Q&A: Professor Ruth Ozeki Reflects on Her Extraordinary Writing Career
Imagine my surprise: it was days after I had finished and fallen in love with “A Tale for the Time Being,” and I had just realized its author, Ruth Ozeki, was in the Pioneer Valley, teaching at Smith College. Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, Zen Buddhist priest and professor whose career and identities as a Caucasian-Japanese-American and naturalized Canadian have inextricably shaped her writing. After graduating from Smith College in 1980, she completed a fellowship studying classical Japanese literature with the Japanese Ministry of Education. She then worked as an art director on horror movies, directed documentaries for television in Japan and created two independent films before turning to writing. Ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in 2010, Ozeki has been practicing and teaching since.
Ozeki’s novels are funny, painful and deeply caring, acting as narrative ecologies that weave together realities of nature, sociology, collective trauma and individual joy. Her first two novels were “My Year of Meats” (1998), which traversed documentary filmmaking and industrial agriculture, and “All Over Creation” (2003), a family drama centered around genetically engineered potatoes. Her 2013 novel “A Tale for the Time Being” was the winner of the Los Angeles Book Prize for Fiction and tells the parallel stories of Nao, a deeply troubled 16-year-old in Japan, and Ruth, a writer in remote British Columbia who finds Nao’s journal years later. Ozeki’s upcoming novel, “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” is set for release this September.
While one can endlessly ponder how she has simultaneously pursued so many different creative endeavors, any amount of time spent with her books or with Ozeki herself reveals just how much these different parts are inseparable from the whole of her vision. They are, in fact, the whole. I was lucky enough to speak with Ozeki last month.
Hildi Gabel: This first question is one I’m sure you get a lot, but while reading your book, the first thing that struck me was the wide scope of disciplines you cover and the complexity that’s here. How do you make these connections in your writing?
Ruth Ozeki: It’s philosophical in a way — or you could just say it’s in my blood. I’m mixed race, and so making connections between things seems to me to be what I am. Reality is comprised of multiple points of view, and so I’ve never written a book from a singular point of view, and my books don’t fall into singular genres. As a Buddhist, interbeing, interdependence and dependent co-arising have always been key to my fiction writing as well. I also kind of have ADHD, and so I’m all over the place, and I’m just interested in a lot of different things. When I write, I can’t help but express that.
HG: That’s super fascinating. In recent classes here, I’ve had a lot of discussions about how genres aren’t built for every experience, how they’re contrived.
RO: Genre is capitalism. You need to be able to put the books on a shelf somewhere. It’s a category or a taxonomy. And you know, it’s fine, I’m not criticizing it. But it’s really more about organizing a bookshelf.
HG: I was wondering also about your journey with Buddhism. What spurned you to want to be ordained?
RO: My relationship with Buddhism is old. My Japanese grandparents were both Zen Buddhists, and the first memory I have as a little three-year-old child is walking into a bedroom and seeing my grandparents sitting on the floor, meditating. When my grandfather opened his eyes and looked at me, there was this moment of transvision. That was my first memory as a human being. I think that like a little duckling, I imprinted on it. [Later] I got involved with Zen Buddhism and Zen arts when I was living in Japan.
Then when I was in my forties, my parents started to get ill. The foundational story of Buddhism is about Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, who escapes from the palace walls and encounters for the first time sickness, old age and death, and that is what sets him on the path. For many people, some kind of extreme suffering suddenly makes you think, “Oh, life is impermanent.” This was a time of extreme suffering: My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and my father was dying. I was an only child and was also publishing my first book. In Buddhism, we say you practice like your head’s on fire. And so I started practicing like my head was on fire, because it was the only thing that helped. It was a way to look into the heart of your suffering rather than doing all of the other things that one does to avoid it. The more I practiced, the more I felt that I wanted to share it, and I felt compelled to become ordained.
HG: It is really beautiful to think of this impermanence, and it’s very present in “A Tale for the Time Being”, in content, but also in the undercurrents.
RO: Yes, that was the first book I published after ordination. After that, and after my second book “All Over Creation” as well, I went through a long period where I slowed down writing and got more involved with Buddhism. You can see that with [those early books], and you can also see it in the new book, which is very much informed by Buddhist philosophy.
HG: I have dug into coverage of “The Book of Form and Emptiness” a little, and wanted to talk about it. Would you mind introducing your new novel?
RO: It’s a story about a young teenager named Benny Oh, [who is] half-Caucasian, quarter-Japanese and quarter-Korean. When he’s twelve years old, his father dies, and shortly afterward, he starts to hear voices: the voice of his father calling to him and the voices of the things around him talking to him — a sneaker, a pair of scissors, a piece of wilted lettuce. It’s made even more complicated because his mother, Annabelle, becomes a bit of a hoarder, which fills the house with things that won’t shut up. Benny does what any sensible boy would do. He takes refuge at the public library, where they know how to speak quietly in their library voices. Here, he ends up meeting all these different characters: a Slovenian philosopher-poet who holds salons in the restroom, a beautiful young performance artist who makes elaborate installations through the library’s collections, a Japanese Zen Buddhist nun who’s an internationally renowned clutter cleaning consultant.
