Some books, no matter how short, draw you in, sweep you off your feet and leave you asking for more. They make you travel back in time, bring the characters right in front of you almost as if you can touch them and see for yourself how vivid words can be. They make you sad in a happy kind of way and happy in a sad way. They tell you stories of an entire generation in a few pages and few lines even. They make you feel something you cannot place and that feeling lingers when you are at Mc Donald or even just staring at the ceiling at home, lying on your favourite couch.
One such book is “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka. The book is inspired bythe life stories of Japanese immigrants who came to America in early 1900s. Otsuka has drawn upon a large number of historical sources and explores the fate of a large group of picture brides brought from Japan to US. Narrated in the first person plural, the novel opens with the women on the boat travelling from Japan to San Francisco.
The book through its incantatory sections traces the lives of these women from their arduous voyage where the girls excitedly compare photos of their husbands-to-be and fantasize about unknown features in a foriegn land; to their arrival and first-nights with their husbands; to their endless back-breaking labour as migrant workers in the fields of white owners and as helpers for white women; their struggle to adapt to a new culture and langauge; their experiences in childbirth and raising children who reject Japanese heritage; and finally, the arrival of war and how every Japanese is viewed suspiciously and their trials and the agonizing prospect of internment.
The book had me spell-bound. I loved how Otsuka has divided the book into chapters, each signifying an important phase, a collection of experiences that talk to you. It is a story of loyalty and identity. The expectations and fears of Japanese women about America is described beautifully. But if you ask me about my favourite sections, I will, without batting an eyelid, say “Babies” and “Children”. I loved how the chapter on babies opened – “We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year…. we gave birth quietly, like our mothers who never cried-out or complained….. we gave birth secretly, in the woods, to a child our husband knew was not his…. “As I sit to type the lines, I realize I may just reporoduce the entire chapter.
What makes it all the more powerful is the first person plural narrative. Honestly, I hadn’t read a book until this one, that followed this narrative style and spoke so powerfully to me. When Otsuka starts a line with “One of us..”, I loved the way it made me think of a single woman amongst the group of Japanese women I had drawn in my inner mind and sometimes, I just couldn’t figure out who it would be. Sometimes, I had a great deal of confusion identifying that woman. I loved the writing style – so simple, so classy, so power-packed and so poignant.
The women’s lives in America and how things are different from what they had been led to expect is beautifully portrayed. Many a time we have certain perceptions of a foriegn culture that come from all sorts of sources but when reality strikes, you realize how different things actually are. Sometimes they turn out to be better and sometimes not. Sometimes they shock you to the core but you go on like it has always been a part of you. But as a reader, it moves you, shocks you and makes you want to change things for the characters in some places. And yet, quite pradaoxically, you find the sadness and tragedy beautiful. It evokes something in you and makes you realize that you love reading for this same thing. And reinforces why stories are the best. Again, what makes Otsuka‘s writing spectacular, is its ability to convey so many experiences, so stories as one collective journey through a narrative in first person plural.
Read this one for the sheer narrative style; for the story of an entire generation in brief chapters; for the poignant description of children’s dreams that differed from those of their mothers; for the reminder that life enjoys playing with us by bringing about rifts between expectations and reality; for the shocking tales of so many women who call themselves “We”.