As I read The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka, I was awed by the first person plural narrative voice. I thought about how, when I write these notes on our meetings, I often use the collective We to share our experience. Even though individuals make the statements, the group absorbs them, refutes them, nods, smiles, scowls, laughs, even remembers. It is really very powerful, which is why I am drawn to record the meetings. For future members. For the Us. But to continue that voice for 138 pages . . .
Most of us agreed that the book was repetitious. Some of us skimmed as we moved along in a chapter. One of us didn’t feel as connected to the characters as individuals and was not as moved by it as she might have been if it had shared the detail of an individual experience. Another felt as if he were reading a non-fiction book. Which of course can be dangerous if the book is not well researched and accurate. Is that my statement or the group’s? It’s tricky!
We discussed the book in snippets, much like it’s written. We looked up the reference to the laughing Buddha, hidden in the attic when the Japanese leave for the internment camps, hidden away like they were during the war. We read the discussion questions and realized that we didn’t remember specific enough details to answer many of them. “Women are weak but mothers are strong.” Some of the Japanese women were mothers before they came to America. Are the Americans the most savage tribe? One member pointed out that the buying up of the Japanese-Americans’ goods was reminiscent of the Jewish holocaust. And the “I am Chinese” buttons similar to the Jewish armband. Is this human? American? Considering Muslims and our fears today, have we learned anything from these experiences?
One member said that she hadn’t liked the collective We voice at first, but when she got to the end, she realized how powerful it was that the We disappeared and was eventually forgotten by the We left behind. Which of course brings up stories from those of us left behind. Some of us admitted knowing nothing about the internment until hearing about it in school. Many had known only of the fear — fear of war, fear of the Japanese. One of us had worked for a Japanese woman whose property had been held for her by an “Irish” friend. Another member remembered Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson, in which a son refused to honor his father’s promise to a Japanese family.
The Buddha in the Attic seemed sometimes like a long poem, with anaphora and alliteration a choice not just repetition. The We is more common in poems. Some of us found the beauty and the story enough, as if the details of experience were carried by the feelings evoked, with some individual facts and images impressed on our consciousness. Others still would have liked more detail, which is also important, if it keeps us searching for answers and ever learning.
At the end of the meeting, we discussed whether authors really intend all we find and discuss in a book. Who writes these discussion questions? How important are they? I believe that our discussions are exercises for the brain, and sometimes, when I am searching really hard for an answer, I am convinced that I can feel my brain hurt with the strain, just as if I am exercising any other muscle. Many of the members agreed. Though not every one.
Other Works discussed:
- “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner (famous for its first person plural narrative)
- Anthem by Ayn Rand (first person plural narrative representing collectivism)
- Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
- Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas (our November 2012 selection)
- “1917” by Mary Swan (acknowledged by Julie Otsuka as inspiring her first chapter — the story is written in a very similar style)