The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
129 pp., $22.00 cloth

Buddhist practice in America did not start with the Beats in San Francisco or the Transcendentalists in New England. The first American Buddhists were more l96_ZigmondReviewikely ordinary Asian immigrants, first from China and later from Japan, Korea, and beyond. These laborers and merchants, farmers and domestics, planted the first seeds of the dharma that now bloom across the continent.

In her latest novel, The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka brings us the stories of one such wave of immigrants, the Japanese “picture brides” who sailed to San Francisco in the early 1900s. Crammed below deck in steerage class with what possessions they could carry (including a single photograph of the man they expected to marry), these young women left everything they knew behind for an alien and, as it turned out, often hostile land:

On the boat we carried with us in our trunks all the things we would need for our new lives: white silk kimonos for our wedding night, colorful cotton kimonos for everyday wear, plain cotton kimonos for when we grew old, calligraphy brushes, thick black sticks of ink, thin sheets of rice paper on which to write long letters home, tiny brass Buddhas, ivory statues of the fox god, dolls we had slept with since we were five, bags of brown sugar with which to buy favors, bright cloth quilts, paper fans, English phrase books, flowered silk sashes, smooth black stones from a river that flowed beneath our house, a lock of hair from a boy we had once touched, and loved, and promised to write, even though we knew we never would . . .

Otsuka’s unusual use of the first person plural continues throughout the book, and the resulting collective perspective brings us deep into her rich narrative of the immigrant experience as these women lived it. Not until the very end does she even use the women’s names. But despite the collective voice and the anonymity, these women emerge as individuals from the beginning. They are a diverse lot: farmers’ daughters, cultured young ladies from the city, a rich widow, a former dancing girl—some as young as 12 and 13. Yet nearly all sail with a dewy-eyed view of America as a place where “women did not have to work in the fields and there was plenty of rice and firewood for all.”

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