Julie Otsuka at 192 Books

1. 192 Books before the reading began. Finely-aged crowd specimens were overheard complaining about the reading’s tardiness when Otsuka had yet to take the mic, and it was a blasphemous few minutes after seven. 2. Julie Otsuka reads from the first chapter of The Buddha in the Attic.

It’s been a while since I’ve gone to a regular reading — “regular,” meaning not a lit party or some night with a theme featuring multiple authors — and I’d sort of forgotten how nice they can be. Relaxing and meditative, a way to genuinely — and intimately — have the opportunity to get the full flavor of an author. And 192 Books is the perfect setting for such a reading, with its large windows, pleasant lighting, carefully curated book selection, and ample seating.

Julie Otsuka was the author of the evening, and 192 Books was the scene of her first reading from her new novel, The Buddha in the Attic, last night. As the rain poured down outside, and car lights flashed off the shiny covers of books, Otsuka told us a little about the book’s inception before beginning.

1. Kristi Reilly, a short story writer, and Emi Ikkanda, an Assistant Editor at Henry Holt & Co. 2. Nicole & Nishi, who live in the neighborhood and both like to read.

It had taken eight long years to write, she said. Eight years of research, and playing around with the point of view. The Buddha in the Attic is about picture brides (or mail order brides), which were common among Japanese families in the 1910s and ’20s. The book is told in first person plural, but it wasn’t always this way. Otsuka first tried to tell it from the viewpoint of a single bride, but it just didn’t work.

Otsuka read from a condensed version of the first chapter in the book, as well as the entirety of the second chapter. The first chapter repeated the phrase “On the boat…” and told of — you guessed it — the picture brides’ journey over to America on a boat, which they spent fearing, dreaming, sharing wisdom, and gossiping. The repetition worked nicely, emphasizing both the monotony and the strangeness of traveling on such a journey.

The second chapter featured the refrain “They took us,” and was about what happened after the picture brides met their strange husbands. Their experiences were in turns horrific, mundane, and orgasmic.

After the reading, Otsuka indulged us with a round of Q&A, in which we learned that the phrase “On the boat” was the catalyst that changed the point of view of her story. The phrase was hidden in pages of unsuccessful writing, and once discovered, Otsuka knew that this was how the story should begin. I say “story” for a reason — Otsuka did not know initially that what she was writing was a novel. Originally, it was one story, which became the first chapter. Then, it was two stories; the second being the final chapter, which is told from the point of view of a town after the Japanese left to go to the internment camps. Then Otsuka knew she had a novel, and it was her job to create the work that would sew these two chapters together.

1. Ria & Pete. Pete said that he’s read When the Emperor Was Divine more than once, and he likes to recommend it to friends.

The rain ended sometime during the reading, and afterward I walked down the clean, still-wet streets of Chelsea, relaxed and newly invigorated with some damn good literature. Awesome.


Good for: People who enjoy “curling up with a good book,” those who like to sit down while they’re attending a reading.

Bad for: Men thinking about obtaining a mail order bride, alcoholics expecting free booze.


The Buddha in the Attic

by Julie Otsuka


Listen to Julie Otsuka discuss her new novel on The Leonard Lopate Show.


– Julia Jackson writes fiction and is the editor of Electric Dish. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College.

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