The book is structured loosely as a dialogue between Benny and the book itself. The conceit is books are talking objects and that we converse with them. I think any reader knows this is true. Through this mutually co-creative dialogue between Benny and the book, the book quite literally speaks itself into being and speaks Benny into being too. The reader is also culpable because readers are voice-hearers, hearing objects speaking to them.
HG: I’m so glad you brought that up because I was definitely struck by the form many of your books take. [“A Tale for the Time Being” contains journal entries and letters, and “The Book of Form and Emptiness” is made of this character-book dialogue]. It totally self-actualizes the book in a meta way.
RO: I had so much fun writing the character of the book because the book understands that Benny is suffering and is doing what books do: They try to help us. It’s a very earnest book that has strong opinions about libraries, for example, and about the way books are treated, about digital media, about human beings. It was just so much fun to write.
HG: That earnestness is so important as well, particularly when coming out of something that’s very dark.
RO: I’ve always felt that there’s this wonderful, enlivening tension between earnestness and irony, humor and tragedy. My goal is to always be able to hold both of these seemingly opposing states in the tone of my books at the same time. I think it goes back to the fact that I’m mixed race, and I have this sense of having these conflicting identities that are somehow contained and have to learn to get along with each other.
HG: And then, that must come with seeing that as a strength, too.
RO: Yes, exactly, it is a strength. We’re so used to thinking about things as “either/or.” I’m all about not-that. I’m all about the “and.”
HG: Speaking of the “and,” I’m curious about your other backgrounds in work. You were in film and television for a long time, working for a while in the horror genre. How has your work as a filmmaker influenced your writing?
RO: That’s a whole other couple of hours of conversation. The simple answer is yes, yes it does. I never went to an MFA program and only took one creative writing class at Smith, but I always wanted to write and was always writing. What I never knew how to do was move a story through time, and that is something that you learn quickly in the television business where time is money, literally. I started as an art director on low-budget horror films. But little by little, I moved into Japanese television. I spent a lot of time in the editing room, and I was finally given a Japanese television series to direct called “See the World by Trains.” It was a wonderful series of mini programs, each about two minutes long, and I made hundreds of them. It taught me how to tell a story in a very concise way with images and music. We went out on location too, and so I’ve ridden every single passenger train in America and most of them in Canada. After I finished,I suddenly realized, “I know how to do this now.” That’s when I started my first novel, “My Year of Meats.”
HG: It’s amazing to think about film as training for writing, and also film as writing. I know for me, learning how film works have really influenced how I think about writing.
RO: If you want to learn how to tell a story, don’t waste your time on set. Go to the editing room, especially documentary editing rooms. That’s where stories are made. With documentary editing rooms, you’re not shooting off a script. You shoot the material and then pull the story out of masses and masses, hundreds of hours of footage.
HG: That mirrors the writing process, pulling something out of nothing, or rather a mass.
RO: Yeah, really. In your imagination, anything’s possible, so in a way it’s worse when you’re writing. At least when you go out with a camera, you come back and there’s a limited number of hours of footage you can actually shoot. For a fiction writer, it’s endless and infinite, what your brain can metaphorically film. So that’s all just my suggestion. If you’re interested in storytelling, get a job in a documentary editing room.
HG: I lastly wanted to touch on how much you write about decline and extinction, these globalized difficulties and traumas, throughout your work. I was really amazed with how you wrote about it in “A Tale for the Time Being,” [and throughout your past work, you’ve written about extinction, mass destruction and decline]. It seems like you’re going to discuss climate change in “The Book of Form and Emptiness.” How do you find it within yourself to approach global trauma, and how do you approach it?
RO: In my first book, “My Year of Meats,” I remember I wrote about ignorance and was thinking about how the root of the word is “to ignore.” We all engage in a willful ignorance of these realities that are going to very much determine our future and are determining our present as well. These things should be acknowledged because they form part of the texture and complexities of our affective response to the world. This is part of Buddhism as well; when you meditate, you’re not looking away from your suffering, but sitting with it quietly and facing it. The problem exists when you try to look away. That’s when suffering gets really keen and really acute. I spent years and years trying not to look, and I think that’s why I’m late to writing. It was only after I started practicing Buddhism, looking at suffering and my own remorse, that I realized suffering is where the story lies. That’s where stories have always existed.
Writing gives you the excuse to spend years looking in a creative way at something that frightens you. In “My Year of Meats,” the issue that really scared me was the relationship between corporate media and what we were shown as being real. It was around the time of [the] Mad Cow [Disease outbreak], so industrial meat farming really frightened me as well. This was a personal issue because I had done a Japanese television program that was sponsored by the U.S. meat industry, and so I had been a part of that machine. I wanted to look at that more deeply, and writing a novel gave me parameters with which to focus my inquiry.
It’s wonderful to have a project. The great thing about school is it gives you projects. When you graduate, don’t ever give that up. Always have a project that you’re working on. It will give meaning to your life and will give a way to structure your intellectual inquiry.
HG: Thanks so much for that. I am actually about to graduate, and it’s really wonderful advice.
RO: Yes, I figured. Always have a project!