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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka



Like my last post, The Buddha in the Attic is about overlooked women, a topic I can't get enough of. I started with William Wei's Asians in Colorado. While a good survey of basic Chinese and Japanese Colorado history, it left out the women. Like so many historians, the women in his book were prostitutes or non-existent. And then I listened to a podcast that mentioned the women's clubs formed by Japanese women in San Francisco. Rabbit hole open.

I was writing a fiction novel about a woman who tries to use the Denver's women's clubs to win an election in 1912 and thinking about a script for a TV show about women in progressive era Denver, and realized how even though I had read quite a few unpublished memoirs and dissertations, there were so many women I knew nothing about. So I read Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far - a short story collection by a Chinese American woman published in 1912(!!!). I found with great glee (because who doesn't love a super specific history that perfectly aligns with what you write about?!) The Growth and Decline of the Chinese Mountain Communities in the Rocky Mountain Region by Rose Lee Hum a dissertation fro the university of Chicago from 1948. In it she interviews people from the Chinese community in Butte, Montana, many of whom were young adults in the turns of the twentieth century (my fav time period to write about). I read heartbreaking essays about the fates of Chinese women in Enduring Legacies, Ethnic Histories and Cultures of Colorado edited by Arturo Aldama. But there was nothing about Japanese women in Colorado before the 1940s - and yes, they were here before the internment.

But then I spread my search to all of thst and found The Buddha in the Attic. Otsuka uses poetic form and "we" to beautifully tell the stories of Japanese women in America while illustrating their invisibility to us readers. Their lives, like every women's, are full of love, heartbreak, work, desire, betrayal, exhaustion, joy, community, loneliness, abuse, and tender care. The Buddha in the Attic is such a lovely portrayal in an intimate and generalized way of so many women's lives. I am better for having read this book.


Back of the Book:

Julie Otsuka’s long-awaited follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago. In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces the picture brides’ extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war.


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