The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a quick, powerful read.
Written in the first-person plural, the story is at once personal and essentially anonymous. It is not the story of just one person, but of a people. The use of the “we” brings attention to the “us” vs “them” nature of racism and prejudice, and in the last chapter when the “we” changes, it raises the question, “Who are ‘we’ anyway?”
Otsuka takes us through the lives of picture brides from Japan, from their nervous but hopeful journey across the ocean to the harsh realities of their lives in America to their internment—along with their husbands and children and grandchildren—because they are deemed a threat to national security after Pearl Harbor.
In the group at which we discussed this book, the conversation turned to why it is that we, even today, avoid seeing violations of civil rights and prejudicial treatment going on around us. Why, we asked ourselves, do we as a culture turn away rather than acting when we see injustice?
We talked about the recession and how we’ve got our own stuff to worry about. We talked about how busy people are and how uninformed. We talked about the consolidation of media power and the resulting shallowness and one-sidedness of the news we consume. We talked about the compartmentalization that happens in social media and web searches and online bookstores that are designed to show us more of what already interests us. We talked about the lack of community.
This was a comfortable, philosophical approach to our inaction. What was less comfortable was when I turned the question on myself.
When I see an injustice, why don’t I act? I used to act. I used to get up in arms and demonstrate and write legislators and help set up panel discussions. Why don’t I any more?
It’s not that I’m uninformed. If anything, I think I’m better informed about issues than I was in my twenties during my activism heyday.
It’s not that I don’t care. Discussions at church about how the Ecuadorean population of a nearby town are being mistreated in the wake of a recent tragedy leave me in tears. I feel compelled to do something and yet when it comes time, I balk.
Why is this?
The only reason I can figure is fear. Fear of taking a stand, fear of arguing, fear of being yelled at. I have an introvert’s trepidation about meeting new people and talking in front of groups that’s just compounded by the fact that the “new people” are part of a foreign culture and many of them don’t speak my first (and pretty much only) language.
I realize, too, that I’m afraid of intensity of emotion.
I watch activists speaking and they can hardly talk, the words are all fighting to get out of their mouths at the same time. They cry frequently. Their passion is evident.
I used to share that passion. In my twenties and early thirties, if someone mentioned birth, I had that same flood of words that crowded in my mouth. I could—and would—argue hammer and tongs about the evils of episiotomies and the importance of teaching doctors how to deliver breech babies vaginally rather than relying on surgery.
But in the years since my son was born, my passion has cooled. And I do not miss it.
I’ve made peace with many of my feelings about birth, and I don’t want to go back to that out-of-control, all-consuming obsession with something I had little ability to change or even affect.
I’m enjoying the calm, and I’m afraid of getting pulled back into the intensity.
While I don’t think the out-of-control type of passion is necessary for activism, I don’t know how to be an activist without it. I want to be an equanimous activist. I want to stand in the river and let the current rush by me. But I’ve yet to figure out how to get into the river without the struggle, so I continue to stand on shore.
With all of the things I fear, the biggest is that if I were put to a moral test like those that so many faced during World War II, I would fail.
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NaNoWriMo Day 8 Word Count: 14,124