The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka: shattering “the single story”

The Buddha in the Attic is a novel I picked up from the shelf because its title intrigued me and when I read that it told the story of Japanese immigrants to the United-States in the first part of the XX° century, I bought it without thinking twice. I practice a Japanese buddhism so I’m interested in anything Japanese (and learning the language has been on my bucket list for years, though, strangely enough, I still haven’t managed to find the time).


I’ve never read anything like this short novel. Eight chapters recount the journey of young Japanese women who, coming from all parts of Japan, boarded on a boat with destination California, where their soon-to-be husbands would meet them and a new life would start. Although each chapter is devoted to a specific topic (the trip, the first night with their husbands, their relations with the Whites, the birth of their babies…), the novel also manages to tell a chronological story that goes up to an event which is, I think, not much talked about in the American history (not that I’m much of a reference on the matter but I had never heard a single word about it, though I did study this specific period, so I’m wondering…). I don’t want to spoil any interested readers so I’ll just let you dive into the book to discover what I’m talking about, here!


Julie Otsuka realises a rare tour de force: while the many stories are told by an anonymous “we”, she invites us to an intimacy that lasts no longer than a sentence but that almost breaks our hearts, so poignant are the anecdotes. In The Buddha in the Attic, the narrator is a collective voice that takes responsibility for all the stories of those thousands of women who came and faced the hardships of migration, disappointment, integration, mis-integration (if not disintegration), racism, rape, fear. And although their many voices fuse in this single “we”, we (reader) get to hear individual stories intertwined within this chorus, lost voices that resurface to bear testimonies to their long, sad and strenuous lives, in just a few words. Let me just show you how it works with this extract from the very first page:


Some of us  came from the city, and wore stylish 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 (…). Some of us came from the mountains and had never 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.”


On and on goes the description of these shy, hopeful, courageous and naive women who left everything to go to a country that was not ready to welcome them.


If the first chapters depict the difficult encounters with husbands who had not been very honest in their letters (sometimes not honest at all), we feel the bond between husbands and wives sometimes (but not always) strengthening when the two of them face outright racism, unjustified attacks on their fields or unjustified firings from the Americans they work for as maids. All the while, we are shown how the Japanese community struggles to understand the American culture and how they do their best not to disturb, not to bother, not to be seen. “Remember to make them feel comfortable. Be humble. Be polite. Appear eager to please. Say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir”, and do as you’re told. Better yet, say nothing at all. You now belong to the invisible world.”


The Buddha in the Attic is the story of this progressive invisibilisation told from the inside by women (and men, though the voices here only belong to women) who just wanted to blend in and tried to fend for themselves. When I read the title, I wondered whether there was an allusion to the concept of “the madwoman in the attic”, that dates back to the 1979 feminist reading of XIX° century novels (thank you Wikipedia for the exact date). “The madwoman in the attic” initially refers to the wife of Rochester, in Jane Eyre, who is shut away in the attic because of her madness, but then extends to other women of XIX° novels. I’ve never read the study, which is why I will only outline general ideas here (but I promise, one day I will). Except for the hysteria that grabs the Americans at the beginning of the war (or before the war, for the most racist of them), there’s not much madness and hysteria in Julie Otsuka’s novel. However, it seems hardly incidental that both titles are so similar. And indeed, if men (mostly, men) in the XIX° century were uncomfortable with madwomen, The Buddha in the Attic tells the story of the uneasiness which plagued the relations between two peoples, the alterity, this time, being not gendered but racial. Consequently, the otherness of the Japanese immigrants being too obvious, they did all that was in their power to hide it, to blend in (“And they lived American, too. (…) Not a Japanese touch anywhere. Not even a vase.“), even though most of them never mastered the English language (“And after fifty years in America these would be the only words of English some of us could still remember by heart.”). And this meant relegating their Buddhas, their beliefs and all that would be “too Japanese” to the attic, where no one would ever see them. Looks like each century tries to hide what it considers to be its demons, and every century is afraid of the difference (something that still hasn’t changed).

The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka
The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka

A question that often came to my mind during my reading was: can this get any worse?! Past the first chapter that is, mostly, brimming with joy and hope, we seem to perpetually go from bad to worse. I think the worst was the narrations of the young women’s first night with their husbands: so many rapes… But then, the descriptions of their life in the country is appalling and when we follow “some of them” to the city we realise that they are not better off because “[the Whites] did not want us as neighbours in their valleys. They did not want us as friends.” Racism is everywhere and when the war bursts in, things get… well, worse.


A surprising change of focalisation at the end of the novel tells the story of the Japanese “from the other side”. But then the story is incomplete, made of polite indifference (when not active racism), friendly condescension, and doesn’t go further than what appearances show: “But the last time any of us saw Mr. Mori at the fruit stand he was just as friendly as ever.” This chapter was one of the most heartbreaking for me because it reveals that the encounter could have happened, if only there had been less fear of the Other, less stereotyping, more curiosity and open-mindedness. Am I being too naive here? Probably. But like too often when two cultures meet, that is, when actual human beingsmove across the globe, “the danger of a single story“, which Adichie discusses so well in this Ted Talk, prevents the possibility of a genuine encounter. One reduces the other to a stereotype, a fixed image of a possibly dangerous otherness that will give one a good reason not to befriend “the other”. “We weren’t sure. There were good ones and bad ones I guess. I got them all mixed up.” That is why, even though The Buddha in the Attic tells a specific story of migration, set in a specific historical context, some topics remain terribly relevant today.The dozens of stories we are given to discover in the space of no more than one or two sentences each time shatter the stereotypes, “the single story”. They reinvent the human beings behind the clichés, with their histories, their loves and hopes, their struggles and their burning angers, their endearing habits and hilarious lacks of understanding of some American cultural habits. They give voice to a diversity of characters that haunt us when we’ve finished the novel, and they make us regret that the genuine encounter with the Americans never actually happen.This book is 129-page long. You will not regret the few hours spent reading it…


And if you read it, or already have, please share your thoughts !

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email