun, never say more than you have to.

Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives. We knew how to cook and sew. We knew how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours, saying absolutely nothing of substance at all. A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist. We knew how to behave at funerals, and how to write short, melancholy poems about the passing of autumn that were exactly seventeen syllables long. We knew how to pull weeds and chop kindling and haul water, and one of us-the rice miller's daughter-knew how to walk two miles into town with an eighty-pound sack of rice on her back without once breaking into a sweat. It's all in the way you breathe. Most of us had good manners, and were extremely polite, except for when we got mad and cursed like sailors. Most of us spoke like ladies most of the time, with our voices pitched high, and pretended to know much less than we did, and whenever we walked past the deckhands we made sure to take small, mincing steps with our toes turned properly in. Because how many times had our mothers told us: Walk like the city, not like the farm!

On the boat we crowded into each other's bunks every night and stayed up for hours discussing the unknown continent ahead of us. The people there were said to eat nothing but meat and their bodies were covered with hair (we were mostly Buddhist, and did not eat meat, and only had hair in the appropriate places). The trees were enormous. The plains were vast. The women were loud and tall-a full head taller, we had heard, than the tallest of our men. The language was ten times as difficult as our own and the customs were unfathomably strange. Books were read from back to front and soap was used in the bath. Noses were blown on dirty cloths that were stuffed back into pockets only to be taken out later and used again and again. The opposite of white was not red, but black. What would become of us, we wondered, in such an alien land? We imagined ourselves-an unusually small people armed only with our guidebooks-entering a country of giants. Would we be laughed at? Spat on? Or, worse yet, would we not be taken seriously at all? But even the most reluctant of us had to admit that it was better to marry a stranger in America than grow old with a farmer from the village. Because in America the women did not have to work in the fields and there was plenty of rice and firewood for all. And wherever you went the men held open the doors and tipped their hats and called out, "Ladies first" and "After you."

Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of us were farmers' daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine. Some of us were from a small mountain hamlet in Yamanashi and had only recently seen our first train. Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others. Many more of us were from Kagoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand. Some of us were from Hokkaido, where it was snowy and cold, and would dream of that white landscape for years. Some of us were from Hiroshima, which would later explode, and were lucky to be on the boat at all though of course we did not then know it. The youngest of us was twelve, and from the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, and had not yet begun to bleed. My parents married me off for the betrothal money. The oldest of us was thirty-seven, and from Niigata, and had spent her entire life taking care of her invalid father, whose recent death made her both happy and sad. I knew I could only marry if he died. One of us was from Kumamoto, where there were no more eligible men-all of the eligible men had left the year before to find work in Manchuria-and felt fortunate to have found any kind of husband at all. I took one look at his photograph and told the matchmaker, "He'll do." One of us was from a silk-weaving village in Fukushima, and had lost her first husband to the flu, and her second to a younger and prettier woman who lived on the other side of the hill, and now she was sailing to America to marry her third. He's healthy, he doesn't drink, he doesn't gamble, that's all I needed to know. One of us was a former dancing girl from Nagoya who dressed beautifully, and had translucent white skin, and knew everything there was to know about men, and it was to her we turned every night with our questions. How long will it last? With the lamp lit or in the dark? Legs up or down? Eyes open or closed? What if I can't breathe? What if I get thirsty? What if he is too heavy? What if he is too big? What if he does not want me at all? "Men are really quite simple," she told us. And then she began to explain.

On the boat we sometimes lay awake for hours in the swaying damp darkness of the hold, filled with longing and dread, and wondered how we would last another three weeks.

On the boat we carried with us in our trunks all the things we would need for our new lives: white silk kimonos for our wedding night, colorful cotton kimonos for everyday wear, plain cotton kimonos for when we grew old, calligraphy brushes, thick black sticks of ink, thin sheets of rice paper on which to write long letters home, tiny brass Buddhas, ivory statues of the fox god, dolls we had slept with since we were five, bags of brown sugar with which to buy favors, bright cloth quilts, paper fans, English phrase books, flowered silk sashes, smooth black stones from the river that ran behind our house, a lock of hair from a boy we had once touched, and loved, and promised to write, even though we knew we never would, silver mirrors given to us by our mothers, whose last words still rang in our ears. You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong.

