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Sunday, February 7

The Buddha in the attic by Julie Otsuka or how we challenge our humanity

Haruka left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.

The Buddha in the Attic makes a beautiful writing. It is the story of the picture brides brought from Japan to San Francisco in the decades before World War II. This group of women -Japanese-mail order brides- comes to California to marry men whose pictures they carry in their pockets, along with their dreams and hopes for a better life. Reality fails to see them come true and little by little, they go through life only to witness their world shatter to pieces.

There is nothing else to be revealed about the story. Its simplicity speaks for itself. They come by boat, they meet their men, their hearts get broken, their bodies no longer belong to them, they mother, they work the land, they cook, they clean, they love, they mother again, they cry, they fear, they die, they live, they breathe and then, they are gone. As if the world itself erased all living traces of their presence. In this mass disappearance, their houses, vegetable patches, orchards, pets, clothes, photos, memories are left behind to speak of their passing before season after season bury them. In the beginning, they are spoken of, missed, remembered, asked for forgiveness, written to, then life sneaks up on the ones left behind and soon, the Japanese are but a fleeting memory.  

Julie Otsuka writes a good story that speaks of identity, loss, guilt, blame and redemption. The use of the collective first person stands proof of her allegiance to their fate and misfortune. Her story is the vessel of these women's silent pain. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor cuts their lives short, depriving them of any rights or chance to claim their rights. In a land where they slowly gave up on their Japanese vein to better accommodate the others, they have turned into invisible walking shadows. Moved inland, they lose not only whatever they managed to amass during their lives, but the shred of dignity left in them. In the process, they are deprived of lives, loves, children, houses, money, respect, themselves. Violent uprooting is bound to erase the inner beings and render them powerless in the face of life. 

The ending is quite unexpected in terms of the choice of narrative. The writer switches from we to they; the voice no longer belongs to the women or their dreams and their hidden thoughts, but to the Americans and how they feel about the missing Japanese families. There is guilt and blame in their voices, remorse about the time unspent to gratify and acknowledge their helpers, neighbors and vendors. Their absence deepens the gap and the sense of failing to have acted humanly towards the other.

The book should be dark, yet despite the aching and the almost quiet expression of their displacement, the women's inner thoughts, feelings, emotions and confessions are heart-melting, yet positive. They sound like us, the readers, and it is easy to walk into their shoes and relate to their fears and joys. Nevertheless, like many others, this book stands a lesson to be learnt, a chance to honor these women by reading their story and carrying it not only in our minds and hearts, but beyond. We are as humane as we teach ourselves to be and as alive as we allow ourselves to be. This slender, manicured, unusual novel has the power to tell hurtful truths in a creative, unique manner that is bound to make us better human beings.

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