The Urgency of Knowing: A Profile of Julie Otsuka

by Renee H. Shea

Feature

Posted 8.31.11

September/October 2011

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Julie Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, the story of Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early twentieth century, begins with a simple, provocative line: “On the boat we were mostly virgins.” The “we” continues throughout the book as a choral narrative voice that speaks for a group of women, aged twelve to thirty-seven, who are never identified as individual characters. What unites them is their hopeful journey to a foreign land where arranged marriages to men known only through photographs await them.

“They had no idea what they were in for,” says Otsuka, who has been researching and writing this novel, published by Knopf in August, for the past nine years, since her first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, was published by Knopf in 2002. “They only heard stories about the good life in America. The encounter was very unexpected, starting off with meeting their husbands, who might not be eighteen, as their pictures suggest, but forty-five, not wealthy but poor migrant workers. So their marriages started out with betrayal.”

Otsuka knew early on that she wanted to write about the tens of thousands who emigrated from Japan as picture brides, though she began with one individual telling her story. Then, she says, she realized that the opening line, which “was tucked away in the middle of all this text,” was not only the right way to begin but it also defined the form the novel would take. “I wanted to tell everyone’s story, and this voice let me weave in these emerging ‘I’s,” Otsuka says. “Another reason it made sense is that the Japanese are communal people, very group oriented. There was something joyous, almost ecstatic, about the ‘we’ voice. I think of it being more like a song.”

The result is a powerful narrative told from the perspective of women who left an impoverished country to come to a prosperous one, where even marriage could not protect them from the racism and xenophobia that would eventually lead to the internment during World War II of Japanese Americans in so-called relocation camps. The granddaughter and daughter of survivors of these camps, Otsuka seems a natural to tell this story, but it took her a while to see herself as a fiction writer at all, let alone one who could write about something so important to her family’s history.   

“I wanted to tell everyone’s story, and this voice let me weave in these emerging ‘I’s.… There was something joyous, almost ecstatic, about the ‘we’ voice.”

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