On the boat we complained about everything. Bedbugs. Lice. Insomnia. The constant dull throb of the engine, which worked its way even into our dreams. We complained about the stench from the latrines-huge, gaping holes that opened out onto the sea-and our own slowly ripening odor, which seemed to grow more pungent by the day. We complained about Kazuko's aloofness, Chiyo's throat clearing, Fusayo's incessant humming of the "Teapicker's Song," which was driving us all slowly crazy. We complained about our disappearing hairpins-who among us was the thief?-and how the girls from first class had never once said hello from beneath their violet silk parasols in all the times they had walked past us up above on the deck. Just who do they think they are? We complained about the heat. The cold. The scratchy wool blankets. We complained about our own complaining. Deep down, though, most of us were really very happy, for soon we would be in America with our new husbands, who had written to us many times over the months. I have bought a beautiful house. You can plant tulips in the garden. Daffodils. Whatever you like. I own a farm. I operate a hotel. I am the president of a large bank. I left Japan several years ago to start my own business and can provide for you well. I am 179 centimeters tall and do not suffer from leprosy or lung disease and there is no history of madness in my family. I am a native of Okayama. Of Hyogo. Of Miyagi. Of Shizuoka. I grew up in the village next to yours and saw you once years ago at a fair. I will send you the money for your passage as soon as I can.

On the boat we carried our husbands' pictures in tiny oval lockets that hung on long chains from our necks. We carried them in silk purses and old tea tins and red lacquer boxes and in the thick brown envelopes from America in which they had originally been sent. We carried them in the sleeves of our kimonos, which we touched often, just to make sure they were still there. We carried them pressed flat between the pages of Come, Japanese! and Guidance for Going to America and Ten Ways to Please a Man and old, well-worn volumes of the Buddhist sutras, and one of us, who was Christian, and ate meat, and prayed to a different and longer-haired god, carried hers between the pages of a King James Bible. And when we asked her which man she liked better-the man in the photograph or the Lord Jesus Himself-she smiled mysteriously and replied, "Him, of course."

Several of us on the boat had secrets, which we swore we would keep from our husbands for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the real reason we were sailing to America was to track down a long-lost father who had left the family years before. He went to Wyoming to work in the coal mines and we never heard from him again. Or perhaps we were leaving behind a young daughter who had been born to a man whose face we could now barely recall-a traveling storyteller who had spent a week in the village, or a wandering Buddhist priest who had stopped by the house late one night on his way to Mt. Fuji.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Exquisitely written. . . . An understated masterpiece…that unfolds with great emotional power. . . . Destined to endure.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Arresting and alluring. . . . A novel that feels expansive yet is a magical act of compression.” —Chicago Tribune

“A stunning feat of empathetic imagination and emotional compression, capturing the experience of thousands of women.” —Vogue
 
“Otsuka’s incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry. . . . Filled with evocative descriptive sketches…and hesitantly revelatory confessions.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A fascinating paradox: brief in span yet symphonic in scope, all-encompassing yet vivid in its specifics. Like a pointillist painting, it’s composed of bright spots of color: vignettes that bring whole lives to light in a line or two, adding up to a vibrant group portrait.” —The Seattle Times
 
“Mesmerizing. . . . Told in a first-person plural voice that feels haunting and intimate, the novel traces the fates of these nameless women in America. . . . Otsuka extracts the grace and strength at the core of immigrant (and female) survival and, with exquisite care, makes us rethink the heartbreak of eternal hope. Though the women vanish, their words linger.” —More
 
