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Buddha in the Attic (Otsuka)

The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka, 2011
Knopf Doubleday
144 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307700001


Summary
Julie Otsuka’s long awaited follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine (“To watch Emperor catching on with teachers and students in vast numbers is to grasp what must have happened at the outset for novels like Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird” —The New York Times) is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ nearly a century ago.

In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces their extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war.

In language that has the force and the fury of poetry, Julie Otsuka has written a singularly spellbinding novel about the American dream. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—May 15, 1962
Where—Palo Alto, California, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University; M.F.A., Columbia University
Awards—Guggenheim Fellowship; Asian| American Literary Award
Currently—lives in New York, New York


Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia.

Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine (2002), is about the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II. It was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist. The book is based on Otsuka's own family history: her grandfather was arrested by the FBI as a suspected spy for Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. When the Emperor Was Divine has been translated into six languages and sold more than 250,000 copies. The New York Times called it "a resonant and beautifully nuanced achievement" and USA Today described it as "A gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you'll ever learn."

Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic (2011), is about a group of young Japanese 'picture brides' who sailed to America in the early 1900s to become the wives of men they had never met and knew only by their photographs.

Otsuka's fiction has been published in Granta and Harper's and read aloud on PRI's "Selected Shorts" and BBC Radio 4's "Book at Bedtime." She lives in New York City, where she writes every afternoon in her neighborhood cafe.

Extras
When asked what book most influenced her life or career, here is what she said:

When I first started writing I read all of Hemingway's short stories, beginning with the Nick Adams stories in In Our Time. I remember thinking, 'oh, so that's how you do it.' Now I'm much less convinced, however, that there's a right way to do it. Still, he was the writer I first imprinted myself on, and I go back to his stories often, if only for the pleasure of listening to the sound of his sentences, his cadences.  (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
n the Japanese art of sumi-e, strokes of ink are brushed across sheets of rice paper, the play of light and dark capturing not just images but sensations, not just surfaces but the essence of what lies within. Simplicity of line is prized, extraneous detail discouraged. Although Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California...she seems perfectly attuned to the spirit of sumi-e.... Proof arrived almost a decade ago...with the publication of her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, a spare but resonant portrait of one Japanese-American family's daily life, at home and in the internment camps, during World War II. Now she returns with a second novel, also employing a minimalist technique, that manages to be equally intimate yet much more expansive.
Alida Becker - New York Times


Poetic.... Otsuka combines the tragic power of a Greek chorus with the intimacy of a confession. She conjures up the lost voices of a generation of Japanese American women without losing sight of the distinct experience of each.... An understated masterpiece . . . The distillation of a national tragedy that unfolds with great emotional power.... The Buddha in the Attic seems destined to endure.
Jane Ciabattari - San Francisco Chronicle


Spare and stunning.... Otsuka has created a tableau as intricate as the pen stokes her humble immigrant girls learned to use in letters to loved ones they’d never see again.” Celia McGee - Oprah Magazine


(Starred review.) In the early 1900s, numerous Japanese mail order brides came to America seeking better lives. Otsuka's (When the Emperor was Divine) latest novel paints a delicate, heartbreaking portrait of these women. Using a collective first-person narrator ("On the boat we were mostly virgins."), Otsuka looks at the experiences of these "picture brides," organizing their stories into themes which include: their arrival in America; their first nights with their husbands; their interactions with white people; their children; and finally, the experience of World War II. Each section is beautifully rendered, a delicate amalgam of contrasting and complementary experiences. Readers will instantly empathize with these unnamed women as they adjust to American culture, a remarkable achievement considering Otsuka's use of the collective voice. Otsuka's prose is precise and rich with imagery. Readers will be inspired to draw their own parallels between the experiences of these women and the modern experience of immigration. By the time readers realize that the story is headed toward the internment of the Japanese, they are hopelessly engaged and will finish this exceptional book profoundly moved.
Publishers Weekly


In her acclaimed When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka wrought third-person narratives of a northern California Japanese family facing internment and alienation during World War II. Now she gives us a luminous second novel, setting off from the early 20th century on a ship of "picture brides" headed from Japan to San Francisco to meet Japanese workers who have arranged to marry them. Otsuka works an enchantment upon her readers—no Sturm und Drang here—and leaves us haunted and astonished at the powers of her subtlety and charms. This time she employs a choral-like narrative expressed in the third-person plural, with a gentle use of repetitive phrasing ("One of us..."; "Some of us...") punctuated by small, italicized utterances representing individual voices. The results are cumulatively overwhelming, as we become embedded in the hope, disenchantment, courage, labor, and resignation of these nameless women and their families across four decades. Did they think all their compromises, their search for community, meant that they had found a place here in America? Or, just as they had been upon their arrival in California, were they mistaken about what this land had to offer them? Verdict:  Unforgettable and essential both for readers and writers. —Margaret Heilbrun
Library Journal


