There’s a certain fascination in American culture with “the immigrant experience”, which can come in three flavours depending on who is telling the story. Long-established, mostly white Americans usually write self-congratulatory dreck propping up the notion of the American Dream and tacitly supporting American exceptionalism. The actual immigrants themselves tell some fascinating stories that often depict aspects of American society that the mainstream would rather keep covered up. Accounts written by the descendants of those immigrants tend to involve an aspect of mythologization, with the Old Country (whichever country that may happen to be) turned into an object of simultaneous derision and nostalgia.
The Buddha in The Attic takes the third approach, telling the story of Japanese women who went to America in the 30s to marry Japanese men who they knew only from photos and letters after being fed the classic immigrant story of escaping the gender and class disparities of their own society to a rich life in the Glorious Enlightened West. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with that decade and the one immediately following will know that the reality turns out to be far different. The husbands are nothing like how they presented themselves and most of the women end up slaving away in poverty for a society that sees them as second class citizens and disposable objects of sexual gratification at best and potential traitors at worst. Rather than focus on any one group of characters Otsuka presents the story as the collective experience of an entire generation, always using “we” rather than “I” and almost never staying on any of the book’s hundreds of mostly-nameless characters for more than a sentence or two. It’s an approach that could have allowed a greater breadth of scope at the expense of engagement with the reader, but a lot of the micro-vignettes that make up most of the book are surprisingly evocative, sketching out locations and entire life stories in a few sentences with a level of skill that certain other writers wouldn’t be able to manage in several thousand-page novels.
The book’s writing takes on an almost poetic quality, using repeating phrases for pages at a time and randomly interspersing thoughts and snippets of dialogue to create a quasi-stream of consciousness narrative that flows serenely between subjects and emotions, leaving the reader to pluck out whatever component of the story they find particularly interesting. This can unfortunately devolve at times into pages-long sections where Otsuka simply rattles off examples of suicides and botched abortions and other tragic outcomes for her many characters. The effect is like trying to read through someone’s shopping list, but one that catalogues human misery instead of groceries.
I don’t know how historically accurate the book is- this is Otsuka’s parents generation she’s writing about and she specializes in historical fiction so I’m guessing it’s pretty close to reality- but I did feel that the story tended to apply some cultural biases in favour of the good old US of A even as it presents the ugly reality of the situation that many hopeful immigrants of that era found themselves in. The Japanese husbands are almost universally portrayed as abusive drunks while the women of the book have a tendency to run across kind-hearted brothel patrons, selfless farm bosses and quirky spinsters who consider the Help their dearest friends a bit more often than I suspect happened in real life. Or maybe not, I don’t know. It would be interesting to read some of the first-hand accounts listed in the acknowledgments section for comparison.
While nominally about Japanese women coming to America in the 30s, descriptions of the characters toiling away at work “no self respecting American would ever do” clearly echo the experiences of many South American immigrants in America today, and the latter half of the book dealing with the infamous WWII Japanese internment camps makes sly references to the rising tide of fear and suspicion after “the attack” that all but invites comparison with similar, but often overlooked hostility aimed at Muslims since the beginning of the millennium. That the ugly side of the American psyche tends to just switch targets rather than ever go away is a point I don’t feel can be emphasized enough, and I was glad to see Otsuka weave it into her book in such a central way.
The Buddha In The Attic is one of those books I feel uncomfortable really recommending because I’m basically trying to cast judgement on a retelling of someone else’s actual life experience, which I may have gotten completely ass-backward, but if nothing else it’s imperative that The Immigrant Story, such a central component of how America presents itself to the world, isn’t allowed to be safely prescribed within the experiences of white Europeans coming to the Land of Opportunity to make their fortune, as it so often is for reasons I’m assuming I don’t need to go into. I’m not qualified to say whether The Buddha In The Attic presents the story of Japanese immigrants to the US in the 30s in a way that’s respectful of the historical reality of the situation, but taken as a story based loosely on real events it kept me fairly gripped for its brief 100 pages and served as a wake-up call to the ways in which America’s sins have continued unchecked throughout the decades.