This month’s Britmums Reading Group read is Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic,
a slim volume that nevertheless packs a powerful punch. Here is my review:
*N.B. Do not read any further if you have only started the book and don’t want to know what happens …
The book tells the story of the lives of Japanese women who immigrated to America in the early 1900s. Aboard ship they are both fearful and excited at the prospect of what lies ahead – lives so different from their own they can hardly imagine: houses three times the size of their own with pianos in their front parlours; men and women dancing cheek to cheek all night long; the handsome husbands to whom they have been promised, who they know only from the photographs they have been sent.
The story is narrated in the first person plural, giving the collective voice of a whole generation of women, interwoven with individual (but unnamed) voices ‘I was thirteen years old and I had never looked a man in the eye’.
Otsuka manages this brave choice of narrative voice very skillfully, engaging the reader in the lives of these women, while at the same time making a strong political point – we now only know of these women as a collective, their personal voices lost apart from snippets, due to the fate that was to befall them.
Like the women aboard the boat, as I read I shared their excitement, and was as crestfallen as they were when it turned out that the handsome husbands and lives promised to them were all a sham. The next sections of the book are harrowing, describing the hard and various lives and experiences of the women in America, but the most unsetttling of all is the denouement, when the Japanese disappear and are soon forgotten in the lands where they had settled.Then the narrative voice shifts, from the collective voice of the Japanese to the collective voice of the Americans, or of ‘we’, the readers of the book. We stood by and let the Japanese be taken off to internment camps without really noticing, we quickly forgot about them.
The Buddha in the Attic inspired me to learn more about the fate of Japanese immigrants in America in the interwar periods, and most of all about the internment camps that they were taken to in their thousands (around 100,000 Japanese were removed from their homes and interned in camps).
A good starting point for those who wish to know more is Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. Lange, perhaps better known for her photographs of migrant farm workers during the Depression era, documented the transportation and relocation of the Japanese into internment camps, but the majority of her photographs were suppressed by the administration – stamped ‘impounded’ – only to be discovered in the archives in 2006.
(Read more about Lange’s photographs and the Japanese internment camps here)
What was it about Lange’s photographs that made the government deem them unfit for public consumption? Lange was allowed photograph in one of the ‘better’ camps, so it was not so much that she was depicting harsh conditions (there were much worse camps than Manzanar where she was photographing), but that the photographs she took showed the humanity of her subjects, could these really be the ‘enemy’ that needed locking away?
Of course they weren’t, and in 1988 then American President Ronald Regan issued a formal apology to those of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during WWII, alongside $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim.
The Buddha in the Attic, and the real life story that it is based on, is a powerful reminder of what happens if we allow our enemies to be constructed for us (I take that phrase from the excellent article Woolwich and Terror: We Must Resist Having Our Enemies Constructed For Us). In the 80s, when I came from Ireland to England, I was the enemy, not an individual, but just ‘Irish’. Today the enemy is ‘Muslim’, in the late 30s it was ‘the Japanese’.
With the American construction of FEMA camps being accepted as a reality and not just something dreamt up by conspiracy theorists, it seems more pertinent than ever to be reminded not only the power governments have to literally ‘remove’ what and who they consider a threat, but also to be conscious of our own part in that process, by allowing it to happen, by being brainwashed, by having our enemies constructed for us.
Buy The Buddha in the Attic from Amazon: