“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?”
It is hard to deny the importance of history. Knowledge of history allows us to contextualize and explain current events. We teach history in schools so that the leaders of the future can identify our past mistakes and learn from them.
It is important, however, to acknowledge the limitations of the history we are taught. More specifically, it is important to acknowledge that the historical narrative that actually makes it into our textbooks is often from only one point of view. As we say here in the United States, the winners write the history books.
This is why I think historical fiction is so important. The beauty of historical fiction is that it allows us to view the same history we’re taught in school, but from a different perspective than what we’re used to. These alternative narratives provide us with a more fully formed understanding of past events and allow us to interpret the lasting effects of those events more accurately.
It was with this in mind that I decided to pick up Julie Otsuka’s novel The Buddha in the Attic for my first read of 2017.
The Buddha in the Attic opens in the early 20th century with a group of Japanese women traveling by boat to America. These women are Japanese picture brides, who leave behind their homes and families to marry men that they have never actually met. Upon arriving in the U.S., the women quickly discover that, as men of color, their husbands do not have much money or power. They work in low-paying jobs as farmhands, gardeners, launderers, and restaurant owners. They are poor, landless, hardened, and often bitter men and the women feel very much alone as they struggle to adapt to this strange new world.
There are many novels that examine the historical Japanese-American experience. What sets this novel apart is Otsuka’s writing style. She makes the very interesting decision to have all of the women narrate the novel at the same time, as a crowd not unlike the chorus in a Greek play. They speak as “we” and in each paragraph, the reader is able to glimpse dozens of different lives all at once.
“We picked their strawberries in Watsonville. We picked their grapes in Fresno and Denair. We got down on our knees and dug up their potatoes with garden forks on Bacon Island in the Delta…
And when the harvest season was over we tied our blanket rolls to our backs and, cloth bundles in hand, we waited for the next wagon to come, and we traveled on.”
Even if Otsuka had written this in the third person, The Buddha in the Attic would have been a striking tale of immigration and Otherness, survival and persecution. But the use of the plural first person “we” does something a third person narrative simply cannot: it draws the reader into the crowd of Japanese women and makes it harder for the reader to separate themselves from the characters’ experiences and emotions. “We” experience everything with the women, from the struggle of life in the fields to the difficulties of raising children who are more American than Japanese to Japanese internment in the wake of Pearl Harbor. It’s honestly one of the most effective narrative techniques I’ve come across.
And yet I am also certain that this style of writing will not be everyone’s cup of tea. In the few negative reviews I managed to find on The Buddha in the Attic, the main problem seems to be this communal point of view. Some readers find it repetitive, others annoying. I myself wasn’t completely sure how I felt about at first. My advice: keep reading. Not only will you get used to the rhythmic quality of Otsuka’s narrative, but she also begins to vary the structure more and more as the novel goes on.
That being said, if you asked me for one good reason to read this novel, I wouldn’t tell you to read it for the writing. No, I would tell you to read it because it is still frighteningly relevant today.
Thematically, The Buddha in the Attic is a novel in two distinct parts. Part one is a story of immigration, from the first arrival in a new land to the difficulties of adapting to a new culture and language. Part two explores life as a distinct minority group and the challenges of segregation and discrimination. But most importantly for today’s readers, it looks at the persecution of a single minority group not from the outside, but from the inner most thoughts of the persecuted minority itself.
It is because of this that I am classifying The Buddha in the Attic as required reading for 2017. True, the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II isn’t exactly the brightest spot in U.S. history. But it is only by acknowledging this history and studying it from all sides that we can prevent the past from repeating itself.
About the Author: Julie Otsuka
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She received an MFA from Columbia University and is a multi award-winning author. Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, was based on her family’s own experiences of Japanese-American internment. The Buddha in the Attic was nominated for the National Book Award in 2011.