Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is the author of the novel When the Emperor Was Divine and a recipient of the Asian American Literary Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.
"Otsuka's incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry."
"Spare and stunning . . . Otsuka has created a tableau as intricate as the pen stokes her humble immigrant girls learned to use in letters to loved ones they'd never see again."
"Haunting and intimate . . . Otsuka extracts the grace and strength at the core of immigrant (and female) survival and, with exquisite care, makes us rethink the heartbreak of eternal hope."
"A stunning feat of empathetic imagination and emotional compression, capturing the experience of thousands of women."
Tonight’s post title comes from Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf), which I just started reading last night and am loving.
I bought this book at Page Turner 2011, the Asian American Literary Festival in NY this past October. I’m not sure why I picked up this particular book, but it was on the table at Melville House and for whatever reason I bought it for $22.00.
This seems significant because that weekend I was on a whirlwind reading tour through Boston and NYC, and money was tight. Yet I bought this book, along with Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars and Garrett Hongo’s Coral Road (it was my privilege to buy these two titles, as I’d had the honor of reading alongside Tracy and Garrett at the festival, with Kimiko Hahn, whose entire body of work already held a special place on my bookshelf at home; and after hearing them read aloud from these collections I had to own them). But Julie Otsuka’s book was an impulse purchase, pure and simple, and beyond my budget.
This is something I’m really trying to understand about myself — why I buy the books I buy, particularly the ones I’ve never heard of yet buy in person after seeing and holding and touching them. What sparks my need to have?
A few weeks ago in a bookstore I bought Krys Lee’s Drifting House. Reason for buying: Korean connection.
I also bought Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. Reason for buying: it was sealed with plastic and the mystery intrigued me. (In the end, the intrigue was more exciting than the unwrapped surprise, but it was fun while it lasted.)
And Ramona Ausubel’s No One Is Here Except All of Us. Reason for buying: jacket copy:
“At the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl and the washed-up stranger, the villagers decide to start the world over. Through sheer will and imagination, they will reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known, and begin again from scratch. Destiny is unwritten. Time and history are forgotten. Jobs, husbands, a child are reassigned. And for years, there is boundless hope.”
(It seems relevant to add that I was specifically looking for new releases from bigger houses. Trying to keep current, etc.)
Sometimes I think if I could start all over again I’d go into advertising or do something related to consumer psychology. Maybe I will yet, who knows. (Yesterday, with the help of consultants and interns at my local Small Business Development Center, I got to test Lit Pub book covers and hear first-impression feedback from regular, non-industry people. Although it was useful, I was a little disappointed that not everyone shares my deep admiration for these covers. Alas. I’ll take some of the comments into consideration during future design sessions for forthcoming titles.)
In any case, as I read the blurbs on the back cover of The Buddha in the Attic now, I know I didn’t take the time to read them then. It must have simply been the size of the book (I admit my preference for smaller books, and this one’s dimensions are a lovely 5 x 7.5″). So the size and its pretty front cover, coupled with that special silver sticker: National Book Award Finalist. Impulse struck, and these many months later I’m finally reading it. And let me tell you — two chapters in, I’m in awe:
“That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word. They assumed we were the virgins the matchmakers had promised them we were and they took us with exquisite care. Now let me know if it hurts. They took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel. They took us downtown, in second-rate rooms at the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time. The Kinokuniya Hotel. The Mikado. The Hotel Ogawa. They took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was we were told. Please turn toward the wall and drop down on your hands and knees. . . . They took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them. They took us even though we insulted them – You are worth less than the little finger of your mother – and screamed out for help (nobody came). . . .”
On the one hand, I’m so totally ready to finish this book. On the other hand, I’m stuck in this weird place — I can’t yet bear to go back to it.
Of course I think of Korean comfort women. Their struggle.
Still, my heart aches for Otsuka’s women.
(Worth noting? Otsuka’s first plural impresses me more than Eugenides’s, despite the fact that every time I have ever needed an example of first plural I have always referred to The Virgin Suicides. Now, I totally want to teach these two books in a pov-focused writing course.)
Jane Ciabattari praises The Buddha in the Attic with these key words:
“Poetic . . . Otsuka combines the tragic power of a Greek chorus with the intimacy of a confession.”
This book truly is poetic (a word I’d hesitate to use unless describing prose that rings with obvious care and attention to metrics and sonics), and its multivocal tragedies feel epic, lyric, and entirely confessional. This is why I know I didn’t see the blurbs before; I would have rolled my eyes at these words: “poetic,” “tragic,” “confession.” They would have turned me off. I would have put back the book.
Yet here I am, repeating and defending them now. Read this book for me. Tell me how it ends, that it’s safe to re-enter, that the rest of it lives up to its stunningly breathtaking and utterly heartbreaking opening.