How to Form a “We”

The Buddha in the Attic
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. 2011

In Julie Otsuka’s beautiful novel, The Buddha in the Attic, the narrator is a crowd, an us, a swarm of voices we want to listen to, because it’s truly an Everyone, and the voice is a poem. She speaks for them, as them, as a people, and as individual women who once shared a voyage from Japan to America as mail-order brides soon after WWI. There are shocks and surprises, radical disappointments and disillusionment along the way, but Otsuka’s incantatory prose moves us and moves the book swiftly forward, even though we want to dwell with this new “we” longer. Much longer.

And it’s a story that hasn’t been told before, especially in this way. How many school books teach the travails of Japanese immigrants, outside a mention of their internment during WWII? How often is it mentioned in our national narratives that the Japanese also worked the fields, labored against the odds and racism to make their way in America?

In the novel the women have been tricked from Day One, of course, which adds another dimension to these struggles. The pictures they were sent of their husbands to be were twenty years old, and most lied about their circumstances, which were often dire. The great escape they thought they had made turns out to have been another kind of trap. But as bad as things were to begin with, they still built lives, had children, and the “we” grew. Otsuka takes as into the days of the Internment and comes back out on the other side, but with a new “we,” a new poem of the crowd.

Without judgment, without an obviously stated moral, Julie Otsuka has crafted a finely wrought novel of subtle provocation and food for deep thought. It’s the kind of book that almost cries out to be reread, often, to find new shapes, new meaning, new collectives in the crowd.

How to Form a “We”
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