Lost in the Passage: (Japanese American) Women in Julie Otsuka’s
The Buddha in the Attic
- Author: Yoo JaeEun
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 21, Issue3, p85~106, Dec 2013
Julie Otsuka’s latest novel,
The Buddha in the Attic, is an unconventional Asian American novel in the sense that it emphasizes the break between Japanese American mothers and their daughters. Despite an attachment to their mothers, Japanese picture brides in the novel are separated from them by paternal authority and physical distance. They become mothers in America, but instead of being a source of inspiration and strength, the alienation they experience from their daughters renders them helpless. Unlike other Asian American novels that thematize mother-daughter relationship, The Buddha in the Atticremoves the women from the narrative before they can have any chance to connect with their daughters. Once the collective protagonists of the novel, the Japanese picture brides, leave their neighborhoods to be interned in War Relocation Camps, the reader never gets another glimpse of them. This is a significant structural difference that distinguishes the novel from other writing on Word War II internment, as most writing, including Otsuka’s previous novel, focus on what happens to the Japanese Americans during and after the internment. This paper argues that this radical strategic difference should be read in the context of the post-9/11 era in which the novel was published. By featuring the women’s disappearance after the Pearl Harbor attack as both figurative and literal, Otsuka warns her readers against the loss of minority people and their voices during the similar national hysteria that swept America after 9/11.
The Buddha in the Attic , Julie Otsuka , mother-daughter relationship , the internment , post 9/11 America
As is widely known, traditional psychoanalysis theorizes the mother-daughter relationship in negative terms; in order to grow into a mature individual, the daughter must sever emotional ties with her mother. As Marianne Hirsch writes, “a continual allegiance to the mother appears as regressive and potentially lethal; it must be transcended. Maturity can be reached only through an alignment with the paternal, by means of an angry and hostile break from the mother” (168). However, precisely because the mother-daughter relationship is conceptualized in this way—that is, as the site of intergenerational female alienation, many women writers have tried to re-imagine it as a source of strength and encouragement, though often not without conflict.
Asian American feminist writers are no exception. Reconceiving and restoring the mother-daughter relationship is even more complicated for Asian American writers as they face issues of race in addition to those of gender. Critics have long noticed the specific way these writers imagine Asian American daughters’ attempts to relate to and draw from their immigrant mothers—a relationship conventionally thought of as unbridgeable due to generation gap and culture differences. As Melinda Luisa De Jesus points out, “what U.S. third world feminist writers have added to this genre [Mother/daughter stories] is the delineation of how women of color of all generations must negotiate not only sexism in American society but its simultaneous intertwining with racism, classism, heterosexism, and imperialism” (4). Recognizing the fact that their mothers also suffer from the double yoke of gender and racial discrimination, Asian American female writers tend to focus more on the difficult but necessary communication with and connection to the mother. In these writers’ works, for an Asian American daughter to grow up as a mature individual, she must both differentiate herself from and identify with the mother. Traise Yamamoto, writing specifically about Japanese American female writers, argues that “agency and connection are crucial aspects of the mother-daughter relationship for Japanese American women: the necessity for identification with the mother relates to issues of survival and resistance,” because “the structure of racialized motherhood suggest that the mother is a crucial figure for enculturating the daughter in modes of material and psychological survival in a social realm where she will be defined by both her race and gender” (145).
