On the boat we carried with us in our trunks all the things we would need for our new lives: white silk kimonos for our wedding night, colorful cotton kimonos for everyday wear, plain cotton kimonos for when we grew old…
Last time I went to the public library I casually picked up, as I actually do most of the times, this little jewel. It was kindly displayed on a small table, below a window, full of books the librarian promised me were fresh readings. I was sceptical about it being able to help me survive this year’s Italian summer (36 °C right now), but it proved itself exceptional, and was capable, during the time reading it and for several days letters, of inverting the melting process of my body and brains on the living room sofa. If you too are looking for something fresh, try this out! However, if you live in Italy you should look for a novel called “Venivamo tutte per mare” – We came through the sea – which is something I’ll discuss later on, in this post.
Julie Otsuka is a Japanese American (a Sansei: third generation), she was born in 1962 and raised in California, on the west coast, but came to study on the east cost. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts at Yale University, then obtained a master in Fine Arts at Columbia university. She now lives in New York City, where she writes every afternoon in the neighbourhood café. Her books are published by Knopf, one of the groups under Random House. After graduating she first pursued a career as a painter, before writing and publishing her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, in 2002. It dealt about Japanese American internment during World War II. The Buddha in the Attic is her second novel. She has been widely decorated for both.
You can often hear Italian readers complaining about the translation of books original titles; this is one of those cases. Although most of the changes are made due to lack of attractiveness of the literal translation, they also hide, and in some cases change, the original intention of the author. The original title: The Buddha in the Attic is an association of American and Japanese ideas. As a matter of fact Japanese houses don’t have attics, nor American houses attics generally have Buddha statues in them. We immediately understand that this is not an American or a Japanese story. It is both, the encounter and the complicated mixture of two radically different worlds; or neither, the birth of something new, unexpected. The title also refers to The Madwoman in the Attic, a landmark in feminist literary criticism, published in 1979. It will not be surprising, then, telling you that this is a story of women, a feminine viewpoint of a small piece of our world.
This book begins with a journey, and ends with another. The first one is the voyage of Japanese picture brides, who embarked to reach their new husbands in America, which was for them a land of many possibilities, a hospitable place where men are gentlemen and say “Ladies first”, not farmers and fishermen which poor destiny the would’ve been forced to share, have they stayed at home. The second is their one-way trip, after two decades, to an unknown destination; some with their families, but many others once again without their men, arrested or carried away as the suspects arise and suppress the Japanese community after Pearl Harbour. Between these two journeys is a life of struggles, which is another journey itself, as nomads in the camps, under the burning sun, as servants in the rich men houses, as prostitutes, as laundresses and many others.
We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.
A Japanese can live on a teaspoonful of rice a day. We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives
The author finely conveyed the strength of the women in adapting to this new life, but also makes us understand the tragedy of the victims this journey left behind. But, over all, and in all situations, emerges the sense of dignity which characterize the Japanese culture, and which was not lost or forgotten, as other ideas were, during the settlement in the new land.
Otsuka’s prose is poetical. She beautifully conveys the sufferance and emotions of the young brides focusing on details of their life, with brief and suggestive phrases. She was able to recreate, in a mere 140 pages, the maturation which occurred to them in more than twenty years, from weak women to strong mothers. As last, I’ve left the most beautiful aspect of this novel: the narrating voice. The narrators are the picture brides, all of them, all together. It’s not a voice, it’s a chorus in which, page after page, line after line, we can distinguish hundreds of different personalities, like uncountable colourful bright scales.