In the first few decades of the 20th century, an estimated 30,000 Japanese women arrived in the United States as “picture brides.” These were women, young and often with few prospects back home, who had agreed to marry men they only knew from photographs. The pictures often lied -- the men in the photographs were much younger than the husbands they would meet, the bankers and hoteliers in the photos would turn out to be farmers and lumber workers. In her latest novel The Buddha in the Attic  (which was nominated for the National Book Award), Julie Otsuka narrates the story of these women’s lives.
The early history of the Japanese in America is familiar terrain for Otsuka, whose first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine , narrated the lives of a Japanese American family interned during World War II. The Buddha in the Attic serves as a kind of historical prologue, spanning the decades preceding 1942 and the evacuation order that would eventually displace Japanese Americans from their homes and businesses. In eight chapters, the novel swiftly traces a chronology of these women’s lives, from one displacement to another -- their arrival in the US from Japan, and their move to the internment camps from their American homes. But the novel offers more than a historical exercise; The Buddha in the Attic displays Otsuka’s full-range of literary skill -- her prose is both spare and detailed, and the narrative itself is an interesting experiment in perspective. For narrative voice, Otsuka employs the first person plural “we,” and the effect is powerful. An opening sequence reads, “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.”
The novel continues in this way, each sentence echoing the previous, building a subtle rhythm: “Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto,” “Some of us were from Nara”; “On the boat we sometimes lay awake,” “On the boat we complained about everything.” A collective conscious of these women, whose lives are radically altered as they settle in the xenophobic landscape of early 20th century America, slowly emerges. Like the disappointment that greets them when they realized the men they had married bore “no resemblance to the young men in the photographs,” so too does the picturesque image of America fail them: “This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.”
Photo of the author by Robert Bessoir
Despite using a collective first person speaker, Otsuka, to her credit, avoids transforming the history into a univocal experience. The “we” who guides her reader takes detours and follows the stories of individuals whose names eventually come into focus. But over and again, even as the individual details of their lives diverge, the women are united by their experience of labor. In the fields, in their homes, at the neighbors’ houses, as mothers and wives, they work -- their presence integral in shaping the Pacific American landscape while simultaneously erased from it. Their husbands urge them to “say nothing at all” as they “now belong to the invisible world.” And for the Americans around them, the women’s presence is both treasured and reviled. On one hand “[t]hey admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands. Our stamina. Our discipline. Our docile dispositions. Our unusual ability to tolerate the heat,” the narrator explains. On the other, the women come to embody the nationalist fears of “Yellow Peril”: “They did not want us as neighbors in their valleys. They did not want us as friends. […] We were an unbeatable unstoppable economic machine and if our progress was not checked the entire western United States would soon become the next Asiatic outpost and colony.” This contradiction foreshadows the novel’s ending, which stages the disappearances and the eventual internment of the Japanese following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Soon the narrator speaks of the executive order for evacuation, recounting the disappearances and rumors swirling through the Japanese community. This comes to a head in the novel’s final chapter, “A Disappearance,” in which the perspective shifts from the collective voice of the Japanese women to a new collective, the town’s white residents: “The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now.” The moment is jarring and evocative; the voice that the reader had been accustomed to is suddenly disrupted, the “we” has been othered into “them.”
More than a reflection on America’s past, The Buddha in the Attic is very much a novel about the present, offering a subtle, historical allegory of our lived experience after 9/11. In an interview , Otsuka herself said she saw parallels between the treatment of the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the public scrutiny and surveillance under which Muslim Americans (and their doppelgangers) struggled in the past decade. At a few points, Otsuka cleverly weaves these moments into the novel. In the novel’s closing moments, a mayor reflects on the disappearances of the town’s Japanese residents, citing the domestic costs of war: “There will be some things that people see,” he says, “And there will be some things that people won’t see. These things happen. And life goes on.”
If the mayor’s circuitous language sounds familiar, it’s because the speech is pulled directly from former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld. In fact, there are other moments in the novel that echo the collective sense of national fear. Another town citizen relates, “There was just so much about them we didn’t know […] It made me uneasy. I always felt like there was something they were trying to hide.” In capturing the paradox of American ethos -- a land of immigrants, and a land of suspects -- The Buddha in the Attic does far more than recover this valuable moment in Japanese American history; it gestures towards a broader critique of the national culture of the United States. Therein lies its power.
Manan Desai recently completed his PhD at the University of Michigan, and currently serves on the board of directors for the South Asian American Digital Archive .