Happy Women’s History (Herstory?) Month, y’all! Which actually started last week, but I was a mess last week, so here we are.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a pretty distinct trend in my reading choices–more specifically, that I’ve been picking up more and more books by women, and fewer and fewer books written by men. To be fully honest, this hasn’t been an accident. Bestseller lists tend to trend white and straight and male, and after so many years of reading stories about white dudes doing stuff and having feelings about it, I’ve been ready for–and have embraced–something new. In 2015, ignoring the slew of angry internet commenters crying about reverse racism and sexism , I joined a number of other readers in making a pledge to focus my reading on books written by queer authors, female authors, and authors of color, and found myself having a completely new experience. This Women’s History Month, I wanted to put my intersectional feminist money (or at least my intersectional feminist library card) where my intersectional feminist mouth is, and explore stories written by queer women, trans women, disabled women, women of color–all of the women whose stories are silenced even more than those of cis straight white women, whose stories receive plenty of silencing of their own. Some of the books I’ve already read this year have given me lessons in checking my privilege and listening to voices more marginalized than mine , and I find myself almost looking forward to that discomfort, because I know that discomfort is the gateway to learning, and more importantly, to unlearning the messages of power and historical erasure that I’ve spent my young adulthood trying to dismantle and recover.
I checked out Bustle’s 2016 reading challenge for ideas and hit the library, and from the first book I’ve cracked open, I’m already glad that this was the choice I made. There is just something different, I’ve found, about reading a book written from the perspective of someone who has been marginalized, even if the book itself has nothing to do with that experience. Something about moving through the world with the knowledge that this world isn’t designed for your comfort and your experience changes the way the words sit on the page, gives them a different sort of weight.
Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is a book like this. This is Otsuka’s second novel, and I read the first, When the Emperor was Divine, for an undergraduate class about Asian American women and literature. Whereas When the Emperor was Divine is more of a traditional novel, The Buddha in the Attic reads more like an epic poem. There are no real characters to speak of; we don’t learn the names of the women whose pain and fear and anger and heartbreak spills across the pages. The book follows a group of Japanese picture brides, the generation of women brought from Japan to San Francisco with pictures of their new husbands, whom they had never met in person, clutched in their hands, through their arrival in San Francisco, their forced assimilation into a culture that doesn’t welcome them, their experiences of sex, of childbirth, of motherhood, all achingly woven together through the eight sections of the novel.
Etsuko was given the name Esther by her teacher, Mr. Slater, on her first day of school. “It’s his mother’s name,” she explained. To which we replied, “So is yours.”
Told in first-person plural–a distinctly weird point of view that, I’ll be honest, kind of turned me off at first, but I stuck with it–the book draws you in by folding you into the group of women on the boat. From the first line, On the boat we were mostly virgins, Otsuka sets a scene not through picturesque imagery or flowery text but through simplicity and the immediate establishment of community and identity. This we is the binding force of the novel, and though some of us do this and some of us do that, there is always the we that pulls the group back together. This plural identity, the we, isn’t just the group of women in the story, but the we of these women in history, as the readers watch the book draw closer and closer to the age of World War II, to Pearl Harbor, to internment camps. The we is insular, it’s protective, it is we, as opposed to them.
The storytelling of we is powerful, more powerful than I expected when I started the book. So often we need an I to focus on in a story, a titular character or protagonist to anchor ourselves into a narrative. Otsuka pushes back against this construct and weaves us a story of many lives, many women, creating a community narrative of loss, homesickness, isolation, family, identity, and pain.
It would be autumn, and our fathers would be out threshing in the fields. We would walk through the mulberry groves, past the big loquat tree and the old lotus pond, where we used to catch tadpoles in the spring. Our dogs would come running up to us. Our neighbours would wave. Our mothers would be sitting by the well with their sleeves tied up, washing the evening’s rice. And when they saw us they would just stand up and stare. “Little girl,” they would say to us, “where in the world have you been?”
I’ve finished my first reading of this book, which unfortunately was split into two chunks, and I’ve been told that to get the full experience of this novella, it should be read straight through in one sitting. Reading the introductory chapter again in preparation to write this post, it’s easy to understand why. Otsuka’s writing has a poetic, almost lyrical quality to it, which almost makes you want to read the text out loud, or have it read to you. It gives the book a sense of an oral history, of a generation of women and girls crossing an ocean to what they believed would be a land of opportunity and promise and joyful life.
When I picked up this book, I was hoping for a story that would pull me into Women’s History Month with a story that would pull me into a history that wasn’t my own, to let me connect to women before me whose stories I wasn’t told in school or by my mother or grandmothers or aunts.
The Buddha in the Attic was that story and more.
And after a while we notice ourselves speaking of them more and more in the past tense. Some days we forget they were ever with us, although late at night they often surface, unexpectedly, in our dreams…And in the morning, when we wake, try as might to hang on to them, they do not linger long in our dreams…All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.