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.
The misleading pictures set the precedent for almost everything these women will encounter from the moment they set foot ashore: Nothing will ever look exactly as they pictured it.
On the boat, they ask Charles, a white man who has been to America many times, what it’s like there: Did the men and women there really dance cheek to cheek all night long? (Only on Saturdays, Charles explains.) And was it true that the women in America did not have to kneel down before their husbands or cover their mouths when they laughed? (Charles stares at a passing ship on the horizon, sighs, and says, “Sadly, yes.”)
The reader doesn’t know which of these women is telling the story. Their voices are by turns curious, virginal, experienced, naive, horrified, awestruck. But in passages set off by italics, we sometimes get an unexpectedly individual glimpse:
On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.
When they arrive in California, their dreams of the tidy homes in the background of their husband’s pictures or read about in books give way to something both strange and oddly familiar:
Home was a patch of earth in a pear orchard in Auburn not far from the banks of the American River, where we lay awake every evening staring up at the American stars, which looked no different from ours: there, up above us, was the Cowherd Star, the Weaver Maiden Star, the Wood Star, the Water Star.
As they discover they are expected to work as hard, or harder, than their husbands, they see the reasons for the handsome pictures.
Because if our husbands had told us the truth in their letters—they were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors, in the fields, beneath the sun and the stars—we never would have come to America to do the work that no self-respecting American would do.
The shared voice is powerful and persuasive, building its strength from the reader’s understanding that it isn’t just one group of women this is happening to, but generations of Japanese women who landed in California and ended up scattered wherever Japanese labor was needed: Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.
Its only drawback is an occasional and unintentional Seussian rhythm that undermines the emotional impact of Otsuka’s otherwise lyrical account, as in this passage describing how the wives submitted to their husbands:
They took us with our white kimonos twisted up high over our heads and we were sure we were about to die … They took us with grunts. They took us with groans. They took us with shouts and long-drawn-out moans.
The men doing the taking were cooks, dishwashers, pickers, and sharecroppers. They worked—and put their wives to work—for white farmers, picking strawberries in Watsonville, grapes in Fresno, digging potatoes “on Bacon Island in the Delta” and sorting green beans “on the Holland Tract.”
We cut out pictures of cake from magazines and hung them on the walls … 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.
Whole small towns spring up—four-block-long stretches that were “more Japanese than the villages we had left in Japan”—in the most rundown sections of town, and offer bathhouses, laundries, drugstores, groceries and shoe stores that are run by and cater to Japanese.
White bosses had rightly pegged the Japanese as the ideal worker: They could live on “a teaspoon of rice” a day, needed no beds or shelter, didn’t drink, could tolerate high temperatures. They worked ceaselessly, like slaves. But these assets—their industry, their success, their endurance—soon became the very thing that turned Americans against them. Soon, the Japanese found themselves victims of sudden, violent attacks: their windows sprayed with buckshot, their chicken coops set on fire, their fields burned down, their husbands shot quietly in the night.
Otsuka sets the scene for worse to come, even as their Americanized children “grew enormous” on bacon, eggs, and gallons of milk instead of “bean-paste soup” and tea. And whose parents’ old-country ways embarrassed them: “Whenever they caught us bowing before the kitchen god in the kitchen and clapping our hands they rolled their eyes and said, Mama, please.”
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, these oversized, ketchup-loving children are accused of advance knowledge, their parents of signaling to the planes with flares in their fields. Fathers disappear. Names show up on lists. Everything Japanese is suspect, so the Japanese systematically strip themselves of all affiliations.
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 … We set fire to our white silk wedding kimonos out of doors, in our apple orchards … we poured gasoline over our ceremonial dolls… letters from our sisters… letters from our fathers…
As entire families disappear overnight, white neighbors take over as narrators, wondering, at first, where their friends have gone. They ask themselves if they should have made an effort to help, to “petition the president,” to protest. Who made them leave, they wonder, and did they go voluntarily “or under duress?” Why did no one see them slip away, and why does the mayor claim they left willingly but won’t say where they’ve gone?
“In one of their kitchens—Emi Saito’s—a black telephone rings and rings.” .
To read Julie Otsuka’s essay about writing slowly in a cafe with a fountain pen, go here.