“Spare and stunning. . . . By using the collective ‘we’ to convey a constantly shifting, strongly held group identity within which distinct individuals occasionally emerge and recede, Otsuka has created a tableau as intricate as the pen strokes her humble immigrant girls learned to use in letters to loved ones they’d never see again.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“With great daring and spectacular success, she has woven countless stories gleaned from her research into a chorus of the women’s voices, speaking their collective experience in a plural ‘we,’ while incorporating the wide range of their individual lives. . . . The Buddha in the Attic moves forward in waves of experiences, like movements in a musical composition. . . . By its end, Otsuka’s book has become emblematic of the brides themselves: slender and serene on the outside, tough, weathered and full of secrets on the inside.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
 
“A gorgeous mosaic of the hopes and dreams that propelled so many immigrants across an ocean to an unknown country. . . . Otsuka illuminates the challenges, suffering and occasional joy that they found in their new homeland. . . . Wrought in exquisite poetry, each sentence spare in words, precise in meaning and eloquently evocative, like a tanka poem, this book is a rare, unique treat. . . . Rapturous detail. . . . A history lesson in heartbreak.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
 
“[Otsuka] brazenly writes in hundreds of voices that rise up into one collective cry of sorrow, loneliness and confusion. . . . The sentences are lean, and the material reflects a shameful time in our nation’s past. . . . Otsuka winds a thread of despair throughout the book, haunting the reader at every chapter. . . . Otsuka masterfully creates a chorus of the unforgettable voices that echo throughout the chambers of this slim but commanding novel, speaking of a time that no American should ever forget.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“Daring. . . . Frequently mesmerizing. . . . Otsuka has the moves of cinematographer, zooming in for close-ups, then pulling back for wide lens group shots. . . . [Otsuka is] a master of understatement and apt detail. . . . Her stories seem rooted in curiosity and a desire to understand.” —Bookpage
 
“Precise, focused. . . . Penetrating. . . . See it and you’ll want to pick it up. Start reading it and you won’t want to put it down. . . . A boldly imagined work that takes a stylistic risk more daring and exciting than many brawnier books five times its size. Even the subject matter is daring. . . . Specific, clear, multitudinous in its grasp and subtly emotional.” —The Huffington Post

Reading Group Guide

1. The Buddha in the Attic is narrated in the first person plural, i.e., told from the point of view of a group of women rather than an individual. Discuss the impact of this narrative decision on your reading experience.  Why do you think the author made the choice to tell the story from this perspective?

2. Why is the novel called The Buddha in the Attic? To what does the title refer?

3. The novel opens with the women on the boat traveling from Japan to San Francisco. What does Otsuka tell us is “the first thing [they] did,” and what does this suggest about the trajectories of their lives?

4. What are the women’s expectations about America? What are their fears? Why are they convinced that “it was better to marry a stranger in America than grow old with a farmer from the village”?

5. Discuss Otsuka’s use of italics in the novel. What are these shifts in typography meant to connote?  How do they add to our knowledge of the women as individuals?

6. Otsuka tells us that the last words spoken by the women’s mothers still ring in their ears: “You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong.”  What does this mean, and how does the novel bear this out?

7. In the final sentence of “First Night,” Otsuka writes, “They took us swiftly, repeatedly, all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.”  Discuss the women’s first nights with their new husbands. Are there particular images you found especially powerful? How did you feel reading this short chapter?

8. Why was the first word of English the women were taught “water” ?

9. In the section entitled “Whites,” Otsuka describes several acts of kindness and compassion on the part of the women’s husbands.  In what ways were the husbands useful to them or unexpectedly gentle with them in these early days? How does this reflect the complexity of their relationships?

10. What are the women’s lives like in these early months in America? How do their experiences and challenges differ from what they had been led to expect?  How are they perceived by their husbands?  By their employers? Discuss the disparity between the women’s understanding of their role in the American economy and what Otsuka suggests is the American perception of the Japanese women’s power.

11. Later in this section, the women ask themselves, “Is there any tribe more savage than the Americans?” What occasions this question?  What does the author think? What do you think?

12. Discuss the passage on p. 37 that begins, “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. . . . I fear my soul has died. . . . And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared.”  What does Otsuka mean by “disappeared”? What is she suggesting about their spiritual lives, their inner selves?  Do the women reappear in this sense in the course of the novel?  When?

