In this slim, delicate, lyrical novel Julie Otsuka unflinchingly and confidently does something that really is not supposed to work for Western readers, those bred in the culture of stark individualism and raised in a society where it's traditional to expect a bright spark of individuality shining through the grey masses. After all, it's the plight of one, the quest of one, the triumph of one that appeals to us - naturally, as individual and personal portrayals appeal to our innate sense of self, make us connect in a way most of us do not when faced with a collective - reflected quite well in every story, every film, every charity poster that brings out the individual behind the masses, appeals to the personal spark inside of us.
But, to quote Terry Pratchett (of course I would!), "Personal's not the same as important. People just think it is."
In The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka breaks the convention of bringing a personal, individual story to the forefront. Instead, she chooses to focus on the collective set of experiences, the collective story of a mass, the voices of many.
"On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves." (Come, Japanese!)
"That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently but firmly, and without saying a word. They assumed we were the virgins the matchmakers have promised them we were and they took us with exquisite care. Now let me know if it hurts. They took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel. They took us downtown, in second-rate rooms at the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time..." (First Night)
There is no traditional story, no traditional plot, no individual well-defined and developed characters. Instead, there are only "we", the intertwined voices of many Japanese picture brides spanning the time between coming to America - the land of promise - in the 1920s until the relocation to the internment camps in the 1940s.
"Because if our husbands had told us the truth in their letters - they were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors, in the fields, beneath the sun and the stars - we never would have come to America to do the work that no self-respecting American would do."
"Whenever we left J-town and wandered through the broad, clean streets of their cities we tried not to draw attention to ourselves. We dressed like they did. We walked like they did. We made sure not to travel in large groups. We made ourselves small for them - If you stay in your place they'll leave you alone - and did our best not to offend. Still, they gave us a hard time."(Whites)
No individual figures or stories ever appear; instead, there are bits and pieces of everyone's fates weaving together in the tapestry of a common shared experience, encompassing many strands of unique potentialities that can create a true picture only when woven together, the way single pencil strokes come together to create a breathtaking sketch. Devoured in its entirety in a single sitting, it reads almost like a poem in prose, crisp and clear, deceptive in its simplicity, full of imagery that will stay to haunt you for a while.
"Etsuko was given the name Esther by her teacher, Mr. Slater, on her first day of school. 'It's his mother's name,' she explained. To which we replied, 'So is yours.' (The Children)
This book is not for you if you need a defined character to identify with when reading a story. It is not for you if you looking for a clear traditional plot. It is not for you if you need closure for the stories you read.
But if you are looking for the understated, almost poetics in its lyricism narrative that does its best to unite the strands of individual experiences, most of the time only frustratingly hinted at, into a canvas meant to represent the experiences of a greater whole, then you may have found a perfect little volume for you in this sparse but touching little novel.
"A startled cat dove under a bed in one of our houses as looters began to break down the front door. Curtains ripped. Glass shattered. Wedding dishes smashed to the floor. And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone." (Traitors)
"And after a while we notice ourselves speaking of them more and more in the past tense. Some days we forget they were ever with us, although late at night they often surface, unexpectedly, in our dreams. [...] And in the morning, when we wake, try as might to hang on to them, they do not linger long in our dreams. [...] All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world." (A Disappearance)