In this relatively short but significant tradition of Asian American writing, Julie Otsuka’s recent novel,
The Buddha in the Attic(hereafter, The Buddha), stands out. The novel emphasizes the break, rather than connection, between Japanese American mothers and their daughters. Despite a strong attachment to their mothers, Japanese picture brides in The Buddhaare separated from them by paternal authority and physical distance. They become mothers in America, but instead of being a source of inspiration and strength, the alienation they experience from their daughters renders them helpless. Although they know their Nisei daughters will never fulfill their hope of full assimilation into American society, they cannot but watch their futile dream. The Buddhais unique in another and related sense. Before Otsuka published her previous novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, most Japanese American works that deal with World War II internment were based on the writer’s own experience. These autobiographical works display a peculiar characteristic that Selwin Cudjoe notes about African American autobiography. Analyzing Maya Angelou’s texts, Cudjoe argues that they are set in “a much more im-personalcondition, the autobiographical subject emerging as an almost random member of the group, selected to tell his/her tale…. [Writing an autobiography is] a publicrather than a privategesture, me-ismgives way to our-ismand superficial concerns about individual subjectgive way to the collective subjectionof the group” (9, italics original). Shirley Geok-lin Lim also identifies a paradox common to Japanese American autobiographical writing as follows: “Even though the autobiographical impulse seeks to express a unique life, almost in contradiction, these life stories repeat a common plot of race difference and conflict with white American hegemony. They therefore come to represent something other, both more communal and more abstract than the particular life” (292). In other words, despite the definition and the requirement of the genre, most Japanese American autobiographies tend to conceive of themselves as communal projects. Thus, the “I” of typical Japanese American autobiographical writing is implicitly subsumed by “we.” In stark contrast, as a novel, The Buddhatakes the collective voice of Japanese immigrant women, while their individual differences—personality, background, social status, employment, and so on—almost break free from the imposed collective subject “we.”
Nevertheless, before the reader can fully appreciate the diversity of these women, and before the women can have any chance to connect with their daughters, Otsuka abruptly removes them from the narrative.
The Buddhafollows Japanese picture brides until they are interned in War Relocation Camps; once they are removed from their neighborhoods, the reader never gets another glimpse of them. This is another structural difference that distinguishes The Buddhafrom other writings on World War II internment. Most writing, including Otsuka’s previous novel, focuses on what happened to the Japanese Americans during and after the internment, whereas in The Buddha, their disappearance is both figurative and literal. This paper argues that this radical strategic difference should be read in the context of the post-9/11 era in which the novel was published. The Buddhastarts with a chapter titled “Come Japanese!” Originally published as an independent short story in Granta, “Come Japanese!” portrays Japanese picture brides on their way across the Pacific Ocean to the United States. The very first sentence justifies the novel’s use of the first person plural subject by announcing the central common trait the girls share—their limited sexual experience: “On the boat we were mostly virgins” (5). What follows, however, has the opposite effect of this statement, as it shows how the girls differ from each other. Starting with the next sentence, the narrative begins to describe how the girls come from vastly different regions and social classes, are of different ages, different religions, and different economic statuses, among other characteristics. The defining label of the first sentence turns out to be false, too. It is subsequently revealed that the women’s sexual experience in fact varies significantly; some of them had husbands before, and some have even given birth. Many of these so-called virgins have previously taken lovers, and some continue to do so on the ship. Indeed, all the details that follow the first sentence work against the collective “we,” ironically highlighting the rich and diverse life stories and personalities of the women on the boat. In this regard, Otsuka’s novel takes an interesting approach to the stereotypical identification scheme. Instead of demarcating an individual’s voice, she adopts a collective voice that reflects what the American public assumes about these women, only to implode this image by showing the richness of the women’s individualities, which cancel the homogenizing effects of the collective “we.”
Indeed, Otsuka seems to deliberately employ the limited stereotypes that Japanese women are habitually categorized into in order to show their inadequacy. In addition to the assumed sexual naiveté, “Come Japanese!” stages an infantile image of Japanese women that was popular in the contemporary American society. Beginning from the middle 19th century, Western tourists and missionaries circulated infantilized images of Japanese, mixing exoticism with cultural condescension. Faced with the military threat of Japan, this image dramatically intensifies before and during World War II. At the center of this infantilization was the body of Japanese women as the site of sexual attraction and perverse nurturing (Yamamoto 17-8). The picture brides on the boat do appear childish when they ask trivial questions to the one white man on the boat. However, as we have already seen, they are not confined to this simplified girlish image. Their rich individuality, along with their stout resolution to leave their old life behind, problematizes and ridicules the white man’s paternal condescension toward the women.