13. Throughout the novel, Otsuka uses the phrase “One of us…”  Why? What is the effect of this shift in point of view?  What does Otsuka achieve through this subtle adjustment?

14. Otsuka writes, “They gave us new names. They called us Helen and Lily. They called us Margaret. They called us Pearl.”  Discuss how this mirrors the names taken by the women’s children later in the novel.

15. Discuss the complexities and nuances of the relationship between the Japanese women and the white women.  Was it strictly an employer/employee relationship, or something more?

16. What is J-town?  Why do the women choose J-town over any attempt to return home?

17. The section called “Babies” is just six pages long but strikes with unique force. What was your reaction to the experiences of the women in childbirth?  Take a close look at the last six sentences of the chapter, with a particular emphasis on the very last sentence.  On what note does Otsuka end the chapter, and why?  What does that last sentence reveal about Otsuka’s ideas about the future and about the past?

18. “One by one all the old words we had taught them began to disappear from their heads,” Otsuka writes of the women’s children. Discuss the significance of names and naming in The Buddha in the Attic.  What does it mean for these children to reject their mother’s language? What point is Otsuka making about cultural inheritance?

19. How do the the dreams of the children differ from the dreams of their mothers?

20. Why do the women feel closer to their husbands than ever before in the section entitled “Traitors”?

21. How is the structure of the penultimate section, called “Last Day,” different from the structure of all the sections that precede it? Why do you think Otsuka chose to set it apart?

