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The Buddha in the Attic

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 1:07pm by Nholtzman

The front cover features an open suitcase with a red umbrella in it.

Julie Otsuka's second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, begins like this:

"Come, Japanese!

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 eaten 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. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we'd been wearing for years-faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on." 

Otsuka's novel tells the story of Japanese "picture brides," or women that emigrated to America in the early twentieth century to marry men that they had never met. These women hoped to escape difficult living situations in Japan and to find happiness with their husbands in the United States. The reality of these brides' lives was often grim, their husbands were frequently day laborers with almost no money to speak of, and brides usually worked alongside their husbands. Lonely and isolated, these women were left to grapple with the harsh realities of their new lives far from their families in Japan. 

The Buddha in the Attic, is written in the first person plural. The reader does not follow one story or one woman, but rather a group of women who end out living in California; still, the reader begins to feel close to each woman, as if each character is telling their deepest, darkest secrets. Each woman's experience varies, and each woman struggles. We see themes of marriage, discrimination, racism, motherhood, war, and the abuse of immigrants developing throughout the novel.


A pale green cover with a plant as the main image.

Julie Otsuka's first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, deals with similar themes, although this novel tells the story of one nameless Japanese-American family. The opening scene begins with the mother of this family preparing to leave for an internment camp. Otsuka writes:

"Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She knew only that tomorrow they had to go.

There were things they could take with them: bedding and linen, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, clothes. These were the words she had written down on the back of the bank receipt. Pets were not allowed. That was what the sign had said.

It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck beneath the handle of a broomstick. She plucked out the feathers and set the carcass into a pan of cold water in the sink."

Each section of the book is narrated by a different family member, "Mother," "Daughter," "Son," or "Father." The story follows this immigrant family from the 1940's along their journey as the father of the family is taken to an internment camp, and as later, the rest of the family is forced into an internment camp in Utah. 

Both When the Emperor Was Divine and The Buddha in the Attic are well written novels that illustrate the history of discrimination and hardship that Japanese immigrants have faced upon entering the United States. In 2011, Julie Otsuka received a Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for The Buddha in the Attic

Both of Otsuka's novels have been reviewed by the New York times, the Washington Post, Kirkus, and the Huffington Post. 

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