Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

“But until then we would stay in America just a little bit longer and work for them, for without us, what would they do?  Who would pick the strawberries from their fields?  Who would get the fruit down from their trees?  Who would wash their carrots?  Who would scrub their toilets?  Who would mend their garments?… And so we folded up our kimonos and put them away in our trunks and did not take them out again for years.”

Otsuka uses the nobody narrative to encompass the voice of Japanese women who once arrived in America underneath the circumstances of a picture bride.  Whether these brides embarked to America a virgin, a farmer’s daughter, a seamstress, or a geisha, she’s in the boat's berths envisioning an ambitious future in the west.  Of course she sailed into the journey unaware of the reality surrounding her destination.  Nevertheless, she (actually many shes) left from places such as Tokyo, Yamanashi, Lake Biwa, and Manchuria with hopes for good fortune in another country.  The opportunity seemed life enhancing, as opposed to a life working a field or following a servitude path behind men.  Unfortunately for these hopeful women, the futures they tried to escape mostly occurred anyway.  This became clear the moment they walked over American soil, looking into the faces of their disappointment in the form of husbands ten years older than the initial photographs they received previous to their voyage.  Many weren't prepared for that first night when their husbands took them without aversion.  They were their wives after all.  Nor were the women prepared for the valleys and orchards of Sacramento, where their time lay spent picking fruit and potatoes under the watchful eye of white landowners who didn't share their language.  

Nevertheless, they were here.  In America.  Only later will they see that their civil conditions will allow them opportunities, even after America's betrayal toward them.  Some grew to support their husbands, fulfilling their roles as helpful wives assisting him with his aspirations.  Some grew swollen with resentment.  Some went back to Japan.  Sometimes under force.  Some moved out of the fields and into wealthy white households as the help.  And some gave up completely, seeking American opulence in the pockets of many men.

I kind of wish I read Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic before When the Emperor was Divine.  Actually, I encourage reading it before her debut, should you decide to become swept by both books.  I suggest this for two reasons--though not necessarily… necessary.  One: The Buddha in the Attic limelights an era before the 1940s, specifically before the subject of Japanese-American internment camps that governed Otsuka's previous book.  See, some time between the mid 19th and early 20th century, Japanese men and women began immigrating to America.  While many arrived as labor in the sugar plantations of Hawaii, some arrived as picture brides to established (as well as not so) Japanese men.  Otsuka uses The Buddha in the Attic to tell the stories of these immigrating women, beginning with their voyage aboard a boat headed to their selective husbands residing in 1920s San Francisco.  

The second reason why I suggest you read The Buddha in the Attic first runs right into my first reason.  See, about a quarter away from the end the story moves into a rehashing of the subject Otsuka spent her debut illustrating.  She re-addresses the subject that constructed When the Emperor was Divine organically, though.  However, I caught a couple of anecdotes pulled from Emperor and placed in Buddha, particularly those describing the fate of unseen characters "re-effected" by the internment crisis.  Maybe I had no business reading both books back to back, but I did find myself slightly disinterested.  I say that only because the detailings, themes, discussions, and tone was so defined in Emperor that I went into Buddha for those same elements told exclusively in relation to Japanese picture brides.  Don't get me wrong because I did get and enjoy Buddha.  I just left wishing I'd read Emperor first.  It just seemed correct to have done so.  Hard to describe I suppose.  Anyway, I guess I’ll have to get into all that another time, and instead explain more of what I took from The Buddha in the Attic.

So lastly, while there’s no direct plot or narrator per se, The Buddha in the Attic unfolds the many, branching stories of Japanese picture brides through six chapters designated with subjects related to their journey.  An example, like a chapter titled “First Night“, details a bride’s dreadful first night in America with her husband.  And chapters titled “Babies” and “Children” centers around a picture bride’s birth into motherhood.  Otsuka shares their stories through poetic imagery, told in a collective that I would consider a 129-paged character portrait.  Because no one story is exactly the same, and it’s an encompassing portrait of picture brides, sometimes Otsuka would dish the various viewpoints of the brides and their life-related details through a list of short, rote-toned sentences.  Therefore, some of those branching details go unexplored beyond a simple sentence, whereas some gather a little more detail.  Some instances Otsuka provides framed narratives in the form of letters sent to their families in Japan.  Which are always eye-opening.

I really enjoyed The Buddha in the Attic.  I suppose I should considering I picked it up at 8am and finished it a little after 12pm.  Meaning I was hypnotized to it throughout a single sitting.  Maybe that’s a nod to its slim length--and maybe not.  The truth is that once I attached myself to the voice of Otsuka’s picture brides, I couldn't let go.  Chapter by chapter I had to witness the uncovering of her life.  Add it to your reading list!

More on Julie Otsuka's first book, When the Emperor was Divine.

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