22. Who narrates the novel’s final section, “A Disappearance”? Why? What is the impact of this dramatic shift?

23. Discuss themes of guilt, shame, and forgiveness in The Buddha in the Attic.

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The Buddha in the Attic 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 204 reviews.
LettoreBella More than 1 year ago
When I think of my Italian grandmother immigrating to the U.S. in 1916, I'd be fooling myself to imagine a cheerful scenario of twinkling red and green lights and steaming trays of homemade lasagna served on a white lace tablecloth. The truth, with its elements of hunger, poverty and alleged domestic abuse, is a much darker story. And yet she immigrated hoping for a better life than the one she was leaving behind. The mail-order brides in Julie Otsuka's Buddha in the Attic cross the ocean hoping for a better fate than the "farm wife" lives they are destined to lead in Japan. Their dreams of handsome husbands and affluent lives dissolve the moment they set foot in America. In the collective voice of a generation, Otsuka tells of the the disappointment, despair and brutality that awaits so many of these women. Those who are defiant and determined often end up victimized in other ways. Many grit their teeth and soldier on to bring forth children whose "Americanization" is heartbreakingly depicted. This small book isn't emotionally easy, but thanks to Otsuka's blistering, unsentimental prose, it's compulsively readable. Much of it is sad and shocking. But it will make you grateful for those who came before and had the courage to live their lives allowing us opportunities and an existence they could only dream of.
BabyHouseman87 More than 1 year ago
Julie Otsuka writes beautifully. While other reviewers didn't like the "we" voice she used, and thought there should have been a main character, I kind of disagree. I think using multiple perspectives was more suitable for the story because she wrote the book on behalf of an entire generation of Japanese women. This was a good, quick read filled with poetic language and stories that were both fascinating and tragic. I really enjoyed it.
thecollector0 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book. The story was interesting, fun, and unpredictable! I highly recommend this book and this author! I cant wait to read more from her.
California-Cori More than 1 year ago
at only 101 pages it's a quick read but I loved every minute of it! I recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was not only very interesting, but a history lesson...GREAT, short read!
jgJG More than 1 year ago
Thought provoking. Simple read but so interesting it was hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is written in a third party form that seemed to distract the reader to the humanity contained in its pages. It was difficult to touch any of the characters in the book, because no relationship was invested between you and the pages. I wanted to delve into some of the characters but was not given the opportunity, albeight you would catch a glimpse of a something. I would recommend this book only on a general level and not for a read that keeps you not wanting to finish it.
writestuff on LibraryThing 5 months ago
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. ¿ from Buddha in the Attic, page 1 -It is the early part of the twentieth century and young girls from Japan are arriving in San Francisco as ¿picture brides.¿ Their husbands have been chosen by a matchmaker in Japan, selected only by a photo and vague promises in scrawled letters. For the girls on the boat, their futures seem bright. But nothing is ever really as it seems.Unfolding over many years and written in the collective first person plural narrative, Julie Otsuka reveals the lives of these young women as they meet their husbands for the first time, bear children and find work in their communities. Culminating in the bigoted years of World War II when thousands of Japanese Americans were rounded up and torn from their homes, Buddha in the Attic is a powerful look at one aspect of the immigrant experience in America.There was talk of a list. Some people being taken away in the middle of the night. A banker who went to work and never came home. A barber who disappeared during his lunch break. A few fishermen who had gone missing. Here and there, a boardinghouse, raided. A business, seized. A newspaper shut down. ¿ from Buddha in the Attic, page 81 -Otsuka¿s decision to use first person plural as her narrative voice is unusual and haunting. Instead of an individual point of view, the novella presents the collective perspective of a community joined by ancestry and common experience. What Otsuka does well is tease out individuals from the group, sharing their differences and then pulling them back together as one voice. The result is a story which builds to a powerful conclusion. More than just a story of one person, this is a story of a generation of immigrant women who arrived in America with hope and discovered the reality was not exactly what they expected.In the end, the voices of these women disappear and are replaced by the collective voice of the community they left behind.The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now. Their mailboxes have begun to overflow. Unclaimed newspapers litter their sagging front porches and gardens. Abandoned cars sit in their driveways. Thick knotty weeds are sprouting up through their lawns. In their backyards the tulips are wilting. Stray cats wander. Last loads of laundry still cling to the line. In one of their kitchens ¿ Ei Saito¿s ¿ a black telephone rings and rings. ¿ from Buddha in the Attic, page 115 -This is a book which grows more powerful after the final page has been turned. I have found myself thinking of these women, their stories, their community, their ultimate fate¿and their voices echo in my head. It is hard to turn away from them. I was left with the feeling that the community they inhabited is less now in their absence¿and I think this is, perhaps, the message which Otsuka wanted her readers to get.This slim book delivers on every level. It should be required reading in history classes.Highly recommended.
debnance on LibraryThing 5 months ago
