|The Buddah in the Attic|
By Julie Otsuka
I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use. Feel free to ask your own questions or discuss your own observations or reactions in the comments section.
All page numbers refer to the paperback First Anchor Books Edition, March 2012.
Discussion TopicsEntry Quotes
Re-read the two quotes at the start of the novel:
“There be of them that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished, as though they had never been, and are become as though they had never been born, and their children after them.”
“Barn’s burnt down—What do recall thinking about these quotes before reading Otsuka’s novel? How do you react to these words now?
I can see the moon.”
Otsuka’s narrative creates incredibly powerful images yet seeing historical photos of the Japanese internment can add an important dimension to discussion of the novel. Here are some from the Library of Congress and National Archives.
From the National Archives description: Mr. and Mrs. K. Tseri have closed their drugstore in preparation for the forthcoming evacuation from their home and business.
From the Library of Congress description: A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas.
From the Library of Congress, Centerville, Cal., April 1942 - a Japanese farmer harvesting cauliflower on a ranch near Centerville - he will be housed in a war relocation authority center for the duration of the war.
From the Library of Congress here is an Ansel Adams collection of photographs taken in Manzanar.
Much of the emotion and passion within the novel is drawn from Otsuka’s writing style. The novel moves from past tense as we read about the lives of the Japanese brides and then to the present tense for the final chapter from the point of view of the white Americans. In addition, most of the book is presented as a series of lists—lists of people, lists of images, lists of places, lists of scenes.
Why do you think Julie Otsuka employed this tactic? When and with whom did you connect with among the faceless characters? Did any of the characters have dimension in your mind? Did any reappear as you read the narrative, if not by name, then by image or place? Were you drawn to a particular Japanese bride, creating a thread of life as a migrant worker or the life of a city maid?
Perhaps the phrases washed over you independently. How were you emotionally affected by Otsuka’s writing style?
Particular phrases among the lists are in the first or second person and in italics as if spoken. There are many such quotes. Here are just a few examples.
“My parents married me off for betrothal money.” Page 8
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life crouched over a field?” Page 16
“These folks just drift, we don’t have to look after them at all.” Page 29
“Let’s go beat up some Filipinos.” Page 76
“He talks to her all day long.” Page 107
“I hear he used to be Charlie Chaplin’s personal valet.” Page 110Perhaps Otsuka is trying to invoke images of a conversation between two of the Japanese brides—a snippet of dialogue that was overheard by the narrator. Perhaps she is trying to help the reader conjure images of one individual talking to another. Maybe you see a hand cupped to an ear to offer up a whisper or two heads touching in a conspiratorial exchange. Do these particular phrases stand out from the others? Do you find other phrases that could also have been used for emphasis? Why do think Otsuka emphasizes these phrases?
Regret and Envy
Regret for paths not chosen and envy of others’ lives is a consistent theme throughout the book.
“But for the rest of her life she would wonder about the life that could have been.” Page 15
“We loved them. We hated them. We wanted to be them.” Page 39What emotions and conditions bring out the strongest feelings of regret in the novel? In your life?
“… for hadn’t we always dreamed of becoming our mother?” Page 16Did this resonate? Did you dream of becoming one of your parents or perhaps quite the opposite?
Violence of Sex
Many facets of sex are presented through a minimum of words. Nearly all of the sexual images depict sex as violent.
“They took us violently, with their fists,…” page 19.Few show tenderness or love. This violence both contrasts sharply with and reinforces the submissive exterior that the whites see in their characterizations of the Japanese around them.
What depth did these depictions of ‘being taken’ add to the novel? How did they add dimension to the Japanese brides?
Juxtaposition of Spring with the Removal of the Japanese
As the Japanese are being taken away to the internment camps, Otsuka juxtaposes their departure with the arrival of spring.
“In February the days grew slowly warmer and the first poppies bloomed bright orange in the hills. Our numbers continued to dwindle.” Page 94
“Spring arrived. The almond trees in the orchards began dropping the last of their petals and the cherry trees were just reaching full bloom. Sun poured down through the branches of the orange trees. Sparrows rustled in the grass. A few more of our men disappeared every day.” Page 97
“Pale green buds broke on the grapevines in the vineyards and all throughout the valleys the peach trees were flowering beneath clear blue skies. Drifts of wild mustard blossomed bright yellow in the canyons. Larks flew down from the hills. And one by one, in distant cities and towns, our older sons and daughters quit their jobs and dropped out of school and began coming home. “ Page 100Often in writing, signs of spring are used as a metaphor for rebirth. Why do you suppose Otsuka uses these beautiful descriptors of the arrival of spring alongside the images of the Japanese disappearing? How does that juxtaposition make you feel?
Parallels Between Japanese Lives and Their Removal
Over and over again the novel shows the invisibility of the Japanese brides. Their husbands speak for them. Most of the whites view them collectively and compare them as a unified group. Even the brides themselves are shells,
“But is was not we who were cooking and cleaning and chopping, it was somebody else. And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared.” Page 37How did the Japanese become more visible as they departed and after they were taken to the internment camps?
“We begin to long for our old neighbors, the quiet Japanese.” Page 126Can what we leave behind be more representative of who we are than the lives we led?
The title of the book The Buddha in the Attic is referenced directly on page 109 ,
“Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.”Sometimes a single object left behind can create a scene that appears more empty than emptiness—a school swing without a child on it, a single shoe dropped in the street. Emptiness can feel emptier with a hint of the memory of fullness. How does the image of a Buddha left behind laughing resonate with the streams of Japanese quietly being taken away?
The Buddha is referred to elsewhere as well, such as the following:
“It was like looking into the eye of the Buddha.” Page 13
“We made Buddhist altars out of overturned tomato crates that we covered with cloth, and every morning we left out a cup of hot tea for our ancestors.” Page 34
“We forgot about Buddha.” Page 37
“We’re just a bunch of Buddhaheads.” Page 77
“Every evening, at dusk, we began burning our things: old bank statements and diaries, Buddhist family altars, wooden chopsticks, paper lanterns, photographs of our unsmiling relatives back home in the village in their strange country clothes.” Page 86
“In Autumn there is no Buddhist harvest festival on Main Street.” Page 127Buddha is a touch point that in many ways mirrors the lives of the Japanese brides from arriving to being taken away. What objects serve as these mirrors of the storyline in other novels you have read or movies you have seen or in your life? What objects serve as these mirrors in your life?