Ruth Ozeki: stepping into character for her latest novel
Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest.
Her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, links British Columbia and Japan in a story initiated by a Hello Kitty lunchbox that washes up on the shores of a Gulf Island and is found by a woman named Ruth. The lunchbox contains, among other things, a diary written by a Tokyo teenager named Nao.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austin Book Club, describes A Tale for the Time Being as “equal parts mystery and meditation. The mystery is a compulsive, gritty page-turner. The meditation — on time and memory, on the oceanic movement of history, on impermanence and uncertainty, but also resilience and bravery – is deep and gorgeous and wise.”
Born in New Haven, Connecticut to an American father and a Japanese mother, Ozeki studied English and Asian Studies at Smith College in Massachusetts before travelling to Asia where she received a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara University. While in Japan she worked for a time in Kyoto’s “water district” as a bar hostess. She also studied flower arrangement, Noh drama and mask carving, founded a language school, and taught in the English Department at Kyoto Sangyo University.
On moving to New York City in 1985, Ozeki worked as an art director, designing sets and props for low budget horror movies before switching to television production. After several years directing documentary-style programs for a Japanese company, she began making her own films. Body of Correspondence (1994) won the New Visions Award at the San Francisco Film Festival. Halving the Bones (1995) is an award-winning autobiographical film that recounts the story of Ozeki’s journey as she brings her grandmother’s remains home from Japan.
Ozeki’s first novel, My Year of Meats, was published in 1998 by Viking Penguin and quickly garnered glowing reviews, awards, and a still-growing readership. My Year of Meats tells the story of Jane and Akiko, two women on opposite sides of the planet whose lives are connected by a TV cooking show. My Year of Meats has been translated into eleven languages and published in fourteen countries. It won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award, the Imus/Barnes and Noble American Book Award, and a Special Jury Prize of the World Cookbook Awards in Versailles.
Ozeki’s second novel, All Over Creation (Viking Penguin, 2003) tells the story of a family farmer, his prodigal daughter, an itinerant gang of environmental activists, and a New Age corporate spin doctor, whose lives and interests collide in Liberty Falls, Idaho. All Over Creation received a 2004 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, as well as the Willa Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction.
Her novels have been described as “witty, intelligent and passionate” by the Independent, and as possessing “shrewd and playful humor, luscious sexiness and kinetic pizzazz” by the Chicago Tribune. The acclaimed novelist Barbara Kingsolver, a fan of Ozeki’s novels, says, “Ruth doesn’t look away from our problems, but through them to the other side.”
Ozeki lives part of the year in New York City and part of the year on Cortes Island with her husband, artist Oliver Kellhammer. She is a frequent speaker on college and university campuses and serves on the advisory editorial board of the Asian American Literary Review and on the Creative Advisory Council of Hedgebrook.
A long-time meditator, first in the Tibetan and then Zen lineages, Ozeki was ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in 2010 by her teacher, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, with whom she continues to study. She is currently practicing as a priest at the Brooklyn Zen Center, in Gowanus, Brooklyn. She is the editor of the Everyday Zen website.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite slogans:
See everything as a dream. Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help. Be grateful to everyone. Trust your own eyes. Don’t be a phony. Abandon hope. Don’t poison yourself. Don’t be so predictable. Don’t go so fast. Don’t be tricky. Be wholehearted. Don’t expect applause.from www.ruthozeki.com
Ruth Ozeki will be in Vancouver on Tuesday April 16 at 7pm for An evening with Ruth Ozeki and Linda Solomon at the Anza Club at 3 West 8th Avenue, Vancouver
The occasion is the opening event of the Vancouver Observer’s 2013 Salon series.
Ozeki will give a reading, followed by an open dialogue with the audience, moderated by long-time friend and Vancouver Observer publisher Linda Solomon. The event is also the official British Columbia launch of Ozeki’s new novel, A Tale for the Time Being.
