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The Buddha in the Attic (Pen/Faulkner Award - Fiction)
by Julie Otsuka

Published: 2012-03-20
Paperback : 144 pages
3 members reading this now
83 clubs reading this now
0 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 24 of 26 members
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction
National Book Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
A New York Times Notable Book

A gorgeous novel by the celebrated author of When the Emperor Was Divine that tells the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco ...
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Introduction

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction
National Book Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
A New York Times Notable Book

A gorgeous novel by the celebrated author of When the Emperor Was Divine that tells the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago. In eight unforgettable sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces the extraordinary lives of these women, from their arduous journeys by boat, to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; from their experiences raising children who would later reject their culture and language, to the deracinating arrival of war. Once again, Julie Otsuka has written a spellbinding novel about identity and loyalty, and what it means to be an American in uncertain times.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

1. The Buddha in the Attic is narrated in the first person plural, i.e., told from the point of view of a group of women rather than an individual. Discuss the impact of this narrative decision on your reading experience. Why do you think the author made the choice to tell the story from this perspective?

2. Why is the novel called The Buddha in the Attic? To what does the title refer?

3. The novel opens with the women on the boat traveling from Japan to San Francisco. What does Otsuka tell us is “the first thing [they] did,” and what does this suggest about the trajectories of their lives?

4. What are the women’s expectations about America? What are their fears? Why are they convinced that “it was better to marry a stranger in America than grow old with a farmer from the village”?

5. Discuss Otsuka’s use of italics in the novel. What are these shifts in typography meant to connote? How do they add to our knowledge of the women as individuals?

6. Otsuka tells us that the last words spoken by the women’s mothers still ring in their ears: “You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong.” What does this mean, and how does the novel bear this out?

7. In the final sentence of “First Night,” Otsuka writes, “They took us swiftly, repeatedly, all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.” Discuss the women’s first nights with their new husbands. Are there particular images you found especially powerful? How did you feel reading this short chapter?

8. Why was the first word of English the women were taught “water” ?

9. In the section entitled “Whites,” Otsuka describes several acts of kindness and compassion on the part of the women’s husbands. In what ways were the husbands useful to them or unexpectedly gentle with them in these early days? How does this reflect the complexity of their relationships?

10. What are the women’s lives like in these early months in America? How do their experiences and challenges differ from what they had been led to expect? How are they perceived by their husbands? By their employers? Discuss the disparity between the women’s understanding of their role in the American economy and what Otsuka suggests is the American perception of the Japanese women’s power.

11. Later in this section, the women ask themselves, “Is there any tribe more savage than the Americans?” What occasions this question? What does the author think? What do you think?

12. Discuss the passage on p. 37 that begins, “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God.... I fear my soul has died.... And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared.” What does Otsuka mean by “disappeared”? What is she suggesting about their spiritual lives, their inner selves? Do the women reappear in this sense in the course of the novel? When?

13. Throughout the novel, Otsuka uses the phrase “One of us....” Why? What is the effect of this shift in point of view? What does Otsuka achieve through this subtle adjustment?

14. Otsuka writes, “They gave us new names. They called us Helen and Lily. They called us Margaret. They called us Pearl.” Discuss how this mirrors the names taken by the women’s children later in the novel.

15. Discuss the complexities and nuances of the relationship between the Japanese women and the white women. Was it strictly an employer/employee relationship, or something more?

16. What is J-town? Why do the women choose J-town over any attempt to return home?

17. The section called “Babies” is just six pages long but strikes with unique force. What was your reaction to the experiences of the women in childbirth? Take a close look at the last six sentences of the chapter, with a particular emphasis on the very last sentence. On what note does Otsuka end the chapter, and why? What does that last sentence reveal about Otsuka’s ideas about the future and about the past?

18. “One by one all the old words we had taught them began to disappear from their heads,” Otsuka writes of the women’s children. Discuss the significance of names and naming in The Buddha in the Attic. What does it mean for these children to reject their mother’s language? What point is Otsuka making about cultural inheritance?

19. How do the the dreams of the children differ from the dreams of their mothers?

20. Why do the women feel closer to their husbands than ever before in the section entitled “Traitors”?

21. How is the structure of the penultimate section, called “Last Day,” different from the structure of all the sections that precede it? Why do you think Otsuka chose to set it apart?

22. Who narrates the novel’s final section, “A Disappearance”? Why? What is the impact of this dramatic shift?

23. Discuss themes of guilt, shame, and forgiveness in The Buddha in the Attic.

Suggested by Members

What was the impact of "we" narrating, and how did that affect your reading experience?
What is the significance of names and naming in the story?
by mbell7 (see profile) 02/26/14

Discussion Questions 1. The Buddha in the Attic is narrated in the first person plural, i.e., told from the point of view of a group of women rather than an individual. Discuss the impact of this narrative decision on your reading experience. Why do you t
by paintbabe (see profile) 11/15/13

Which moments in the book were most poignant to you?
Do you agree that one of the author's themes is the transitory nature of the Japanese in the 1940's? One moment they are here, a part of many white peoples' lives, and then suddenly, almost in the night, they are gone. What will remain of them when the w
by dsylvia (see profile) 11/14/13

How aware were you previously of the historical events depicted in this book?
by FTessa (see profile) 08/06/13

I think the way the information in the books comes accross leaves some people cold.
Our bookclub in based on Maui, we work & live among Japanese so the book was interesting knowing what happened on the mainland. Many of us want to read more on the subject & talk to some old folk to see what happened here
by Bookbods (see profile) 10/01/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by mgrieco (see profile) 07/22/17

 
by pmacarthur (see profile) 02/17/17

 
  "Buddha In The Attic"by jkptrixie (see profile) 01/06/17

A lovely, poetic, thought provoking short read about the Japanese mail order brides...Couldn't put it down, cried during a great deal of it and read it again after I finished to be sure I didn't miss any... (read more)

 
by ahossain (see profile) 11/06/16

 
by pauline (see profile) 06/27/15

Very unusual narrative structure--to have a collective narrative. I found it effective--some members had trouble becoming absorbed into the story.

 
  "Buddha in the attic"by rnns1999 (see profile) 06/05/15

I enjoyed the book overall but preferred the hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet with the same topic. My book group liked this one as well

 
  "Unique narration technique"by kffcmf (see profile) 06/05/15

The author uses the first person plural to poetically and effectively communicate the varied yet cohesive experience of an entire population of Japanese immigrant women. Well done!

 
  "Many Stories, Not One Tale"by Chris Baker (see profile) 06/05/15

Our book club was split as to liking the writing style and book (most liked it). This book does NOT have a storyline with main characters. It is the description of many characters and a timeline of Japaneese... (read more)

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