The Buddha in the Attic is a smallish book, and so I slipped it into my bag one day, expecting to read it on the train in one sitting, and be done with it. No sort of anticipation whatsoever. I thought it would be be similar – in both tone and theme – to every other migrant experience story out there.
To me, it seems to be the case that these sorts of books never stray far from the same generic themes: cultural divide within migrant families, usually between the first-generation children, and the second generation parents; identity crises, the hardships of their new homes (see previous thoughts on this here).
It’s not that I’m insensitive to these sorts of struggles, being a second-generation Korean Australian myself. It just seems as though writers never strive to depict the migrant experience in a fresh, engaging way.
I therefore found myself being first pleasantly surprised, then rather blown away, by Otsuka’s unusual but powerful narrative technique. What’s unusual about The Buddha in the Attic is that the entire novella (I hesitate to call it a novel, because it is so slim) is narrated in a collective – i.e. plural – first person voice, which represents the voice of Japanese war brides sometime prior to the second World War.
Initially, I found the approach gimmicky, and I wondered whether it would be a prologue to stories told by each of the women. Young, fresh-faced, naive Japanese girls, I should say, rather – sailing across the oceans with nothing but photos of their betrothed and heads full of dreams and hopes. In any case, the entire novel turned out to be narrated in the same fashion.
The obvious strength of this sort of storytelling was that there was no single narrator, and I found myself imagining not just a single woman, but the lives and fates of all early Japanese migrant women in America, which I suppose was been the intended effect. A downside was that the story felt extremely fragmented. Describing this novella as having a concrete plot would be a bit of a far stretch, seeing as it’s comprised mostly of small anecdotes and fleeting glimpses of their lives.
Upon arrival, the women are crestfallen to discover that their husbands-to-be are jaded, weather-worn old bachelor farmers. The photos date back to two decades ago, when they were still fresh-faced young boys hopeful of a new future in America – and the romantic love letters are nothing but lies woven together by conniving matchmakers.
Otsuka takes us through the usual stuff of migrant misery memoirs – lost lovers, unhappy marriages, pregnancies and births and abortions and miscarriages, cultural misunderstandings, early setters’ lives, embarrassing parents and rebellious children. But towards the second half of the novella, there are glimpses of darker, more sinister things to come:
I’m referring, of course, to the lead-up to the second World War and the Japanese internment camps. She tells a story of collective blind-eye, where an entire nation of non-Japanese Americans quietly resume their lives despite the sudden, mass disappearance of neighbours and schoolchildren and corner shop owners and launders. Of entire families and communities, in fact.
A powerful piece of writing, at times gimmicky and contrived, as I mentioned previously – but it doesn’t detract from the story itself, which is a poignant and moving one of both one woman, and an entire generation of Japanese migrant wives, mothers and daughters.