Ruth Ozeki: Writing Is ‘a Form of Prayer’

October 9, 2013

Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian-American of Japanese descent, is a novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest. Her third novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” was shortlisted last month for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, whose winner will be announced Oct. 15.

The book tells the story of Ruth, a woman who finds a Japanese teenage girl’s diary washed up on a beach in British Columbia, which she suspects arrived as part of the debris from the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

In the diary, 16-year-old Nao talks to the reader about struggling with bullies in school as a Japanese citizen who spent her childhood in America. She also details her father’s multiple attempts at suicide, the life of her 104-year-old Buddhist nun grandmother, and her search for the story of an uncle who studied French and died in World War II as a kamikaze pilot.

Ms. Ozeki, 57, spoke to the Journal about the similarities between writing and prayer, being nominated for a Booker, and the impact of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and earthquake disaster on her work. Edited excerpts follow.

How did you react to the news that “A Tale for the Time Being” was on the Man Booker shortlist?

I was stunned. I felt very honored and immediately started to read all the other books on the list because I wanted to know who my cohorts were.

What was the inspiration for your book?

Inspiration comes from everything from the entire world, and it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. I can trace one inspiration to the writing of 13th-century Zen master Dōgen Zenji, who writes beautifully about time.

There’s something about the idea of writing, and thinking about writing as a form of prayer — the way as a writer you call out into the world and throw your words into the world. You’re not praying to a god, but you’re almost conjuring a reader to arrive. That’s what books do, they’re an invitation to readers. I was thinking about what happens if this girl writing a diary throws her voice into the world and calls forth a reader.

How much is the protagonist, Ruth, based on you? She’s also a half-Japanese writer living in Canada.

We are very similar except that she’s necessarily a very limited version of myself. She’s limited in that she only appears in the context of this one book. It’s as though she’s another-world version of me. There are some fictional elements, but it’s kind of a semi-fictional portrait.

It’s funny because if you look at an artist’s self-portrait, no one would ever say “Is that you?” Of course it isn’t — it’s a portrait, it’s not a living being, it’s not an animate living creature, it’s a painting. But for some reason in writing, we don’t seem to make that distinction. We expect that words are animate in a way that portraits would never be confused.

The character Nao writes her diary in English, sprinkled with Japanese phrases, and she discovers an uncle’s diary written in French. How did you decide when to put certain phrases in each language?

When Nao gets carried away with the narrative, she will have lapses. She’s new at this, so she will occasionally slip into Japanese if that seems more natural. [Being bilingual] there are certain words you get into a habit of saying in Japanese rather than in English and you end up speaking a mixed-up language. So I followed the logic of the girl, followed her mood and made decisions based in the moment on that.

Was it difficult to write in the voice of a Japanese teenage girl?

Sometimes you get lucky and a character just comes to you and it’s not a struggle. The essence of her voice was right there from the start. I don’t know where it came from. You channel it somehow. The voice is there, and as long as I am attentive to it and attend to it, it will tell the story it wants to tell. I don’t think its a mystical thing, that’s just what writers do.

The process must seem strange to those who don’t write fiction. But people have always heard voices. Sometimes they’re called shamans, sometimes they’re called mad, and sometimes they’re called fiction writers. I always feel lucky that I live in a culture where fiction writing is legal and not seen as pathology.

How much research went into the book?

A lot. A book grows out of the research. It’s not as though I have the idea of the whole book. I have an idea or a character’s voice in my head and I start writing. The story starts to emerge and I get an idea, then I start to research that idea and it feeds the next section of the book. Very often ideas themselves come from something that has come across my desk. In 2001, I came across news about some kamikaze pilot diaries, and by 2007 that character appeared in my novel.

The novel is kind of like a debris field floating across the ocean. There are shards and fragments of things that have popped into my mind.

What impact did Japan’s 2011 tsunami and earthquake have on your writing?

This book was written before [the earthquake and tsunami], but after that happened, it was no longer relevant. The tsunami changed everything; it changed Japan, it changed the world. I knew it was not going to go away and that the effects were going to persist. The book I’d written was a pre-3/11 book and suddenly overnight we were in a post-earthquake and -tsunami world.

The tsunami and earthquake were indisputably real, and here I was trying to write fiction. How do you with the tools of fiction respond to an event of this catastrophic magnitude? That’s when I decided to break the fictional container and put a version of myself in because it would allow me to respond directly to the reality of what was going on.

You’re a Zen Buddhist priest. Have you always been a Buddhist?

No, but it’s in my family. My grandparents were Buddhist. I didn’t start practicing until the 1990s and didn’t choose to identify as a Buddhist until 2005. I was ordained in 2010.

What led you to that path?

I had this sense that writing alone wasn’t enough. I needed more ground, and had a sense that I needed, I wanted something else. Writing is solitary. You spend so much time alone and in your own mind, telling stories. I suppose you do that in Zen too, but ordination is a commitment to the community, and I wanted to make that commitment to the larger Zen community.

What does being ordained entail? 

I’m still a priest in training. In the training process, you study, you sit and do a lot of meditation and retreats. You learn the liturgies and ceremonies so you can perform them, and eventually you work with Zen groups, of which there are many. Zen in the West is still quite new. There are many different ways of being a priest in the world, and I’m sure I’ll figure out my way, which will be different from the way other people perform their functions.

The book is being translated into Japanese. How do you think Japanese readers will receive it?

It’s going to be interesting to find out. I hope to work with the translator quite closely because the book is so much about Japan, so I would like to be able to make some adjustments with a Japanese readership in mind. There are certain things I needed to explain to an English-speaking audience that to a Japanese audience would seem redundant. So we can get rid of that and with any luck put in other things that will serve the Japanese readership.


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