Saturday, November 24, 2012


I have happily stumbled onto the Japanese Literature Challenge #6. I say happily because I just finished reading Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic and have an overwhelming need to share its haunting beauty with other readers.

An exquisite gem of a book. The Buddha in the Attic is an emotional experience and not a casual read. It borders on poetry.

Rather than telling a story in the traditional manner, Otsuka interweaves the voices of many to create an impression of a whole and by doing so makes the argument that we dehumanize by labeling. It is the small particulars that she brings to the readers attention that make this book unique and moving.

Almost a century ago women were brought from Japan to San Francisco as 'picture brides' for the immigrant Japanese workers. The story follows them through the arc of their history up until their removal during World War II..

I had never heard about the internment of Japanese Americans until I had a roommate in college whose family had lived through the experience and ultimately left this country for Canada. A number of years ago my husband and I drove to the site of the Hart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, a desolate, isolated place that once was home to over 10,000 detainees. Apparently an interpretive center opened in 2011, but when we were there, it appeared abandoned.

The basic facts are of internment are devastating by themselves. The Buddha in the Attic makes the story personal and heart breaking.

Otsuka's  first novel, When the Emperor was Divine (2002), could be considered a companion piece in some ways. I read that stark and beautifully written novel suspecting it was drawn from family history, and in fact discovered that her grandfather was one of many suspected Japanese spies arrested shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Otsuka's mother, uncle, and grandmother were interred at a camp in Utah for three years.

My father always told me the world was not fair, but what he didn't stress is how randomly cruel it can be even for the innocent.

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