In just 144 pages, Julie Otsuka magically takes us the readers deep into the experience of the lives of Japanese mail-order brides of the 1930's, lives filled with pain and terror and joy and exhilaration, like the lives of all brides, all women, all people. It's a beautiful trip. We readers go where the brides go, we see the things the brides see, and, best of all, we feel what the brides feel. It is amazing and this read has left me transformed, with a new appreciation and compassion for the women of the past. No review can do justice to this book.
porch_reader on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This slim volume is a gem. In a few short chapters, Otsuka captures the experiences of Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s. Rather than illustrating this experience through the eyes of a few characters, the book is written in the first person plural. Here are the first few lines: "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." In this way, we learn intimate details of the lives led by these "picture brides," women who came to America to meet their husbands. Despite the use of the first person plural, Otsuka conveys that the lives led by these women and their reactions to a new country were quite distinct. However, when World War II began, the Japanese immigrants were not treated as distinct people at all. Instead, they were sent away from their homes based on their collective identity, their Japanese heritage. With few words, but much emotion, Otsuka captures this experience as well. I expect that this book will stick with me because of its distinct style and sharp insights. Highly recommended!
Pennydart on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Julie Otsuka¿s lyric novel depicts the lives of young Japanese women who came to the United States as ¿picture brides¿ in the early part of the 20th century. It¿s told in the 1st-person plural, as a chorus of voices describing individual experiences that are both similar and different. The first seven chapters chronicle the women¿s voyage by sea, their experiences as newlyweds, including their first night of marriage, their interactions with other Americans, their child-bearing and child-rearing, their economic successes¿and failures¿and ultimately, their forced removal to internment camps during World War II. The final chapter shifts to the perspective of their neighbors, who respond to the disappearance of the local Japanese residents in differing ways.The language in the novel is enchanting. Here she is describing the pain of leaving a small child behind in Japan: ¿On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.¿ And here, she describes the affairs that some of the women had: ¿One of us made the mistake of falling in love with him and still thinks of him night and day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who beat her with a broomstick and then lay down and wept. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who divorced her and sent her back to her parents in Japan, where she now works in a silk-reeling mill in Nagano for ten hours a day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who forgave her and then confessed to a few sins of his own. I have a second family in Colusa. One of us said nothing to anyone and slowly lost her mind.¿It¿s a testament to Otsuka¿s talent that this rhetorical technique works so well: a shared telling of the story by multiple characters who are never fully distinguishable to the reader. This technique seems to play two purposes. First, it illustrates the extent to which the lives of her characters had shared themes, and melted together, but also, of course, included varied experiences. Second, it reflects the status of her characters in their communities during the days leading up to Pearl Harbor: not fully appreciated as distinct individuals¿or at least, one thinks that must have been the case, or else their internment would have been unthinkable.
tangledthread on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This is a short novella written in the first person plural narrative about Japanese women who were imported as brides to the U.S. in the early 1920's and ends with their removal to the Japanese internment camps in the 1940's. If you read the acknowledgements, you'll note that the author used some of Donald Rumsfeld's statements about Guantanamo for the statements of the local politicians at the time of the removal of the people of Japanese heritage. Read into that whatever you like.The only other book I can recall reading in first person plural is Tim Obrien's The Things They Carried. Buddha has a similar cadence to that book, but perhaps not quite the same level of skill in building the story as Tim O'Brien.
jenn_stringer on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Reading this book was like reading a poem! Written in the collective voice of Japanese "picture brides," it follows the women from ship sailing to internment during WWII. They are seasick, marry, divorce, fall in love (sometimes with men other than their ¿husbands¿), have children, grieve losses that we do or don¿t connect with, and through it all speak with a voice that sings like a praise hymn and a lament simultaneously. I haven¿t read a book that has such wonderful use of voice and language since ¿The Road¿ by Cormac McCarthy.
chrystal on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I liked the collective "we" point of view. Alot of experiences/events packed into this small package.
freelancer_frank on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This is a book about the Japanese immigrant experience in the United States in the last century. More broadly it is about alienation, Buddhism and the need to belong. The third person plural voice is a clever choice. It illustrates the more universal (a kind of literary dying to the ego) and the particular - in the beautiful list of specific details such as the Buddha itself, left in the attic of a departing Japanese during World War II and remaining forever as a silent sentinel to that departure (much as this book may aim to do). The voice also allows for a switch in the last part to the 'others' - the Americans themselves, dramatising the immigrant experience structurally as well as verbally.
