The Urgency of Knowing: A Profile of Julie Otsuka

Renée H. Shea

Initially she didn’t think her second novel would extend to World War II and the camps, but, she says, the process took her there again: “It seemed there was a story left over, unfinished business from the first book—the disappearance. I always wondered what the white townspeople thought after their neighbors were gone. When I was traveling and talking about the first book, I often met people who were alive during World War II on the West Coast, and someone would say, ‘There was a Japanese girl who sat next to me in class, and then she was gone.’ What did the parents or teachers of the white children tell them? How did people process the disappearance of their neighbors?” Otsuka remembers her mother saying that when she returned to Berkeley from the camp, no one from her school asked where she’d been for three and a half years.

Otsuka wrote the last chapter long before the novel was finished, but continued to believe it would be “the perfect ending, a kind of twist.” It’s a different choral voice—that of the white townspeople who wonder where the Japanese have gone. The mayor tells them, “The Japanese are in a safe place,” and assures them that they “have left us willingly…without rancor; per the President’s request.” Ultimately, their absence is forgotten: “With each passing day the notices on the telephone poles grow increasingly faint. And then, one morning, there is not a single notice to be found, and for a moment the town feels oddly naked, and it is almost as if the Japanese were never here at all.”

It’s a risky ending, but it’s a risk that in some ways Otsuka has taken before. The ending of When the Emperor Was Divine was a “twist” also, as the father of the family indicts with bitter sarcasm the racism and xenophobia that destroyed so many lives. Otsuka says that her agent and editor warned her that if the book would be criticized, it would be for the final chapter, and they were right. Kakutani, for one, called this final chapter a “shrill diatribe” that lacked the “subtle, emotional power” of the rest of the novel. But even now, nine years later, Otsuka stands firm: It is the right ending.

The Buddha in the Attic ends with a similar, though perhaps more understated indictment of that same chapter of American history. Filled with speculations, haunting images of Japanese culture, litanies of names of places and people, and vague recollections, the final chapter offers no forgiveness for those whose silence made them complicit: “And after a while we notice ourselves speaking of [the Japanese] more and more in the past tense. Some days we forget they were ever with us, although late at night they often surface, unexpectedly, in our dreams.” Otsuka says she believes that “nobody really wanted to know” what happened, but in her first novel and now in The Buddha in the Attic, she insists on the urgency of that knowing, however belatedly.

So while most are thinking of Japan in terms of the recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, perhaps listening admiringly to reports that there was no looting, no lamenting of the unfairness of the triple disaster, but instead a communal resolve to accept the situation and move forward, Otsuka offers a parallel narrative from another time that is both a tribute to this same community and a reminder of where prejudice and fear can lead. She won’t let us forget this chapter in the history books, this episode of America’s polyglot culture, this Buddha in the attic.

Renée H. Shea, professor of English and modern languages at Bowie State University in Maryland, has written profiles of Sandra Cisneros, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Monique Truong, among others, for Poets & Writers Magazine. She is coauthor of the book Literature and Composition: Reading, Writing, Thinking (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2010).