Simultaneously, Otsuka takes pains to remind the reader that this trans-Pacific voyage should not be taken as a utopian period. These women’s diversity is not designed to be read as a nostalgic longing for a lost ideal state, but rather as the women’s potential for resistance against the homogenizing social forces that are at work against them. What practically imposes the “we” on the women is not the presumed fact that they are virgins, but the fact that they are picture brides—that they have been sold by their fathers to prospective husbands. In other words, what they have in common is their relationship to their as yet unseen husbands. However, the women still retain certain forms of agency as they acknowledge that going to America is a better option than living in Japan, and thus accept their destination as their choice: “But even the most reluctant of us had to admit that it was better to marry a stranger in America than grow old with a farmer from the village” (7).
This imagined agency in choosing their future is delineated through their relationship to their mothers. They have accepted going to America as their own choice, because they chose not to live like their mothers: “[O]ur mother, who knew everything, and could often read our mind, had looked at us as though we were crazy.
Do you want to spend the rest of your life crouched over a field?(We had hesitated, and almost said yes, for hadn’t we always dreamed of becoming our mother? Wasn’t that all we had ever once wanted to be?)” (16, italics and parenthesis original). The picture brides, upon agreeing to their arranged marriage, decide that they do not, after all, want to inherit their mothers’ lives. Accordingly, the women do not appear as victims in their own minds; their mothers had no choice, whereas they have made a choice. In other words, instead of viewing their social positions as defined in relation to their fathers, the women conceive of themselves as actively deciding their own fates thanks to their emotional relationships to their mothers. Even long after they have parted, the daughters recall their mothers and live by the old advice their mothers gave them: “Walk like the city not like the farm! (mincing steps with our toes turned properly in)” (6), “You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong” (10), and “One must not get too attached to the things of this world” (101). As in other Asian American women writers’ work, this connection serves as the women’s source of individual strength. Thus, in the first chapter, we glimpse the girls acting as independent subjects: even though their fathers have sold them overseas, they do retain control over their social and sexual lives.
The Buddha, this mother-daughter relationship is always already marked by its break. On the ship, the women confess, “[W]e reached out for our mothers then, in whose arms we had slept until the morning we left home. Were they sleeping now? Were they dreaming? Were they thinking of us night and day?” (5). Otsuka often highlights the importance of the daughters’ ties to their mothers only to underline the fact that mothers are powerless in patriarchal societies. Even the young children some of the picture brides have had to leave behind in Japan are invariably girls, and this broken relationship leaves an indelible mark on their lives thereafter: “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” (12).
“On the Boat, ” the picture brides’ agency and vital individuality are temporarily sustained by their emotional connection to their mother— their legacy and the hope of living a different life from those of their mothers. Off the boat, these women are quickly disillusioned as they find themselves exposed to the double oppression of not only gender but also racial discrimination. The women have accepted America as their choice in the hope of living a different life from that of their mothers, but, as they soon find out, their lives in America differ from their mothers’ lives only in that they have to suffer more. Most of them live by working on California farms, crouched like their mothers were, even though it was to escape this destiny that they have chosen to come to America. Many others work as maids, which is considered a worse fate than working as farmhands in Japan. Once on American soil, these women are bound by their husband’s authority just as their mothers were by their fathers’, and unlike their mothers, they have to shoulder an additional burden—racial prejudice. Now the “they” who forcefully bind them under the collective subject “we” are white people. The novel follows the slow process through which the women’s individual life stories and personalities are crushed by harsh living conditions and stifling stereotypes. The women are either not seen or, when seen, seen as either victims to be saved or exotic sexual symbols, the only two categories Asian women were placed into at that time. Even though Otsuka takes special care to describe their lives as anything but uniform, it is clear that any distinct characteristics the women manage to maintain are indiscernible under the gaze of white people, regardless of whether the white people are hospitable or hostile.
