The Buddha in the Attic

by Julie Otsuka

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Discuss the tension between homeland and new land in The Buddha in the Attic and The Translator.

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In both The Buddha in the Attic and The Translator, tensions between homeland and new land include decisions about retaining cultural traditions, pressure to assimilate, and racism and anti-immigrant discrimination. In Otsuka’s novel, marriages between people of the same national background encourage some cultural continuity, but they must endure US government sanctions. For Aboulela’s Sudanese protagonist, Islam connects her to the homeland, while a relationship with a Scottish man facilitates her sense of into belonging in Scotland.

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The homeland and the new land in The Buddha in the Attic are Japan and the United States. In The Translator, these two territories are Sudan and Scotland. Julie Otsuka presents a collective portrait of Japanese women who entered marriages in the US without having previously met their husbands. The couples must make their way as Japanese Americans who face segregation and discrimination during the first half of the twentieth century. For all of them, the homeland becomes an increasingly dim memory. Leila Aboulela offers an individual portrait of a woman who moves from Sudan to Scotland, is widowed, and then becomes involved with a white Scottish man. She retains a strong sense of her homeland, in part through Islam, as she gradually accepts the positive aspects of the new land.

The Japanese American families vary in their efforts to continue with traditions from the homeland, such as food, language, and dress. However, their children have no direct knowledge of Japanese identity and culture. The dominant American perceptions of Japan not only become not just increasingly negative but actually dangerous with World War Two, as people of Japanese heritage are rounded up, disenfranchised, and incarcerated. Internalizing their memories must replace outward displays of connections to the homeland as their loyalty to the new land is constantly tested.

For Sammar, living in Scotland alone after her Sudanese husband’s death actually intensifies her emotional commitment to the homeland. Her sense of alienation strengthens along with her loneliness, but her faith and daily practice of Islam helps her cope. An individual relationship with a Scottish man, Rae, helps shift her perception of Scotland toward seeing its positive qualities. There are also class differences from the Japanese Americans featured by Otsuka, as Sammar is educated and works within an academic setting, as the titular translator. Because Rae is a scholar of Islamic culture, he is open to her culture although not born into it. Despite being surrounded by preconceptions about Muslims and fundamentalism, Sammar begins to believe that Scotland can be another homeland where she is not entirely foreign.

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