For more information: vosalonozeki.eventbrite.com
Ruth Ozeki: in her own words
You were born in Connecticut to a Japanese mother and an American father – your parents were both linguists. Did you grow up in a Japanese environment, speaking the language?
No, despite the fact that both my parents were linguists, my mother didn’t teach me Japanese when I was growing up. What were they thinking!?
Travelling to Japan and living and working there – did that come out of a need to explore the Japanese side of your heritage?
Yes, very much so. I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and there were not many Asians in the greater New Haven area at that time. My father taught in the Anthropology Department at Yale, and the only Asians I knew were the wives of the other anthropology professors. In fact, there used to be a joke in the department that if you wanted to get tenure at Yale in Anthropology, you had to have an Oriental wife. (It was the wives who told this joke, by the way.)
So it was natural, I think, given that I am half-Japanese and half-Anthropologist, that I should want to explore my Japanese heritage. This kind of ethnographic introspection is built into my DNA.
One of the characters in your new book, Nao, spent time in the States before returning to Japan, where she didn’t totally fit in and was bullied. You yourself moved to Japan when you were nineteen and also didn’t fit in, despite looking Japanese. Did that experience have a big impact on you and how you saw yourself in the world?
Yes. When I was growing up, most of my friends were Caucasian, and they all saw me as a little Japanese girl, so naturally that’s how I learned to see myself, too. I adopted all the attributes of the stereotype. I learned to be quiet, polite, musical, studious, serious. But then, when I went to Japan as an exchange student at the age of nineteen, everyone saw me as American. It was such a shock, but it allowed me finally to get in touch with my inner American. I realized it was okay to be loud and obnoxious. I was entitled to a sense of humor. What a relief!
And while it’s true I didn’t fit in when I was in Japan, I was never bullied. Any bullying I encountered happened in the United States, when I was much younger.
Another of your characters, Ruth, shares your name – both your names, really – and her husband and your husband also share the same name. Why did you choose to blend your real world and your fictional world so overtly?
Ruth’s story is a fictional memoir. The character of Ruth is semi-fictional (although if pressed, I would have to call myself semi-fictional, too!). Character Ruth and author Ruth have quite a bit in common—a husband named Oliver, a mother with Alzheimer’s, a moody cat, a house on an island in Desolation Sound—but character Ruth has a more limited perspective and a different set of experiences.
In fact, I did not find a young Japanese schoolgirl’s diary on the beach. But I did wake up one day with the words and voice of a young girl named Nao in my head, and like my fictional Ruth, I could not stop thinking about her until I discovered her fate. In this respect, you can look at the novel as an allegory about the process of writing fiction. What happens when a character appears and calls the novelist into being? It’s not meant to be taken literally. This is magic—the very ordinary magic of writing fiction.
I read that you had finished your book and were about to turn it over to your publisher, only to throw out half the book and rewrite it following the Japanese tsunami and earthquake. That really struck me as profound – it implied a deep sense of caring about your characters and the world itself. Why did you feel so strongly that you needed to reframe the story?
I’d written Nao’s story in the years prior to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and I knew that Nao needed a Reader, someone she would call into being to find and read her diary. I “auditioned” four or five characters to play the role of Nao’s Reader, which meant I’d written four or five discrete versions of the book, each with a different secondary protagonist and story arc.
Finally I finished a draft, and I was about to submit it to my editor when, on March 11, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit. I spent the next several weeks watching the horrifying images washing across the Internet as I tried to contact family and friends in Sendai. Thankfully, everyone I knew was safe, but in the aftermath of the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, several things became clear to me: Japan was now a different place; the world was different, too; and as a result, the book I’d just written was utterly irrelevant.
Several months passed, during which I was at a loss as to how to respond to these catastrophic events. I’m a novelist, and it’s my job to respond to the real world through fiction, but somehow fiction didn’t seem up to the task. One day I was talking to my husband about this, and he said “the only way to do it is to put yourself in the book.” I thought about it and realized he was right. If I were a character in the book, I could respond more directly, without the usual fictional veil, and so I told him, “Well, fine, but if I’m in the book, you have to be in the book, too.” Thankfully, he agreed.