When seen alongside their husbands, these women are stereotyped into two groups. They are the representatives of Yellow Peril: “We were an unbeatable, unstoppable economic machine and if our progress was not checked the entire western United States would soon become the next Asiatic outpost and colony” (35). Or they are the members of model minority: “They [the white employers] bragged about us to their neighbors. They bragged about us to their friends. They claimed to like us much more than they did any of the others. No better class of help can be found” (40). Often, the women are considered as both, regardless of the apparent contradiction. As Yellow Peril, the Japanese American farming families are considered rightful targets of hate crimes. As members of model minority, Japanese American maids are exploited and exposed to domestic violence and sexual abuse. As Nadia Kim points out, “model minority and the yellow peril/foreigner makes apparent that the two ideologies are not discrete but part of a continuum of racialization” (5). Both racial stereotypes restrain the women’s potential of resistance and individual vitality.
Unlike the months when they were on the boat, this racialization affects the women because they lose their connection to their mother. In other words, the erosion of the women’s individuality is proportional to the loss of their emotional connection to their mothers. Not only are the women working like their mothers, but they suffer from severe ethnic discrimination. Worn down by their harsh living conditions and their refusal to disappoint their mothers by revealing the truth, the women fail to draw emotional support from the memory of their mothers. They often write letters to their mothers in Japan knowing that they will never send them: “[W]e wrote home to our mothers… but no matter how loudly we called out for our mother we knew she could not hear us, so we tried to make the best of what we had” (31-4). Then later on, they let go of the connection altogether: “[W]e stopped writing home to our mothers” (37).
Instead of the false virginity, a real common trait now grows among the women, forced by their physical environment: “All of us ached while we worked—our hands blistered and bled, our knees burned, our backs would never recover” (28). In this way, under the undifferentiating gaze and extreme living conditions, the women’s individual voices slowly begin to “disappear,” even before they are physically taken away: “We put away our mirrors. We stopped combing our hair. We forgot about makeup…. We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed.
I fear my soul has died.We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting, We simply worked, that was all…. And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared” (37, italics original). To some extent, thus, they have internalized the white American’s gaze: “Sometimes he [a white man] looked right through us without seeing us at all, and that was always the worst. Does anyone even know I am here?” (35). In this sense, the literal disappearance of the women later in the novel appears almost as a logical culmination of the social process that the women experience.
The women’s loss of individuality and connection to their mothers affect the women’s relationships to their own daughters in turn; their daughters, they realize, will lead a life similar to theirs, and even though they are physically close, the emotional distance between them and their daughters cannot be decreased. “Soon we could barely recognize them….
I feel like a duck that’s hatched goose’s eggs…. Our daughters took big long steps, in the American manner, and moved with undignified haste…. Mostly, they were ashamed of us” (74, italics original). Because of this lack of generational communication and bonding, these women remain “little girls” in their own minds long after they have grown up and given birth to their daughters: “And when we’d saved up enough money to help our parents live a more comfortable life we would pack up our things and go back home to Japan…. 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?’” (53). Accordingly, the Japanese picture brides never become good mothers to their daughters, even though most of them do physically become mothers, as they give birth to many children and raise them under conditions of extreme poverty and back-breaking labor. They often confess their inability to protect their children and feeling estranged from them. They are neither mothers nor daughters; they are just the Japanese, perpetually alien in the United States and never fully integrated into human relationships.
Generational gaps and conflicts between immigrant parents and their America-born children are a common theme in Asian American literature; so much so that Lisa Lowe warns that “interpreting Asian American culture exclusively in terms of the master narratives of generational conflict and filial relation essentializes Asian American culture” (63). Yamamoto also acknowledges that “a number of Asian American literary works deal in varying degrees with question of generational difference and intergenerational conflict, and these thematics have been popularly accepted as characterizing Asian American literature in general” (142). Most of the works, however, focus on exploring ways in which the generational conflicts can be overcome. Analyzing the way women writers of color depart from “white mainstream feminist models and narratives,” Elizabeth Ho argues that “as much as there were intense conflicts with mothers, they [the women writers of color] emphasized the mothers’ powerful social and emotional presence in nurturing their creativity and in establishing the homeplace as a political space for survival and resistance for their subordinated racial-ethnic families” (37). Yamamoto also maintains that “in contrast to models that eclipse maternity and maternal narratives as the necessary condition for daughterly subjectivity to emerge, the writings by these Japanese American women suggest that, in fact, the daughter as subject must identify and align herself with, not against, the mother” (197).
