August 16, 2011

Julie Otsuka

Finding inspiration in history’s dark corners
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Novelist Julie Otsuka cannot remember when she first learned of the picture brides—women who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s to marry men from their native countries, having exchanged only pictures and sometimes letters. Growing up in California, where many Japanese picture brides landed, Otsuka knew the grandchildren of brides.

“It’s a very common first-generation story,” she explains during a phone interview from Manhattan. But as an adult, she was fascinated by them. “They were so brave. And they were young, too. And there are so many interesting stories that I heard in my research and I wanted to tell . . .” she says in a rush, and even with a bad phone connection her excitement is audible 700 miles away. “I wanted to be able to tell them all.”

And so she did, making a daring narrative choice in her frequently mesmerizing, slender new novel about the Japanese picture brides, The Buddha in the Attic.

“On the boat we were mostly virgins,” the first chapter begins, using the first person plural—or the “we” voice as Otsuka calls it. The chapter concludes some 16 exhilarating pages later with their arrival in San Francisco: “This is America, we would say to ourselves, “there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.” It is a voice that Otsuka maintains through their first nights with their husbands, the birth of their children, and years of toil and sacrifice as they struggle to find their way in a country that will later betray them.

“They were so brave. And they were young, too.”

Finding that “we” voice was pivotal for Otsuka, an admitted perfectionist whose critically acclaimed first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, was published in 2002. “For me it was a very freeing voice. It allowed me to show a bigger world than I could have if I were using the point of view of one of the brides only.” Although the novel is panoramic in scope, Otsuka has the moves of cinematographer, zooming in for close-ups, then pulling back for wide lens group shots: “One of us filled the sleeves of her white silk wedding kimono with stones and wandered out into the sea, and we still say a prayer for her every day.”

“I think a lot of them ended up unhappy marriages,” Otsuka says. “I think most of them probably felt betrayed from the moment they arrived in America because most of the men were much older than they appeared to be in their photographs. Or else they had sent photographs of other people.” They were also frequently poor. But if the novel begins like many an immigrant story—upon arrival in an America unlike the America promised—it concludes like no other. In the penultimate chapter, the picture brides and their families are forced to leave their homes, since Japanese and Japanese-Americans, many of them American citizens, were considered potential traitors and arrested and/or sent to camps or detention centers in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The final chapter is narrated by the townspeople left behind following the internment. It’s an eerie, haunting reminder of an ugly chapter of American history.

A master of understatement and apt detail, Otsuka writes of a barber “who left on crutches with an American legion cap pulled down low over his head,” and of American daughters, “college girls . . . who left wearing American flag pins on their sweaters and Phi Beta Kappa keys dangling from gold chains around their necks.”

Although a Kirkus reviewer praised the new novel as “lovely prose poem that gives a bitter history lesson,” Otsuka laughingly resists the designation of history teacher. Rather, her stories seem rooted in curiosity and a desire to understand. Following the completion of her first book, set during the internment, Otsuka had unanswered questions:  What would it be like to be “a white person in a town right after the Japanese had been taken away. What would you think and how would you process the absence of your former neighbors?” Those questions led her to write the final chapter of The Buddha in the Attic, which became her point of entry into the book.

Similarly, her first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, “was a way of trying to understand my mother and figure out what had happened to her.” At the age of 10, Otsuka’s mother was interned along with her own brother and mother. Her mother’s father was arrested the day after Pearl Harbor, falsely accused of spying. Yet Otsuka’s mother talked little of the internment when Otsuka was growing up. “As a parent, maybe my mother just wanted to protect her children from that knowledge, and let us grow up knowing that America was a very safe place.”

Otsuka started out by writing in a local café—she still does most of her work there, in a place she calls her “lucky corner” amongst a cadre of writers and scholars. And she is still trying to understand her mother and the past through her writing: Otsuka’s current work in progress encompasses “memory and forgetting,” a subject of interest because her mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Of her mother’s reticence to talk about the internment when Otsuka was younger, the devoted daughter is “in a way . . . grateful. Because I did grow up thinking I could do whatever I wanted to do.”

Laura Reynolds Adler is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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