So I unzipped the manuscript again, threw away half, stepped into the role of the Reader myself, as Ruth, and started again from the beginning.
If the second iteration of the book was informed by the tsunami, what was the motivation to begin the book in the first place – what was it that drove you to write another novel after nearly a decade?
Well, I’m never not writing another novel. I’ve been writing novels since I finished All Over Creation in 2003, but none of them seemed worth publishing. It wasn’t until I heard Nao’s voice and discovered her story, in 2006, and my fictional alter ego Ruth stepped in to help in 2011, that I was able to finish a story that I felt should become a book.
The themes of suicide and dislocation – they existed prior to the tsunami I assume – what drove you to explore them? What kind of empathy do you have with the Japanese teen in your book?
Well, I was a very unhappy teenager. I was depressed, self-destructive and angry, which I guess makes me a pretty typical teenager, too. So I do relate strongly with Nao. And like Nao, I was an obsessive writer, and I knew somehow that writing would save my life. I didn’t know how or why, but I knew.
Every story is a story of survival, as long as it is told. I had faith in this, and so I survived my childhood.
Your biography reads like one of those superwomen you hear about sometimes (why is it always women?) – you’ve worked in many different and disparate fields. Does this imply a restlessness in you? Or is it purely circumstantial?
Ha! Funny. I don’t think I am a superwoman at all. I am a generalist with diverse interests, but I have a pretty obsessive ability to hyperfocus, too. This makes me a pretty typical novelist.
You live part of the time on Cortes Island. I love that Island. My family and I spent several weeks camping there a few years ago. How did you end up drifting ashore there? It is very different than New York, where you spend the other part of your time. Do you need those two extremes to feel balanced?
I’m glad you’ve visited! It is lovely. As to how I got there, well, it’s the old story: You meet a guy, you fall in love, and you wind up in Desolation Sound. ?
Seriously, though, my husband had lived on Cortes and I fell in love with the island when I visited him there. It’s very different from NY, and I love both. I love the extremes. And yes, I think I need both to feel balanced, especially since so many of my friends still live in NY. It is jarring to move back and forth, but I’ve gotten used to it, too.
Does being biracial given one an inherent sense of duality do you think?
Yes! Absolutely. And no! Absolutely.
Being biracial has given me an inherent sense of duality and nonduality, both. All my novels reflect this. I was born to be a Buddhist, because I have been practicing with duality and nonduality since the moment I was born and was separated from my mother.
You’ve said that you love the Japanese culture – what is it about it that appeals to you? You’ve also said that going to Japan made you realize that you were American, despite your appearance. Do you cherish that sense of being an outsider/observer?
As a writer, I will always cherish that sense of being an outsider, wherever I go, even as I yearn to fit in. One does not exclude the other. Writers need to be a little bit outside, but I think we also feel sad about it, too.
So much appeals to me about Japanese culture. I feel like I had an innate appreciation for certain key aesthetic priniciples like yugen, and wabi, and sabi, and mono no aware. No one had to explain these to me. The minute I first set eyes on the crooked branch of a bonsai, or the bubbled glaze on a raku tea cup, or read a line from Sei Shonagon, I felt a deep resonance that went beyond words. Can aesthetics be transmitted genetically? As part of our DNA?
Does this relate at all to your Zen practice? You were made a Zen monk a few years back. How does that manifest itself in you everyday life?
Actually, I’m not a monk. A monk lives in a monastery. I’m a Soto Zen priest, and just a baby priest. I was ordained in 2010, and I’m still learning. The practice manifests in my everyday life in so many ways, it’s hard to describe. But in the simplest terms, I sit zazen (meditation) every day; I practice and work with the ethical precepts; I am involved in my Zen communities; I study the texts and work with my teacher; and I try to live my life for the benefit of others, in accordance with the vows I’ve taken.