Showing posts with label When the Emperor was Divine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label When the Emperor was Divine. Show all posts

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.

Monday, April 14, 2014

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

For such a thin novel there’s much in Julie Otsuka’s debut, When the Emperor was Divine, worth exploring and analyzing.  Probably too much if you tend to overthink narrative offerings--to the point where a red bucket becomes a metaphor for a character's desperation.  That sort of thing...if you will.  Nonetheless, since I'm not much of a methodical reader, and many times suffer from the dreaded blocked response, I don't believe I can touch on each area that Otsuka presents surrounding her story of migration and life inside of an internment camp.  See, there’s a casserole of ingredients in the small 144 pages she serves readers, all told through the eyes of a nameless Japanese-American family and their individual collection of meditations concerning the experience.  Frankly, I don’t believe I can tackle each layer that creates her divine dish.  However, I'll try to encourage readers "not to sleep" (slang for don't miss out) on Julie Otsuka, as her tiny book does pack an informative and decent punch.

So let me cut to the chase and share what When the Emperor was Divine is about before I suggest you read it.  As I mentioned, the characters in the book are a nameless Japanese-American family consisting of a mother, son, daughter, and a father.  Upon the opening the father isn't immediately present.  His whereabouts slowly unfold, but in the meantime, his family worries themselves concerning his absence.  Each of the four players share a piece of their reality in a somewhat distance narrative moved by Otsuka’s imagery of their individual ordeal, as well as their personal contemplation of the civil changes set before them.  Nonetheless, the book opens from within their subtle lives as your average--yet not considerably so--American family living in the suburbs of 1942 Berkeley, California.  Heading the list of narrators is the mother.  Otsuka uses her to propel the tone and setting of the novel, through the woman’s silent confrontation with Evacuation Order No. 19 posts scattering her community.  

Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority
Imagine waking up to this
Without much contemplation, the mother follows the instructions within the notice.  She begins packing away her house in a voice seemingly immune to the jilt in her domestic circumstances.  She appears emotionless--or undisturbed.  You can only wonder if she's already settled with the blunt realization that America is rounding up Japanese citizens and sending them off as a response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Perhaps it's her missing husband that better explains her jaded disposition.  Nevertheless, all you know is that the government is uprooting her family and now she must close ties with the comfortable life she once lived.  That includes bludgeoning a stray dog--without a hint of hesitation--before burying its body underneath a tree in her backyard.  Later she releases the family’s pet bird that reluctantly soars away.  The next morning her and her children head to the Civil Control Station where they are tagged and shuttled on a train pointed toward a desert in Utah.  

It’s here that the narrative switches to the daughter (in her nameless state she is simply referred to as “the girl”).  While her thoughts populate most of the family’s train ride into the desert, her brother (or “the boy”) chronicles their experience in the internment camp before and after their release.  Lastly, after the U.S. government issues their apologies and reparations, the father's narrative finally surfaces.  Otsuka concludes the novel through his shattered experience enduring integrative detainment, dressed in his house slippers and bathrobe.  According to one of the messages in the book, finding oneself taken in pajamas and slippers means you were careless, unprepared for that eventual other shoe to drop.  In turn your pride is stung, swelling you with shame.

It might be hit or miss for some readers, but When the Emperor was Divine does have a plot.  The reason I point that out is because you may find yourself wondering about its direction while trapped (happily) in each characters' musings and rationalizations of the events.  Without a doubt the novel has a powerful core, you just may not realize it right away because its tonal quality appears quite meditative.  
Nonetheless, I believe my minor problem with the written aspect of When the Emperor was Divine lie in Otsuka’s fence straddling between narrative voices.  One moment I felt as if she offered a stapled narrator, the next I felt she utilize the nobody narrative to tell the story.  Then sometimes I had no clue exactly who/what was narrating, though I got the message that the exchanges happened between each consecutive chapter.  Nevertheless, I saw most of this fence straddling in the chapter exchange between the two children.  Their voices were somewhat similar in both their desires to stay connected with the friendships they left, as well as longing for their father.  It’s minor, but there came a moment of narrative confusion somewhere in the middle of the book.  That much came clear to me.  

I think much of that has to do with how Otsuka kept the occupants (the storytellers anyway) of the book nameless.  However, I refuse to label that a fault to my individual reading experience, despite my issue with the narratives.  I saw a few reviews that waggled their finger at this, though.  Undoubtedly names are helpful, but that would've taken away from Otsuka’s technique of telling the overarching stories some 127,000 Japanese-American citizens experienced during her topic era.  Experience in the sense that she uses her characters to address the devastating feelings and reactions of facing anti-Japanese paranoia (without evidence), and forward into one of the ten internment camps created to house the U.S.’s unwarranted betrayal and mistrust of its citizens.  Nevertheless, on the surface, wrapped in Otsuka’s use of expressive writing, When the Emperor was Divine wasn't written to move a political slant.  Between the nameless character meditations and the factual history that inspired its conception, When the Emperor was Divine provided a considerate voice and identity to those who experienced the actual events it addresses.

Last thoughts on Julie Otsuka's second book, The Buddha in the Attic.

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