julie10reads on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Less a novel than a tone poem, The Buddha in the Attic is narrated in the first person plural: ¿we¿. These are the voices of the ¿picture brides¿, Japanese women of early 20th century who sailed to California (passage paid by their future husbands) to marry the men who had sent for them. Like brushtrokes on cold pressed paper, the women lay down their varied stories in shades of hope, fear, dread and desire. They paint their departures from home, the ocean voyage, their arrival and the consummation of the bargains they had made with strangers. For some, the picture is bright and happy. For others, the picture is dark with drudgery and degradation. No names are given, no distinct personalities conferred; instead, the author conflates the voices into a chorus of ghosts. I could easily imagine it set to music.I¿m not sure of Ms Otsuka¿s purpose: is she laying to rest the memories of these women, women who had no choice in their own destiny? Or is she resurrecting them in order to give voice to a forgotten generation, a generation that suffered cruelly from racism and poverty? Either way, The Buddha in the Attic is an elegant literary composition. Recommended for readers who enjoy style as well as content.8 out 10.
cestovatela on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I like books best when they contain characters. The Buddha in the Attic does contain any characters, and I think this is a problem. Rather than focusing on a few individuals' experiences, the book is told from the first person plural point of view: "On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and wide flat feet and we were not very tall..." For the first chapter, I found this method of describing the experiences of early twentieth century Japanese immigrants charming, but soon I began longing for a character I could feel attached to. I kept imagining that this character would arrive on the next page, or perhaps in the next chapter, for a full fifty pages before I realized that the whole book would be narrated by this mysterious "we." This approach is not without some merit. The book feels appealingly sweeping, and I really did feel that I gained a wider understanding of the lives of these women. The language is lyrical, the syntax is impressive, and the book's many small, thoughtful details tugged at my heart. Yet, without a few central characters, the book felt like an exceptionally beautiful non-fiction treatise, or perhaps an interesting experiment in literary style. There was never any suspense to it, and I knew I was never going to stay awake at night turning pages to discover the fate of a character I loved. That made the reading experience kind of hollow.
Gittel on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Like reading a wave. An entire generation of Japanese immigrants is summed up beautifully in this short breathless work. Like a large group photograph that briefly zooms in on each face. The fiction is experimental in its form, but it works.
qu33nb33 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
very nicely written I actually enjoyed it more than When the Emperor was Divine..because of the writing style
pdebolt on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Told in unusual first-person plural, this brief book is a haunting reminder of all that the Japanese endured as mail-order brides, as immigrants trying to find their way in America, as parents of children who assimilated more quickly than they did and as people forced into camps during WWII because they were universally suspected of subversive activities. These are collective experiences that will touch your heart.
msbaba on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Julie Otsuka¿s Buddha in the Attic is not a novel. It is a fictional documentary of the early- to mid-20th century Japanese American immigrant story spun out as what amounts to a very long emotion-laden prose poem. Each sentence reads like a line of free-form poetry. Each paragraph reads like a poetic stanza. Mostly, it is told from the point of view of picture brides. Had the book been published in the fashion of a true epic free-verse poem with each sentence having its own line, it would have been at least four or five times its current length. In its current form it is 144 pages of normal looking paragraphs collected into chapters. Critics and reviews have heaped considerable lyrical praise on this book¿and much is deserved. There are people who will identify closely with this topic. There are those who will relish the thousands of exceptionally vivid hiaku-like poetic micro-stories that make up this verbal tone poem. But as a complete work of fiction, it left me flat. Yes, I was frequently swept away by the vividness and emotional punch of particular sets of sentences¿i.e., lines of poetry¿but there was nothing in the structure of the fiction to compel me forward in the plot. There are no characters in the traditional sense, and the plot is known to all who are familiar with 20th century Japanese-American history. We don¿t need a 144-page epic free-verse poem to capture the tragedy of the Japanese-American immigrant story! There are many far shorter poems that have already succeeded in doing so. This is not an effective use of the poetic medium.So, to say this is an odd little book is an understatement. Some will love it and treasure it. Others will find it unreadable and boring. I am happy I had the experience of reading it. It made a strong emotional impact¿but to be quite honest, there were times when the format became overbearing and tiresome.