What is peculiar about Otsuka’s novel is that, even though it does present the women’s longing for their mothers and care for their daughters, it does not give them a chance to develop full relationships with either their mothers or daughters. Whereas most of the other Asian American novels seek out a way to narrow the emotional distance between mothers and daughters, the narrative of
The Buddhatakes a surprising turn and sweeps the women away before the reader’s eyes; as readers might have expected all along, during World War II, these women, along with their families, disappear into camps in unknown locations. Because the expression of experiences unique to minority groups has been suppressed by dominant culture for a long time, it is not uncommon to find significant symbols of silence and absence in Asian American literature. Thus, there have been efforts to read these figures. KingKok Cheung, for instance, reads silence as a paradoxical articulation of minority experience, calling such figural silence “articulate silence” in her book with the same title. According to her, the concept of articulate silence enables Asian American writers and their readers to deconstruct the West’s polarized understanding of speech and silence, reinventing, but not reappropriating, the past. In a similar way, Yamamoto reads figural absence of mothers in Japanese American literature as a disguised form of subjectivity. However, in The Buddha, what follows the historical event of the internment is an absolute loss of the women’s stories. It is dissimilar to Cheung’s “articulate silence” or Yamamoto’s “figural absence” in that the readers encounter a literal lack of the women’s voice and stories after they disappear altogether from the narrative.
In this sense, Otsuka seems to be writing against a tradition of reading Asian American literature as exotic description of filial conflict and reconciliation, which has been popular trend since the 1980’s. In 1990, Ho points out that “the mother-daughter narratives have become so chic and profitable that non-Asians (as well as Asians) want a share of the market for things Asian and Asian American.… Mainstream publishers, of course, are on the prowl for marketable, proven formulas and genres by which to woo broad audience to multicultural commodities…. [In the case of Amy Tan,] the writer and her text have been appropriated, advertised, and exoticized for mainstream consumption” (57-8). In the center of this cultural phenomenon was Amy Tan’s nation-wide bestseller,
The Joy Luck Club, though Ho pardons Tan, arguing that this commodification is not the author’s fault. The romanticized reading of Asian American literature was still so very popular in the mid-1990’s that it was critical for Lowe to throw a different light on The Joy Luck Clubin order to restore the power and complexity of the social criticism that the novel performs. Accordingly, Lowe claims that Tan, instead of capitalizing on the trend, actually thematizes “how the trope of the mother-daughter relationship comes to symbolize Asian American culture. That is, we can read the novel as commenting on the national public’s aestheticizing of motherdaughter relationships in its discourse about Asian Americans” (79-80). The Buddhaintervenes in a more radical way. It is not simply that the relationship between Japanese American mothers and daughters suffer from the social pressure that they experience; the relationship does not survive the national hysteria and the interment during World War II, as mothers and daughters disappear into the camps never to be seen again in the novel. Otsuka thus refuses to downplay social oppression these women had to undergo by highlighting (and somewhat romanticizing) the persistence and resilience of their mother-daughter relationship.
So why not follow these Japanese women into the camps as the author did in her previous work,
When the Emperor Was Divine? Or why not focus on the survival of the women and their children as other Japanese American writers before her have?1 One answer would be that Otsuka is not interested in exploring ways in which identities are perceived and formed in the United States. Rather, she is interested in pointing to what is irrevocably lost—the individual voices, lives, and experiences of the women who, never having been accepted as Japanese or American, did not have any chance to function as mothers or daughters.
In the second to last chapter of
The Buddha, “Last Day,” the reader witnesses the rich diversity of Japanese American women one last time before they all disappear. The reader realizes that the women have successfully, though to different degrees, struggled against the homogenizing forces of racial stereotypes and harsh living conditions. Because of this last burst of rich diversity, their loss is felt all the more acutely in the last chapter. Instead of following the Japanese women to the camps, in the last chapter of The Buddha, Otsuka suddenly changes the narrative’s point of view. “We” becomes the collective voice of the non-Japanese townspeople— presumably, the whites—and this last chapter describes how the Japanese, once forced to leave, become gradually and completely forgotten.
