Interview: Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka & Patrick Ryan

Photo by Robert Bessoir.

Julie Otsuka’s tour de force second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, follows the story of a group of Japanese women coming to America, in the early twentienth century, as mail-order brides. It is one of two novels in the history of the magazine, the other being Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, to be excerpted in consecutive issues: Granta 114: Aliens and Granta 115: The F Word and is now a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award. Here she discusses with Assistant Editor Patrick Ryan the advantages of writing in the first person plural, what the soundtrack to her novel would be and following her intuition.

PR: Would you say that The Buddha in the Attic has no central main character, or that it has many central main characters?

JO: I’d say it has one central main character, which is everyone: the collective ‘we.’ No one ‘I’ is more important than any other.

What do you think was the benefit of writing in the ‘we’ voice, the first-person plural, as you got into the world of these mail-order brides? It’s a stylistic technique novelists rarely employ.

Using the ‘we’ voice allowed me to tell a much larger story than I would have been able to tell otherwise. At first I tried telling the story from the point of view of a single picture bride, but this approach felt too narrow and confining. In my research, I had run across so many fascinating stories, and I wanted to tell them all. Using the ‘we’ voice allowed me to weave them all in. It’s a very capacious and infinitely expandable voice. Each sentence gives you a brief window into somebody’s life – it’s like catching a glimpse of someone’s house from a train – and then we move on.

Also, since Japan is a very group-oriented culture (my father, who immigrated from Japan after World War II, once said to me, ‘Japan is the opposite of America’ – meaning, I think, that here in America, the emphasis is on the individual), it made sense to speak of the picture brides as a collective entity.

Given that you resist settling into the head of any one of these women for very long, did you find that one collective personality emerged as you were writing?

At the beginning of the novel, when the women arrive in America, they conform more to the ‘typical’ Japanese personality – quiet, stoic, uncomplaining, obedient, respectful of authority (i.e. the perfect wife or maid). But the longer they stay in America, the more they are able to individuate. And while many of them remained ‘typically’ Japanese till the end of their lives, there were variations on the typical, as well as a few outliers – women who were loud and outspoken, women who left their husbands shortly after arriving in America, women who kept secret bank accounts, women who defied their parents’ wishes by coming to America, etc.

An image that stays in my mind: Japanese women smashing their valuable, much cherished tea sets to the ground rather than selling them to their white neighbours for pennies at the ‘evacuation sales’ that took place before the Japanese left for the camps. Showing your anger in front of someone outside the family: this is not typical Japanese behaviour. In Japan, where much is made of saving face, such behaviour would be considered shameful.

Also, the women who sailed to America tended to be braver, more adventurous souls to start with. So already, just by wanting to leave, they’re a bit atypical.

Can you talk a little about the hope these women start off with, and the deceit they encounter, and how that shapes the course of their lives?

Most started out with very high hopes – they expected to marry handsome, wealthy young men (as ‘advertised’ by their future spouses in their photographs and letters) and live a life of leisure. Or, if they expected to work, then they thought that after several years they’d be able to save up enough money to sail back home to Japan and live out the rest of their days ‘with a cat in their lap and a fan in their hand’.

But life in America was not what they expected. It was one deceit after another. Some of them were deceived by their husbands, who had lied about their age and financial status. Within days of their arrival, many of the women found themselves picking strawberries in the fields, living in migrant labour camps or working as maids for white women in the city.

(On the other hand, a few of the women had deceived their husbands as well. They had ‘pasts’ in Japan – perhaps they’d had an affair, or given birth to an illegitimate child, or maybe they were just widows who stood no chance of remarrying if they remained in their village. Remember, the first line of the book is ‘On the boat we were mostly virgins.’)

And then they were betrayed by America, or the promise of America – they were despised because of their race, suspected of being disloyal and sent away to the camps.

I think that quite early on, these women – most of whom had no idea of the prejudice they would encounter in America – realized that they would only be allowed to accomplish so much in their own lives, and so they put all their hopes onto the lives of their children. Which is a huge burden, if you’re one of the children.

In this and your previous novel, and in some of your shorter pieces, you often write clusters of sentences that begin in a similar, repeated fashion and then go where they need to go. The result of reading your work – for me, and I suspect for many other readers – is a kind of hypnosis or meditation; it’s impossible not to be drawn in, submerged, seduced. Are you conscious of strategically using repetitive sentence structures? Or is it maybe that you’re drawn into the rhythm of the words you’re putting down? Or is it something that just . . . happens?

A kind of hypnosis or meditation, I love that. Someone suggested that if there were a soundtrack to my novel, it would be something by Steve Reich, and I immediately thought, yes, Music for 18 Musicians . . . that hypnotic beat that just puts you into a trance.

I was obsessed with the rhythm of the language while writing this novel. I was constantly reading my sentences out loud so I could hear where the accents fell. I could often hear the rhythmic pattern of the next sentence I wanted to write before I knew the exact words to drop into that pattern. And at times I found myself doing things like searching for the right three-syllable town in California where they had Japanese migrant laborers working in the peach orchards . . . A two-syllable town with orange groves just would not do.

Most of my writing is very intuitive and falls under the ‘just happens’ category. I think the best way to put it is this: it’s like there’s this underground aural grid that’s secretly holding everything together.

There’s an obvious bridge between this book and your first novel, When The Emperor Was Divine. The Buddha in the Attic serves as a prequel. Do you have any plans to explore a third book about the lives of these people?

Not in the immediate future. I think my next book will be about dementia and . . . swimming. That’s all I can say about it right now. People have asked me, however, if I’m going to write a book about the post-war experience of the Japanese Americans – their lives after they came back from the camps (and this, in my opinion, is where the real hardship began). Maybe that’ll be book four?

Read the first extract from The Buddha in the Attic, which appeared in Aliens as ‘Come, Japanese!’, here.

Novel Terrors
God Bless You, 2011