Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
How history confounds and contains us all
The term “historical fiction” conjures images of the antebellum South, or maybe prairies and covered wagons — a sort of glamorized history, albeit at times sprinkled with privation, with mere outlines of characters that simply enforce what we already know about the time period. In The Buddha in the Attic, however, Julie Otsuka has created a history that lives and breathes with the bodies that created it. Specifically, Otsuka’s novel tells the story of Japanese women who came over to the U.S. as picture brides in the decades before WW II — their lives as wives, mothers, workers and, ultimately, internees in War Relocation Camps.
Otsuka’s grand feat is using the first-person plural “we” throughout the novel to create a sense of collective experience. The “we” allows for not only a comprehensive narration, but also a specific one. We were from Kyoto, for example, but we were also from Chiba. We worked in the fruit orchards of Fresno; we worked as a maid at a house in the city. The children were born here, or here; husbands betray in this way, or that one. There’s a beautiful rhythm to Otsuka’s lists of all of the possibilities of these lives, and Samantha Kwan’s compelling reading brings out the lyricism in Otsuka’s prose.
Particularly moving is the build-up to the Japanese American Internment, that shameful, often-unspoken chapter in U.S. history. Otsuka captures the whispering of something ominous ahead, the fear, and the mixed emotions — the desire, for example, to be out late once a curfew for Japanese Americans is established, though “we” have never wanted to be out late before; the willingness of mothers to let their sons stay out wandering all night, wearing pins that say “I am Chinese,” because they might soon be robbed of their boyhood. In a particularly effective move, once her collective women protagonists have been “relocated,” Otsuka’s last chapter shifts narrators. The shift is a surprise, and an opening up, an expanding of the story. In this way, Otsuka truly lets us see how history confounds and contains us all.