April 2020: The Buddha in the Attic


  • 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?

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

  • 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”?

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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?

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

  • 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?

  • How do the the dreams of the children differ from the dreams of their mothers?

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

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

Order the book through your local bookstore, online, or check your local library for digital and physical loans.

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