Reading The Buddha in the Attic as a Muslim American

By Jennifer Zobair

Although literature tends to move me deeply,  only certain books make me cry. Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic  was one of those books.

Within a matter of pages, I was in love with Otsuka’s gorgeous prose, her precise, sometimes unflinching attention to detail, the unique choice of protagonists–the Japanese “picture brides” who came to San Francisco in the early 1900s.

By unique, I mean not just who the women were, but how many of them narrate this concise novel. Until the last chapter, the story is told from the collective point of view of the women:

“On the boat, we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and 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.”

For most of the book, it is “we.”

Of course, within this narrative structure, Otsuka weaves in individual voices:

“We gave birth to Masaji, who came to us late, in our forty-fifth year, just when we had given up all hope of ever producing an heir. I thought I’d dropped my last egg long ago…We gave birth to Asano, who had thick thighs and a short neck and who would have made a better boy. We gave birth to Kamechiyo, who was so ugly we feared we would never be able to find her a mate. She had a face that could stop an earthquake. We gave birth to babies that were so beautiful we could not believe they were ours…We gave birth to twins and asked the midwife to make one a “day visitor.” You decide which one.”

The novel starts with the Japanese women’s voyage to America on a ship where they slept “in steerage, where it was filthy and dim,” and follows them through their first nights with their husbands (ranging from tender to brutal), their attempts to pursue the American dream in the face of racism and suspicion, their experience having and raising children, and finally the coming of World War II and the internment camps.

By the middle of the novel, I will confess to some impatience, some sense that the novel was starting to read like a series of lists–however exquisitely rendered–and I wondered if I would feel more invested if the story recounted just one woman’s journey, one woman’s triumphs and struggles. But the details are compelling, and the prose is beautiful, and I kept reading. And for that, I was so richly rewarded.

I don’t want to give the ending away, but I will say this: I was a lot more invested than I thought. And the ending of the book hit me so much harder for having “known” so many, many of the women affected. It mattered, it turned out, that I’d encountered a  very plural protagonist.

In short, I think the choice of how to tell this story was a critical part of the story. I think it might have been necessary. I am certain it was genius.

But if I am honest, part of the reason I was so affected by this book was because I read it as a Muslim American. And, like so many of the women in the book, as a mother. The parallels are not lost on me. The things people on right-wing talk radio and blogs and news networks say about Muslims–threats and insinuations and pontifications that eerily echo things people said about the Japanese in the 1940s–are not lost on me.

And so the fact that I cried, at least in part, because the ending felt deeply and unflinchingly personal is not lost on me either.

THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC is a lyrical, richly-detailed, important novel. I highly recommend it.


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Jennifer Zobair is the creator of story and chai. She is also the author of the debut novel, PAINTED HANDS, which was published by St. Martin’s Press on June 11, 2013.  She is represented by Kent D. Wolf of Lippincott Massie McQuilkin.  Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Lascaux Review, and on websites like Love InshAllah and Feminism and Religion. Jennifer is currently at work on her second novel.  She lives with her husband and three children outside of Boston.

You can find out more about Jennifer on her website and her Facebook page, or by following her on Twitter.

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