Julie Otsuka works small, and slowly, with remarkable compression and artistry, and she writes in longhand, using a fountain pen. The gemlike details found in her slender, spare novels reflect her habit of writing and polishing her sentences one by one, as she has explained in interviews:
You get up every day and you sit down at your desk and you put down a word, or a sentence, or, on a good day (I work very slowly) maybe a half page. You add a word here, you take one away, you sketch out a scene….
Her first book, When the Emperor Was Divine (Knopf, 2002), based on her own family history, looked at the Japanese internment during WWII through the eyes of a Japanese-American family from Berkeley, California.
In “The Buddha in the Attic” (Alfred A. Knopf, $22, 160 pages), coming out this week, she reaches further back into history, to the early 1900s when hundreds of Japanese “picture brides”—mail-order wives—came to America to marry men they had so far seen only in photographs.
To tell their stories, Otsuka uses a first-person plural chorus of women who speak as one: “Some of us came from the mountains and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives.”
During the passage from Japan, in the opening pages, each woman clutches a picture of her future husband, the dashing or respectable or successful man she has agreed to marry:
Handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished … they looked like our brothers and fathers back home, only better dressed, in gray frock coats and fine Western three-piece suits. Some of them were standing on sidewalks in front of wooden A-frame houses with white picket fences …
Only later do the women discover that most of the pictures are 20 years old, the eloquent, persuasive letters that accompanied them written by professionals. Or that “my husband’s handsome best friend” had posed for the photograph. (more…)