(Starred review.) An incantatory and haunting group portrait.... Drawing on extensive research and profoundly identifying with her characters, Otsuka crafts an intricately detailed folding screen depicting nearly five decades of change as the women painstakingly build meaningful lives, only to lose everything after Pearl Harbor. This lyrically distilled and caustically ironic story of exile, effort, and hate is entrancing, appalling, and heartbreakingly beautiful. —Donna Seaman
Booklist


Otsuka, whose first novel (When the Emperor Was Divine, 2003) focused on one specific Japanese-American family's plight during and after internment, takes the broad view in this novella-length consideration of Japanese mail-order brides making a life for themselves in America in the decades before World War II. A lovely prose poem that gives a bitter history lesson.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. The Buddha in the Attic is narrated in the first person plural, i.e., told from the point of view of a group of women rather than an individual. Discuss the impact of this narrative decision on your reading experience. Why do you think the author made the choice to tell the story from this perspective?

2. Why is the novel called The Buddha in the Attic? To what does the title refer?

3. The novel opens with the women on the boat traveling from Japan to San Francisco. What does Otsuka tell us is “the first thing [they] did,” and what does this suggest about the trajectories of their lives?

4. What are the women’s expectations about America? What are their fears? Why are they convinced that “it was better to marry a stranger in America than grow old with a farmer from the village”?

5. Discuss Otsuka’s use of italics in the novel. What are these shifts in typography meant to connote? How do they add to our knowledge of the women as individuals?

6. Otsuka tells us that the last words spoken by the women’s mothers still ring in their ears: “You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong.” What does this mean, and how does the novel bear this out?

7. In the final sentence of “First Night,” Otsuka writes, “They took us swiftly, repeatedly, all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.”  Discuss the women’s first nights with their new husbands. Are there particular images you found especially powerful? How did you feel reading this short chapter?

8. Why was the first word of English the women were taught “water” ?

9. In the section entitled “Whites,” Otsuka describes several acts of kindness and compassion on the part of the women’s husbands. In what ways were the husbands useful to them or unexpectedly gentle with them in these early days? How does this reflect the complexity of their relationships?

10. What are the women’s lives like in these early months in America? How do their experiences and challenges differ from what they had been led to expect?  How are they perceived by their husbands? By their employers? Discuss the disparity between the women’s understanding of their role in the American economy and what Otsuka suggests is the American perception of the Japanese women’s power.

11. Later in this section, the women ask themselves, “Is there any tribe more savage than the Americans?” What occasions this question? What does the author think? What do you think?

12. Discuss the passage on p. 37 that begins, “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God.... I fear my soul has died.... And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared.”  What does Otsuka mean by “disappeared”? What is she suggesting about their spiritual lives, their inner selves? Do the women reappear in this sense in the course of the novel? When?

13. Throughout the novel, Otsuka uses the phrase “One of us....”  Why? What is the effect of this shift in point of view?  What does Otsuka achieve through this subtle adjustment?

14. Otsuka writes, “They gave us new names. They called us Helen and Lily. They called us Margaret. They called us Pearl.” Discuss how this mirrors the names taken by the women’s children later in the novel.

15. Discuss the complexities and nuances of the relationship between the Japanese women and the white women. Was it strictly an employer/employee relationship, or something more?

16. What is J-town? Why do the women choose J-town over any attempt to return home?

17. The section called “Babies” is just six pages long but strikes with unique force. What was your reaction to the experiences of the women in childbirth? Take a close look at the last six sentences of the chapter, with a particular emphasis on the very last sentence.  On what note does Otsuka end the chapter, and why? What does that last sentence reveal about Otsuka’s ideas about the future and about the past?

18. “One by one all the old words we had taught them began to disappear from their heads,” Otsuka writes of the women’s children. Discuss the significance of names and naming in The Buddha in the Attic. What does it mean for these children to reject their mother’s language? What point is Otsuka making about cultural inheritance?

19. How do the the dreams of the children differ from the dreams of their mothers?

20. Why do the women feel closer to their husbands than ever before in the section entitled “Traitors”?

21. How is the structure of the penultimate section, called “Last Day,” different from the structure of all the sections that precede it? Why do you think Otsuka chose to set it apart?

22. Who narrates the novel’s final section, “A Disappearance”? Why? What is the impact of this dramatic shift?

23. Discuss themes of guilt, shame, and forgiveness in The Buddha in the Attic.
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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