Have you ever heard Japanese chanting? The Japanese language is full of short syllables and powerful vowels; it is made for chanting. To hear hundreds of children chanting in Japanese is a marvelous thing, their many voices converge in short bursts of unity. Even in America, most Zen Buddhists continue to chant the sutras in Japanese, as there is a rhythm to the language that is both precise and soothing. What does that have to do with The Buddha in the Attic (Anchor, 2012), by Julie Otsuka?
Well, everything, really.
The Buddha in the Attic imagines what it was like to come to America for young Japanese women in the early 20th century. Julie Otsuka makes the brave decision to write in first person plural (think ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ as the dominant pronoun) seem like the no big deal. By writing from the perspective of an entire group of women, Otsuka manages to capture the cultural aspect of the experience rather than just portraying a singular experience. Much like Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, Otsuka uses repetition (we came, we left, we saw, we picked….) to sharpen the point of the narrative and drive it deeper into the reader’s consciousness.
In the Japanese chanting I have heard there is often a main chant and a counterpoint; a single braid woven out of many threads. Somehow, the ‘we’ in this book has the same effect. I wasn’t sure about Otsuka’s ability to carry this off for an extended period of time (after all, it’s a pretty cumbersome and unusual way to write that does not necessarily draw you in to the identity of a single character), but her writing is so steady and her details painstakingly chosen. The Buddha in the Attic is a portrait of a generation of women written in collage.
The Buddha in the Attic is actually the second book that Otsuka wrote that addresses the Japanese-American experience. Her first book, When the Emperor was Divine (Anchor, 2003), is the story of a specific family and their experience in an internment camp in the United States during World War II. While not as dramatically riveting as The Buddha in the Attic, Otsuka manages to make the family’s experience universal by not naming any of the characters, although she dives deep into their internal processes. Read together, these two novels offer the reader access to a piece of cultural history that is both fascinating and horrifying.
I recommend them both.