PEN/Faulkner Award winner: Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

March 27th, 2012 § 2 comments

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years – faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.

One of the hardest narratives to write is that of a common experience. Ask ten people who witnessed or experienced an event to describe it and you are going to get ten, sometimes opposing, different answers. This is especially true when writing a narrative history of a population’s experiences. In attempting to describe a common “we,” too often historians (the “true” storytellers) fall back into choosing what might be considered “representative samples” to replace any attempt at a narrative “we.”

In her second novel, Julie Otsuka audaciously attempts to write an entire short novel in contrasting first-person plural and (briefly) third-person plural narratives. Too easily could such an attempt flounder on the shores of repetitive sentence structure (we did this, we heard that) or have the narrative flow crash against the shoals of bland sameness. What Otsuka does in her recounting of the collective experience of Japanese “picture wives” from the early decades of the 20th century, through discrimination, cultural clashes, diminished (and increased) gender roles, childbirth, dealing with their children’s Americanized value systems, to World War II and the rise of the internment camps is remarkable. She gives both a collective voice and haunting individual voices.

Take for instance the passage quoted above. The reader encounters snippets of haunting tales (“or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away”) throughout these narratives, broken into eight thematic parts that chart the collective development of these women through their youth to their mature years (with the notable exceptions of those who go mad, are beaten to death, or are sent back to Japan for infidelity or infertility). Otsuka’s narrative becomes in many regards a sparse meta-narrative on establishing a cultural identity in a foreign land and how so many individual lives can be subsumed by their environs.

Otsuka’s prose is deceptively simple. It would be too easy to listen to the rise and fall of each paragraph, as the plural narrators speak almost poetically of their lives, their dreams, and their disappointments. Like whispers in a gale, the hints of certain voices arising repeatedly throughout this book can be easily missed. Perhaps that is part of the point; in noting the collective experiences of these women in group narratives, the personality of individual narrators can be lost. Otsuka manages to avoid this trap for most of the book; we the readers experience what they the narrators undergo without much, if any, loss in emotive power.

There are very few weaknesses in The Buddha in the Attic. The main structural issue comes in discussing the “they” surrounding the “we.” Although the point is to accentuate the foreignness of the Americans who stand at some remove from the Japanese immigrants, there are times where their actions feel too remote from what transpires. By the time the “Traitors” section is reached, the “they” are less than shadows of voices; they are reduced to symbols for estrangement, of suspicious separation. When the “they” gain their narrative voices at the end, there is not as much narrative force because “they” are ironically reduced to the quasi-ghosts that the Japanese and other immigrant groups experienced for decades in American histories. But that perhaps is exactly the point and perhaps that lack of corresponding narrative counterpoint is intended to underscore the power of Otsuka’s collective narrative.

On the whole, The Buddha in the Attic is a narrative tour de force of a too-long neglected era of American history. Otsuka’s prose manages to walk the narrative tightrope line between blandness and and triteness. Amidst the collective narrative lurks flitting yet moving mini-narratives in which a life and that woman’s experiences can be told in a single sentence, leaving the reader to imagine vividly the spaces that exist between. This is a powerful story told in a bold, creative fashion. The Buddha in the Attic certainly was a worthy winner for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award, even despite the other shortlisted titles, each of which were strong entries that certainly merit further consideration from readers who have yet to encounter their works.

§ 2 Responses to PEN/Faulkner Award winner: Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic"

  • Heloise says:

    While I’m usually not particularly keen on literary awards (except to scan the long- and shortlists for interesting works I might not otherwise have heard of), I have to say that this seems like an excellent choice for this particular award – not just for the quality of Julie Otsuka’s novel (which I have yet to read) but because of its experimenting in narrative voice, something that is also distintive for Faulkner’s best works and which is one of the main reasons why they are so great. I find myself very much intrigued by the concept of having a collective protagonist and antagonist, and hope that I will get around to reading The Buddha in the Attic soon.

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