Your second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, centers around Japanese women brought over to San Francisco as picture brides, in the early 1900s, to marry men they had never met in person. In the late 19th century, Japanese workers were recruited to work as cheap labor for the farms and cities of the West of the USA, particularly in California. In 1907, further immigration of Japanese laborers was curtailed, but an Agreement between the USA and Japan allowed for their children and wives to come to America. On this ground, and until 1924 – when the Immigration Act excluded entry to all Asians, on racial grounds -, many of the immigrant laborers used matchmaking services to bring over young women from Japan as picture brides.
Initially thrilled to be marrying successful, good-looking men, these young women discover upon arrival that most of the men they married were poor and old. But by then there was no going back. The plot evolves to describe these women’s lives in the new country and their relationships with their bosses and neighbors. The book follows them from their journey to America through marriage, work, childbirth and motherhood, until they and their families are sent away to internment camps in the USA, during the Second World War.
The Buddha in the Attic is composed of the fragments of these women’s stories, pieced together as a mosaic of their shattered dreams, and narrated in a chorus of laments and incantations.
The narrator (and main character) of the novel is this chorus of different voices, a disembodied ‘we’. There is no protagonist, plot or dialogue in the usual sense: instead, the novel is told in the first person plural, through a series of thematic chapters, from the point of view of many girls and women, none of whom individualized, only vividly evoked. The cast is composed of an entire community of families, whose individual stories, never fully developed, is fragmentarily told in a series of frozen scenes that intertwine with one another.
The plot is split into eight sections, and each section comprises a chapter in these women’s lives. It is narrated as a flow of collective experience and unfolds as a sequence of linked narratives, in which individual details and experiences are blurred and delivered in a plurality of voices – as if in different layers blended into a rhythmic melody meant to be sung a capella. Occasionally, a single voice breaks through this chorus, in a sentence or two in italics, never for more than a paragraph, and is swallowed again later.
The writing style is both minimalist and expansive, spare and passionate, delicate and brutal. You employ short phrases, sparse description, evocative lists and repetitions. You weave poetic devices into the narrative, so that the emotions depicted are made more resonant by iteration, rhythm and restraint.
Each chapter focuses on some aspect of Japanese immigrant life in America — marriage, work, children, the casual racism of pre-war America (“They learned that they should always call the restaurant first. Do you serve Japanese?”) — and the great variety of these women’s experiences is blended and is presented in parallel sentences ans in overlapping layers. Such enumerations work as poetic catalogues and resemble Sei Shônagon’s lists in The Pillow Book.
The Buddha in the Attic is a prelude to your previous book, When the Emperor Was Divine, about a family of Japanese Americans consigned to an internment camp in Utah, during the Second World War. The second novel ends where the first one had only begun: after Pearl Harbor, when the order comes for the Japanese to be interned in concentration camps in America. Entire communities are uprooted and forced to give up their livelihoods.
The title – Buddha in the Attic – has a threefold meaning: it represents not only the tiny object left behind when the families were forced to leave, but also the habits and traditions previously abandoned by the immigrants in an effort to adapt to the new land, as well as the forced removals of World War II and the Japanese concentration camps, as a troubling piece of history left pretty much untold.
Tagged on racial grounds and herded off like livestock to destinations unknown, the Japanese voices – “we” – become the victims of one of the most shameful acts of the 20th-century. In the final chapter, the “we” becomes “they”. After the removal of the Japanese families, the narrative “we” shifts, and the story is now told from the point of view of the white Americans left behind, who remark on the wartime “disappearance” of their Japanese neighbors and employees, whom they at first miss but gradually forget: “after a while we notice ourselves speaking of them more and more in the past tense”. The voice of the initial chorus falls silent, and all of the voices we followed in the beginning turn into vague traces, soon to be forgotten – as well as history is soon to be erased, a whole group will fade away behind barbed wire fences, and a tiny Buddha will be left behind somewhere in California.
Some might suggest that the plurality of voices employed by you does little to restore individual identities left silenced and forgotten. They argue that, as the narration seems to treat Japanese people as a group, it enacts the same procedures by which it seems easier to whisk away to concentration camps a indefinite herd than it is to deal with full individuals. On the contrary, I would argue that the “we” voice challenges the prejudice that made the Japanese internment possible, and it does so precisely by assuming the shape of a two-sided glass: at one hand, it mirrors the ways in which Japanese immigrants were cruelly stripped of their individuality and regarded as a monolithic group; on the other hand, and simultaneously, the “we” chorus turns the individuals into something more than the traces they left behind, their privately forgotten experiences. The collective portrait of many lives is not something fixed: it moves out to reveal common themes and then moves in again, to focus on individuals. A Buddha forgotten in the attic is not only a tiny useless object, but a shared story, a glimpse into individual lives through the layering of collective experience.
“Home was a bed of straw in John Lyman’s barn alongside his prize horses and cows. Home was a corner of the washhouse at Stockton’s Cannery Ranch. Home was a bunk in a rusty boxcar in Lompoc. Home was an old chicken coop in Willows that the Chinese had lived in before us. Home was a flea-ridden mattress in a corner of a packing shed in Dixon. Home was a bed of hay atop three apple crates beneath an apple tree.”
— Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
“Iyo left with an alarm clock ringing from somewhere deep inside her suitcase but did not stop to turn it off. Kimiko left her purse behind on the kitchen table but would not remember until it was too late. Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.”
— Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic