2011 National Book Award Finalist,
The Buddha in the Attic
Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House
Interview by Bret Anthony Johnston
Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on The Buddha in the Attic being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. Do you remember your original idea for the novel?
Julie Otsuka: When I was touring for my first book on the West Coast, people would sometimes come up to me after my readings and start telling me about their mother, or their grandmother, or their great aunt who’d come over from Japan as a picture bride. “And when she met her husband for the first time on the dock,” they’d say to me, and the rest of the sentence would go something like: “she was shocked to find out he was so short,” or “so old,” or “completely bald,” or, as a woman told me last month, at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, “an itinerant carnival worker.” I heard so many variations of this story, and was fascinated. How could a woman—a girl, really, some of these brides were only 13 or 14—get on a boat and sail to a new country to marry a total stranger? And if I’d been born 100 years ago in a poor rural village in Japan, what would I have done? Because back then, as a woman, your options were very limited.
BAJ: How closely does the finished book correspond to what you first had in mind?
JO: I just pulled out my Guggenheim application from 2003, in which I sketched out the novel I did have in mind, and it says I wanted to tell the story “of a 15-year-old Japanese girl who is sent to America by her father to marry a man she has never met. The girl, who is referred to simply as M, is one of the thousands of young Japanese women who emigrated to the US…” That’s not exactly the story I ended up writing. The finished book begins with 100-plus young Japanese picture brides sailing to American to meet their new husbands. There is no main character, and the story is narrated in the first-person plural. And every character has a name. The general arc of the novel, however—begins on a boat, ends in the camps—is there in that earliest of laid-out plans.
BAJ: How did the writing of The Buddha in the Attic compare to the work you’d done previously?
JO: Structurally and stylistically, The Buddha in the Attic feels like a big departure to me from my previous work, almost as if it had been written by a different person. Writing in the first-person plural gave me a sort of freedom I didn’t have with my first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, which is tightly focused on a single family and told as a straightforward narrative. Using the choral narrator in Buddha allowed me to tell a much bigger story than I could have otherwise. Each sentence is like a brief window into somebody’s life. Also, while my first book came to me visually, in pictures—I often had to see a scene first in my head before I could begin to describe it on the page—Buddha came to me rhythmically, almost like a chanted song. I was constantly reading my sentences aloud as I was writing them. It was all about the sound of the language and where the accents fell. I could sometimes hear the pattern of the next sentence I wanted to write before I knew the exact words to drop into that rhythmic pattern.
BAJ: In the fiction category this year, four of the five Finalists explore countries and cultures outside of America. What was it about “picture brides” and their passage from Japan to California that most captured your imagination?
JO: Well, first of all, I couldn’t imagine sailing thousands of miles (in steerage) across an ocean to marry a man I’d never met. I mean, this just seems crazy to me! Even crossing an ocean (or street) to marry a man you do know seems like a slightly risky endeavor. But back then, not to marry was even riskier. Because an unmarried woman had no social value whatsoever. So there was that, the bravery of these young women. Such adventurous spirits, determined to make their own way in the world. And then there was the physical task of crossing an ocean on a ship—depending on the weather, it could be a very long and grueling voyage lasting weeks. And extremely uncomfortable: you’re sleeping in narrow bunks surrounded by people you’ve only just met, it’s noisy, it’s smelly, there are fleas in your mattress, you’ve just borrowed your neighbor’s comb and she’s got lice... Again, for me, all of this seems unimaginable. Because except for when I’m traveling (vast distances, but by jet plane, and with pretzels), I can go for days without leaving my neighborhood (Morningside Heights, in upper Manhattan) or even hopping onto the subway. I do most of my living within a five-block radius of my apartment. Some days, I barely cross the street. My life is very quiet and predictable, it’s really the opposite of the life of the women I’m writing about, which is probably why I was so drawn to them.
BAJ: What role does setting play in your writing?
JO: The setting was crucial, almost like another character in the novel. These women are coming to a landscape that’s unlike anyplace they’ve ever seen before. America, to them, is utterly exotic in so many ways. So my task was to make the landscape I grew up in and love, the landscape that I imprinted on as being the world—California—seem new and strange again, as if I were seeing it for the first time. I had to show America through their eyes. Which meant, above all, the vastness of the place, the acres and acres of uncultivated land, which was just unthinkable in Japan back then. (Remember, in the early 1900s Japan was an overcrowded country of rice farmers, which is another reason people were so desperate to get off the island, they were running out of space.) And everything looked different to them, everything: the people (so enormous and pale), the horses (twice the size of the horses back home in Japan), the buildings (in Japan the buildings were no more than two stories high), the trees (no bamboo), the shoes (so pointy)…
BAJ: Do you have a reader in mind as you write?
JO: No, I just write and try to tell the clearest story I can.
BAJ: The Buddha in the Attic is a short, powerful novel, and much of the power seems to come from the economy and precision of your prose. What is your revision process? How do you boil the sentences—and the whole narrative—down to its most lyrical essence?
JO: I’m constantly revising as I go along. Constantly. That’s basically all I do. I can work on a sentence or paragraph for days until I get it right. By the time I finish writing a chapter, it’s pretty much exactly the way I want it to be. I don’t go back and do a lot of rewriting later. Just for the record, however, I want to say that I don’t set out to tell poetic, pared-down stories. I just try to write as clearly as I can and leave out all the interstitial stuff that doesn’t interest me. And even though my writing is often described as ‘spare’ and ‘haiku-like,’ like a Japanese brush painting—very, you know…small and pretty—this novel actually feels very dense and packed to me. It feels big.
BAJ: How much of the story do you know before you start?
JO: I knew my beginning from the very start. And the ending, too. The last chapter was actually a piece of unfinished business from my first book, which was about a Japanese American family that is sent to the camps during WWII. What, I often wondered, did their neighbors think after they had left? Were they relieved to see their Japanese neighbors gone? Did they miss them? Did they think they would never come back? Did they not even notice they’d left? So I’d been wanting to write about a town ‘the moment after’—the moment after the Japanese have disappeared—for a long time. And then I got to thinking that, if I did it right, it could be the perfect and unexpected ending to my new novel.
But that’s about all I knew at the start. As for the middle, please see ‘biggest challenge’ below.
BAJ: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while writing The Buddha in the Attic?
JO: That no one had written this book before me. Because picture brides—the subject matter—is so rich, it’s just inherently dramatic material, and it’s a very common first-generation story. A ready-made found narrative just waiting to be told.
BAJ: What was the biggest challenge?
JO: Even though I knew the beginning and ending of my novel from the start, it took me a long time to figure out its middle. I knew that the middle chapter would have to be set during the 1920s and 1930s, but I wasn’t sure how to structure it. So I wrote around it, which I don’t normally do (and is not a strategy I would recommend). But I did. I wrote around the missing middle and called it the ‘gap chapter.’ It was just this gaping black hole in the middle of the novel. And while I was writing around it, in the back of my mind I was turning over different ideas for its structure: focus on the hardships of the depression years (too dreary), or on the women’s relationships with their husbands (better to background it), and then one day it came to me, I should write about the children. Because there were so many of them—some women gave birth to 8 or 9 babies out in the fields—and because for so many of the women, their children were their only hope. And so I wrote the chapter now called ‘The Children’ last, and when I was finished I popped it into the middle of the book and crossed my fingers and hoped that it would work.
BAJ: Another similarity among many of the Finalists this year is the use of history and war. How much of a direct influence has our current moment in history had on your writing?
JO: It’s hard not to think about history and war if you’re a Japanese American who grew up in California. In my family, ‘the war’ (WWII) was a common referent. That sleeping bag? Oh it’s ojichan’s (grandfather’s) from ‘camp.’ (My grandfather was arrested by the FBI on Dec. 8, 1941 and imprisoned for being a ‘dangerous enemy alien.’) That mess kit? Same. How did my mother meet Mrs. Nakamura? “We were in the sixth grade together in ‘camp.’” (My mother, uncle, and grandmother were interned for three years in Topaz, Utah) So I don’t remember there ever being a time when I didn’t know about ‘camp.’ The shadow of war has always been there, in the background, it’s a given.
And for a long time that’s where I thought it would stay. When I finished writing my first novel—which was all about ‘camp’—it was June of 2011. So I had no idea that it would reverberate in the way that it has, post-9.11. As a sort of cautionary tale for what can go wrong when governments get scared and start rolling back our civil liberties. 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. And it’s like, oh no, not again. So there’s this awful convergence of past and present moments. You’re writing about the past, but you could very easily be describing the present. Which is disheartening. Because haven’t we learned anything at all?
BAJ: What is the role of the writer in the world today?
JO: To write books that appeal to Laura Miller (just kidding). In all seriousness, I think it’s the writer’s role to tell the world the stories that need to be heard. To broadcast the news. Because growing up—in California, no less—I didn’t hear any stories about people who looked like me. What happened to the Japanese Americans during WWII was just not mentioned, not in works of fiction or in the history books. And even now, it’s still not being taught in the schools. Sometimes I’ll find myself talking to a group of students and they’ll say, “This didn’t really happen, right? It’s fiction? You made it up?” Or, “I didn’t know.” (Many older adults tell me this as well) And I’ll have to explain that, no, I didn’t make it up, it really happened, right here, in their—our—own country, not so long ago.
What has been most gratifying—and humbling—to me as a writer is that so many Japanese Americans have come up to me over the years and thanked me for writing about their lives. These are people, very very old people, who’ve spent most of their lives not saying a word about what happened to them during the war. It’s as if the internment never happened, which is a horrible kind of negation. Because if nobody talks about it, then it didn’t happen, and you don’t exist. You are nobody. And so I guess my role as a writer is to make these people visible—to give them a shape and a voice and tell their story to the world. Because, and I believe this strongly: the world should know.
And if this makes me sound like someone you ought to read, someone whose books ‘are good for you whether you like it or not,’ I don’t mind. Because I’m not writing to be liked. I’m just telling the stories I need to tell before my time on this earth is over. I don’t think I could live with myself otherwise.
BAJ: This is the 62nd year of the National Book Awards. How do you feel about your book being honored in the tradition of the previous Finalists and Winners? Are there previous NBA honorees that you’ve found yourself rereading over the years?
JO: I am extremely grateful that my book has been nominated. It’s more than I ever could have dreamed of. To be part of a tradition, an American tradition no less, is such an honor, because for so long the people I’ve been writing about have been excluded from that tradition. Some of the previous honorees whose work I’ve found myself returning to over the years: Thornton Wilder, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy, Andrea Barrett, Susan Sontag, Colum McCann, Alice McDermott, and Denis Johnson. Their work has been an inspiration to me, a source of solace at times and, above all, a reminder of what great literature can be.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories. His work appears in magazines such as Esquire, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, and Tin House, and in numerous anthologies, including Best American Short Stories. In 2006, he was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35, and he is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard. www.bretanthonyjohnston.com