US writer Julie Otsuka won France’s Femina foreign novel prize Monday for “The Buddha in the Attic”, a novel about the thousands of Japanese women sent to California in the early 1900s for arranged marriages.
The novel follows Fumiko, Hanako and Miyoshi with their kimonos, sandals and long black hair, first to the Japanese husbands awaiting them in the United States, then through their new lives.
“I hope the novel honoured this Monday will bring awareness to Europe about the history of these young Japanese women and the internment camps, which are practically unknown abroad and remain taboo in the United States,” Otsuka said as she accepted the prize in Paris.
Her first book, “When the Emperor was Divine”, depicts the internment camps established to hold Japanese after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Japanese-Americans were suddenly seen as dangerous.
The story has a very personal connection for Otsuka, who was born of Japanese ancestry in California in 1962.
The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the FBI arrested Otsuka’s grandfather, and his family was held in the Topaz camp in Utah for three years.
In “The Buddha in the Attic”, Otsuka’s second book set primarily before World War II, the three young brides leave for America, “the land of giants”, each with a photo of their future husband and hope for a better life.
They arrive to find the men miserable, labouring in the country, or working in laundromats in cities.
The women face their wedding night with complete strangers.
Written using the first person plural “we”, the three characters collectively represent the thousands who endured similar experiences and hardship.
The delicate young women, raised on the art of serving tea and extreme politesse, find themselves forced to plant, wash, scrub and choke on the fumes in the laundromats.
Otsuka, who studied art and tried a painting career before becoming a writer, portrays the women’s nostalgia for their homeland, the looks from white Americans, and, years later, from their children, who have become American themselves.
“I feel like a duck that’s hatched goose’s eggs,” one says.
When Japan declares war against the United States they suffer a second exile on US soil, and are sent to internment camps.
For their part, the Americans watch their Japanese neighbours being forced away. Little by little they forget their faces, then their names.