What I’m Reading Now: The Buddha in the Attic

The leaves of the trees continued to turn in the wind. The rivers continued to flow. Insects hummed in the grass as always. Crows cawed. The sky did not fall. No President changed his mind. Mitsuko’s favorite black hen clucked once and laid a warm brown egg. A green plum fell early from a tree. Our dogs ran after with balls in their mouths, eager for one last toss, and for once, we had to turn them away. Go home. Neighbors peered out at us through the windows. Cars honked. Strangers stared. A boy on a bicycle waved. A startled cat dove under a bed in one of our houses as looters began to break down the front door. Curtains ripped. Glass shattered. Wedding dishes smashed to the floor. And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.

Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is short. It’s 129 pages. I read it in one sitting, on the couch, in the evening. It has a very unusual structure that some people really hated or found distracting, but I loved it. It’s first-person plural. We. It’s so important to the voice of the book, because it is a book about the shared experience of being a “picture bride,” a Japanese woman sent to America to start a new life with a husband she’s only seen in a picture. That being said, the experiences are very different, and the book accounts for that with contradictory statements, one after another. It’s almost like a list, but a lyrical one. In just a few sentences, Otsuka is able to paint an incredibly vivid picture of dozens of different perspectives. Sometimes the woman comes to America and finds out the man in the picture isn’t even her husband. Sometimes it is, but the picture was taken two decades before. The husbands are gentle, violent, awkward, loving, cruel. The women have to take jobs as maids to white women who don’t like Hispanic, black, or Chinese maids. Sometimes they become prostitutes. Sometimes they are farmers.

The book is divided into 8 sections, with titles like, “Babies,” and “The Children.” It explores how when the first American-born children get older, they reject their Japanese heritage, forget the language, and change their names. Then comes the chapter, “Traitors.” I knew it was coming. How could it not? But I wasn’t prepared.

Men start to disappear only days after Pearl Harbor. There are rumors of a list of names, but no one knows how it works. Wealthy Japanese men are taken alongside dirt-poor field hands. Wives start to pack bags and leave them by the door so when a husband is taken, he has a change of clothes. Chinese people get beaten up because people think they’re Japanese. Japanese families start to burn everything that would identify them as Japanese, but they can’t burn their faces. And none of it matters in the end. They are ordered to leave.

“Extraordinary circumstances,” is what the government says.

And I look around, I listen to the rhetoric going on now about Muslims, and it’s all too familiar. It’s happening again. It hasn’t even been that long, and we’re already surrendering to fear. Don’t watch silently.

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