Tag: Julie Otsuka

We Need Diverse Books

Over the past week or so, I’ve been quietly watching and listening to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and conversation. Being white, straight, and able-bodied, and generally pretty privileged, I felt like listening was my job. But I also need to speak up at least long enough to say that I read and support diverse books, and I want more of them. It’s wonderful to see myself in literature, but it would be pretty damn boring if every character was just like me. I want to hear from, and about, people from all walks of life. Here are some fantastic diverse books that I have enjoyed:

Cover image for The Buddha in the Attic by Julie OtsukaWritten from the perspective of a collective “we,” Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic relates the experiences of the Japanese picture brides who came to America in the early 1900s. Betrothed to men they had chosen from photographs, and promised a more comfortable life across the sea, these women left their homes and families for a hard new life on America’s frontier. Many arrive to realize that the husbands they were promised were mere fictions, and the men they are expected to marry are poor migrant agricultural workers. The lives they are able to build for themselves over years of hard work are abruptly yanked away from them with the onset of World War II and the institution of the Japanese internment camps.

Cover image for Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

In Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan takes us back to World War II Europe, as jazz musicians Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths relive their memories of that time. They lost many of their friends and fellow musicians, first in Nazi Berlin, and then in occupied Paris. But none of those friends haunt them quite like Hieronymous Falk, also known as The Kid, a jazz horn player who could have been the next Louis Armstrong. Hiero was a Mischling, a black German made stateless by his race. Just hours after laying down the legendary track known as Half-Blood Blues, Hiero was captured by the Germans, and sent to an internment camp. Everyone agrees that Hiero died in the aftermath of the war, although there are many competing theories about how he met his fate. Chip and Sid are about to travel back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Hiero’s life and music, but just before they depart, Chip receives a letter from Poland from someone who claims to be Hieronymous Falk. 

Cover image for Golden Boy by Abigail TarttelinIn Golden Boy, Abigail Tarttlein tells the story of Max Walker. Smart, athletic, and popular, Max seems to have everything going for him. He is loved by his parents, idolized by his younger brother,  and adored by his peers. But all his life, Max and his parents have been hiding a secret; he is intersex. Dating makes it hard enough to conceal this fact, but when Max is raped by a childhood friend, it seems that his secret will inevitably come out. The upheaval comes at the worst possible time; Steven Walker is about to stand for Parliament, and the ravenous British paparazzi that ran the previous candidate out of office may descend on the Walkers at any moment.

Cover Image for The Silvered by Tanya HuffCanadian LGBT author Tanya Huff often writes about straight protagonists, but in every book, you will find queer secondary characters, and wonderful female heroes. IThe Silvered, she reworks the concept of the werewolf, creating a complex social structure which combines werewolves and mages. Their country and their culture are under siege by an ever-expanding, Napoleon-esque Empire which regards the Pack as abomination. Bigotry, xenophobia, and racism complicate novice mage Mirian Maylin’s efforts to save the Mage-Pack after five members are kidnapped by the Emperor. 

Cover image for Maggot Moon by Sally GardnerMaggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell, a dyslexic boy keeps his mismatched eyes downcast, and tries to be invisible at school. In the dystopian society where Standish lives, being different is dangerous. Dyslexic herself, author Sally Gardner has created a wonderfully relatable hero whose learning disability isn’t a secret super power. This novel is best read with as few spoilers as possible. 

 

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissSometimes truth is better than fiction, and more diverse, too. In The Black Count, Tom Reiss profiles Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous novelist. The son of an itinerant French nobleman and his black slave mistress, Dumas was born on Saint-Domingue, and became a free man when his father took him to France, where slavery was illegal. He received a traditional French education before joining the army. As a person of colour, Dumas arrived in France at a peculiar moment in history, when rising Republican ideals would enable him to achieve incredible military acclaim despite his race, eventually becoming a general in the French Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately for Dumas, the window of opportunity was short, and when Napoleon rose to power, the fortunes of the gens de couleur did not rise with him. 

 

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The Buddha in the Attic

Cover image for The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsukaby Julie Otsuka

ISBN 978-0307744425

“Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. One of us left with her hand held over her mouth and hysterically laughing… Kimiko left her purse behind on the kitchen table but would not remember until it was too late. Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high in a corner of the attic, where he still laughing to this day.”

Written from the perspective of a collective “we,” The Buddha in the Attic relates the experiences of the Japanese picture brides who came to America in the early 1900s. Betrothed to men they had chosen from photographs, and promised a more comfortable life across the sea, these women left their homes and families for a hard new life on America’s frontier. Many arrive to realize that the husbands they were promised were mere fictions, and the men they are expected to marry are poor migrant agricultural workers. The lives they are able to build for themselves over years of hard work are abruptly yanked away from them with the onset of World War II and the institution of the Japanese internment camps. What is left behind is a haunting sense of absence, horror, and guilt, which troubles both their neighbours and the collective conscience of American history.

The Buddha in the Attic is comprised of scattered handfuls of small seeds that could easily grow into entire stories on their own. Instead, they build upon one another until the weight of hundreds of tiny, human details coalesces into a picture of sacrifice and toil. The collage it forms highlights both the commonality of experience and the details of individual lives. Julie Otsuka’s prose is lyrical, occasionally verging on poetry and the reading experience is generally much more similar to poetry than to prose; the reader is left with a series of strong impressions and experiences, as opposed to a well-defined narrative. The collective voice persists throughout, defying the expectation to give way to a singular narrative. This novel shows the evidence of careful historical research, such that it could almost be described as creative non-fiction, but the individual details are creations of the imagination designed to provoke reflection and sympathy, despite the lack of an identifiable protagonist.

At the conclusion of the novel, the Japanese women are snatched away, gone silently into the unknown. Only our knowledge of history tells us what waits for them in the internment camps, and after the war. The loss of their voices forms a tidy parallel to the absence they left in their communities. Instead we must hear from their neighbours who shift uneasily, perhaps guiltily, under the weight of carrying the narrative burden. The details slip through their fingers, because it is not their story. The details dissolve into the realm of hearsay and rumour, before sliding into forgetfulness as life goes on without them. But though the story ends, it leaves an unsettling, lingering impression disproportionate to the size of the novel.