Julie Otsuka: The Buddha in the Attic

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“Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives. We knew how to cook and sew. We knew how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours, saying absolutely nothing of substance at all. A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist.

The Buddha in the Attic is a short novel based on the true experiences of Japanese-American immigrants in the early 1990s. It begins with a group of group of Japanese picture brides journeying to America on a boat to finally meet the husbands they only knew through letters and photos. They compare photos of their spouses and imagine what their new lives will be like in a foreign country where men held doors for women and it’s always “ladies first.”

However, it turns out that even in America, they will lead invisible lives — both as women and as Japanese immigrants. It turns out they were lied to. Their husbands are 20 years older than the photos led them to believe. Their husbands weren’t accomplished business men in American. It turns out they would still be farmers wives or house maids in a foreign land that didn’t welcome them.

As years go on, the women slowly lose their sense of identity. They stop grooming themselves and live routine emotionless lives as though they were machines. Working in the public for their families and working in the home for their husbands. But whatever the Japanese women do, they remain in the background — quiet, cleanly, and reliable, but always invisible.

When war breaks out, the situation worsens for Japanese Americans. Eventually, the suspicion grows and they are removed from their communities. It is only then do the Americans notice the Japanese among them. It is only when they disappear that they become present.

Overall, this book was interesting to me because it was like all of the Japanese picture brides from the both were speaking in one voice and their experiences melted together into one. It was also beautifully written — quiet and gentle, as though a Japanese person was speaking to me.
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