What does home mean to you? That was a very difficult question posed to me at the end of “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka. Julie Otsuka’s book is about immigrant Japanese women, set about a century ago, who have come to America to their husbands and new lives. Their lives away from their homes to create new ones – the magic and dream of America that once existed, is revived in this beautifully written short book.
The eight almost inter-linked (because of the theme) and yet isolated (because of what each story centers on) stories are real, heartbreaking and sometimes hopeful. For me immigration has not been an alien concept. I have heard stories from my grandparents about how they had to move from Pakistan to India during Partition (though it is very different from these tales) and it does ring a bell when I read anything about leaving your country for a new one. To start anew and especially when you are expected to be the obedient Japanese wife to her husband who has not told her about the truth of his job, what she would have to undergo in a strange place and what her life would be like. These women worked from dawn to dusk, lived with men who they did not love or loved but their love was not returned. They worked in fields, as maids, as anything, as long as it was work and paid them.
I had read a part of this book; the first story that is, “Come, Japanese!” in a Granta series titled, “Aliens” and was immediately taken in by it. I knew then that I would read it when it would be made available. The stories are subtle, sharp and sometimes they wrench the heart and make you want more. The basic idea of having to master a new language after say thirteen years (as young) or thirty seven (as old) of thinking and dreaming in Japanese is a task for these women. Otsuka follows these women as they enter the early days of WWII, when entire Japanese-American communities disappeared (Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and Nagasaki being the reasons) to their relocation to desert camps.
The Buddha in the Attic is about the human touch. Always about it. Julie Otsuka does not for once waver from it. The writing is beautiful and easy to read, without losing the emotion it wants to convey. At the heart of the book, there is a lot of hope and love for the women in strange ways. I cannot for one wait to read her first book, “When the Emperor was Divine”.