This is an interesting choice on the part of the author, especially when her former work mainly focuses on where
The Buddhahas left: life in and after the internment camp. However, even in When the Emperor Was Divine, the family—mother, daughter, and son—leave as individuals and return as collective “Japanese Americans.” Most notably, in the second to last chapter, which narrates the family’s return to their neighborhood, the daughter and son’s identity appear indistinguishable, revealing not only that they are permanently marked as Japanese Americans and nothing else, but also that they have internalized the label through the camp years. Thus, both works emphasize the irretrievable loss that the national hysteria and the ensuing internment have caused.
In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which classified 120,000 Japanese Americans as “enemy aliens” and ordered their quick evacuation to desert internment camps. In 2001, using strikingly similar rhetoric, the U.S. government, “in the interest of national security,” declared a group of people “enemy combatants” and exiled them to prison camps. As critics have noted, an obvious similarity exists between the two historical periods. Much in the way the attack on Pearl Harbor loosed an anti-Japanese frenzy in both the United States and Canada in 1941, 9/11 unleashed a strain of antiMuslim sentiment and Arab profiling and suspicion.“In both cases, what began presumably as a matter of ‘national security’ quickly escalated into an unconscionable set of practices targeting a minority population on the basis of race” (Gauthier 165-166). Mary Dudziak further points out that the war on terror is the most prolonged political situation to which Americans have been adapted since World War II (5). In this regard, the disappearance of Japanese American women in
The Buddhamust be read as the author’s comment not only on World War II or post 9/11 America, but also on the continuity between the first historical moment and the second.
In the last chapter of
The Buddha, unidentified neighbors miss their less noisy, cleaner Japanese neighbors, comparing them to “negroes” or other minority ethnic groups who have replaced them. They say that, if they had only known, they would have helped the Japanese. However, the reason they miss their Japanese neighbors reveals that they have retained their racial prejudices. Otsuka thus deplores the neighbors’ bigotries and indifference that continues to feed their fear of the other. Only in 1981, 39 years after Executive Order 9066, was the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians established by the US Congress. However, as Marnie Gauthier notes, the report of the commission that acknowledged the US government’s wrongdoing in interning Japanese Americans did not “act as a catalyst for former internees to share their stories,” most likely because it came too late (165). On May 12, 2009, President Obama refused Senator Leahy’s call for the truth commission “to investigate torture and other abuses during the ‘war on terror’” by answering “generally speaking I’m more interested in looking forward than looking back” (Stein 20). The U.S. public conveniently forgot the history of internment and seems to have responded to the war on terror in a similar way—that is, by refusing to consider the injustice done.
In an interview with National Book Foundation, Otsuka admits that she had historical resonance of her work in mind when she was working on
The Buddha: “But I wrote Buddha very much in the light of what is going on in this country now, post-9/11: how, overnight, Arabs and Muslims have suddenly become ‘the enemy’ and are being targeted for investigation and interrogation.” She finishes the remark with a lament: “haven’t we learned anything at all?” The group of protagonists in The Buddhanever arrives in the America of which they dreamed. They were neither Japanese, because they were sold by their fathers, nor were they Americans, because they were denied their individual identities and rights in America. Otsuka deliberately breaks away from the tradition of mother-daughter stories to highlight such historical loss and what America might be losing right now. In this regard, it is significant that the last chapter is titled “A Disappearance,” possibly implying there have been or are “other” disappearances. These women, tragically lost in the passage between Japan and America, serve as Otsuka’s warning about those who may become similarly lost in post 9/11 America.
1For instance, Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter, one of the more widely read autobiographical novels on the internment before the publication of When the Emperor Was Divine, concludes with the Nisei protagonist’s bold assertion that “the Japanese and American parts of me were now blended into one” (238). Other relatively well-known works that deal with Japanese American experience during World War II, including John Okada’s No-No Boy, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, and Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family, also focus on the portrayal of the life during and/or after the internment.