1morechapter on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Our mayor has assured us there is no need for alarm. `The Japanese are in a safe place,¿ he is quoted as saying in this morning¿s Star Tribune. He is not at liberty, however, to reveal where that place is. `They wouldn¿t be safe now, would they, if I told you where they were.¿ But what place could be safer, some of us ask, than right here, in our own town?And then, one morning, there is not a single notice to be found, and for a moment the town feels oddly naked, and it is almost as if the Japanese were never here at all.I absolutely loved this book! Otsuka¿s novella begins with the story of Japanese women who were sent from Japan to the San Francisco area as mail order brides after World War I, and then ends with the Japanese internment of World War II. Told in a collective voice of ¿we¿ (which might irritate some but I found wonderful), and in only 129 pages, Otsuka manages to convincingly bare the souls of these women and make the reader wholly sympathetic of their situations in life.We cooked for them. We cleaned for them. We helped them chop wood. But it was not we who were cooking and cleaning and chopping, it was somebody else. And often our husbands did not even notice we¿d disappeared.It was fascinating to see the progression of their lives; of their initial reluctance to their new home and husbands, their children¿s rejection of their Japanese heritage, and ultimately, their desire to `go back to normal¿ after their terrible and shameful treatment by the American government.I definitely plan on reading When The Emperor Was Divine, and probably every other book Otsuka puts out as well.Highly, highly recommended.
gbill on LibraryThing 5 months ago
¿The Buddha in the Attic¿ reads as an impressionist painting of the lives of Japanese-Americans in the years prior to WWII and their forced internment during the war at the order of the U.S. government. Otsuka does this by describing a wide variety of experiences from the perspective of a general ¿we¿, as opposed to developing individual characters in a standard plot. It¿s an effective and interesting technique. The first couple chapters describing Japanese women and girls taking the boat over the Pacific en route to a first night with new husbands already in America that they had only seen in pictures (and often not accurate pictures) were most interesting to me; the internment itself less so. I liked how the title of the book came from one of those forced away from home leaving a ¿tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.¿ I also liked how near the end Otsuka takes the point of view of white Americans in towns that the Japanese-Americans have suddenly disappeared from in her ¿we¿. A slice of American history, and a shameful slice at that.Quotes:On saying goodbye to a loved one, and the memory of a child:¿On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.¿On Japanese culture at the time:¿Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives. We knew how to cook and sew. We knew how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours, saying absolutely nothing of substance at all. A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exit. We knew how to behave at funerals, and how to write short, melancholy poems about the passing of autumn that were exactly seventeen syllables long.¿On sex:¿They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. They took us swiftly, repeatedly, and all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.¿On being wife at the time:¿It was their women who taught us things we most needed to know. ¿ How to wash a lipstick stain out of your husband¿s favorite white shirt even when that lipstick stain was not yours. How to raise up your skirt on the street to reveal just the right amount of ankle. You must aim to tantalize, not tease. How to talk to a husband. How to argue with a husband. How to deceive a husband. How to keep a husband from wandering too far from your side. Don¿t ask him where he¿s been or what time he¿ll be coming home and make sure he is happy in bed.¿
Goldengrove on LibraryThing 5 months ago
The Buddha in the Attic tells the story of Japanese emigration to America, beginning with the women who trustingly boarded ships to go to the husbands they had married by proxy, arranged by the matchmaker. Mostly they found that their new husbands were neither young, handsome nor rich, but just in need of a wife. The story continues as the immigrants work in houses, farms and laundries, raise their children and settle in their new home. As the Second World War approaches they are beginning to find that their children are American, and themselves, an embarassment. Life has not been easy, but they have made themselves a place; once Japan enters the war, however, they find that now they are seen as enemy - dangerous, foreign, traitorous. All people of Japanese origin are taken to internment camps.The unique style of this book adds greatly to its emotional power. There is no narrator, no particular characters, rather, Julie Otsuka has wound together her intricate research of memories, diaries, photographs and records, and presents little snippets of lives in one story. The effect is to show us many individuals living one common experience.As the Japanese are taken away the viewpoint shifts, and we hear the thoughts of the Americans who were their nieghbours, employers and friends. The wistful tone of this part of the book reminded me - unexpectedly - of Malcolm Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. Just as the settlers on Mars barely noticed the fading away of the Martians, so the Americans became more aware of an absence than of the leaving of the Japanese: they are quickly forgotten, their houses broken into and looted, the children's school places taken by others.I found it a beautiful and haunting book.
Clara53 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Throwing caution to the wind - and why not?... - the author treads the ocean of cultural differences between America and Japan. A unique perspective. All those Japanese brides crossing the ocean to get to America, nursing all the wonderful dreams, and getting bitterly disappointed upon arriving. And then day by day building a new life, only to be thwarted by the government as the Second World War begins and being torn from their homes. Almost the whole book is written from the point of view of these women (no single protagonist, but you feel you know them all - through the powerful descriptive skill of the author), except that in the end Julie Otsuka switches to the reaction of the general American population - after their Japanese neighbors virtually disappeared.... An excellent work. It makes me want to look for the author's previous novel right away.