The first chapter of The Buddha in the Attic was printed in Granta 114 (a seriously excellent collection, by the way), and the second in Granta 115. At the time, I thought they were simply self contained short stories – beautiful short stories. When I discovered soon after that these were from a longer work, I was excited to read it. For some bizarre reason, it’s taken a while to hit Australian bookstores, but once it did, I read it almost in one afternoon.
Picture brides were Japanese women who went to America on the back of a promise. The promise of a better life, with a strapping young Japanese man to take care of them. A promise that is quickly broken. These women find themselves in a foreign land with men they don’t recognise, and with a culture that remains baffling. As the years go by, and they have families, the spectre of war looms ever closer, and their relationships are forced to undergo rapid changes. This is their story.
I think it’s fair to say that the first-person plural voice is not commonly used in contemporary English literature. It takes an author of great skill – and courage – to tackle a voice that is not first-person singular or third-person omniscient, and fortunately, Otsuka is both of these things. Her almost chorus like sentence and paragraph structures give the impression of no one individual story in this epic saga being any more important than another. These women, who have all been forced to start a journey from the same place, are, in many ways, given a stronger platform in their combined tale. With repetitive sentence fragments, a story begins to build – a story that highlights just as many differences as it does similarities. We hear stories of women who are willing to do anything to escape their lives in Japan. We hear stories of women who have been forced by their family into a marriage they don’t want. We hear stories of women who love their new husbands, and ones who run away at the first sight of danger. We hear stories of women having children, of their pain at not being able to get to a doctor in time, of their joy at finding an ally against their husband.
One of the running themes in all of these tales, though, is the us/them dichotomy that is felt by so many of these women. Us Japanese against them Americans. Most of these women don’t learn English – for a variety of reasons – and this simple fact, perhaps more than anything else, cuts them off from the rest of American society. They live in Japantown, surrounded by other Japanese speakers, or they live on farms, where they only have their husbands and their children for company. When they work as maids in the houses of rich white families, it is felt most sharply. There is a beautiful moment when one of the brides finds solace in an old Italian woman – neither can speak English – but there is no need. They are both strangers in this land, doomed never to find peace and quiet.
As with all immigrant stories, the second generation – those children born of immigrants in the new country – find themselves stuck between their family and their desire to fit in. While many of these women originally found their children allies in the world, their relationships quickly fracture as the children learn English, forget Japanese and are embarrassed by their parents. It’s a tale that’s been told many times before, though it takes on a new poignancy here in the hands of Otsuka, who draws out the mix of shame, sadness and happiness these women feel for their children.
And then there is the last chapter. Otsuka shifts perspective, from the us to the them. The Americans have a chance to tell their side of the story, at least for a little while. The reaction of everyday Americans to the brutal removal of Japanese immigrants from their suburbs and neighbourhoods. Many of them are, at first, deeply saddened by this. Though many of them seem blissfully unaware of what has actually happened to these mysterious people that once populated their streets and corner shops, there is a vague sense of unease about the whole thing. As the war shifts gear, though, and the Japanese Empire becomes a more clear enemy, many people forget these feelings of sadness, and are replaced with a nationalism aimed at exclusion. They forget how much they actually liked the Japanese, and
Small, concise and perfectly-formed, there is nothing missing from this novel. No superfluous material, no word out of place – it is meticulous. And I don’t mean that as an insult. It is clear Otsuka cares deeply about both her subject matter and her language, which makes this a pleasure to read if you have a spare afternoon.