Interviewed by Kris Kosaka
Bestselling author Ruth Ozeki celebrates the Zen idea of the “positionless position,” the “not one not two” ambiguity of life with her being and her work. Her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize in Literature. Her earlier novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation were also critically acclaimed and have been translated into 11 languages and published in 14 countries.
Ozeki is half Japanese and half American in ethnicity, holds American and Canadian citizenship and divides her time between New York city and Desolation Sound along the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. Ozeki started her artistic career as a filmmaker, and her documentaries and dramatic independent films have been shown on PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and in colleges and universities across the States.
In addition to being a filmmaker and novelist, Ozeki is also a Buddhist priest. Not one thing, not another, Ozeki is a true master. A fan of all her works, it was an honor to connect with Ms. Ozeki recently by phone from my base in Japan.
Describe an ideal morning in Desolation Sound.
Wake up early-ish, maybe six or seven, and it is raining outside. It is clear that it is going to rain all day. Go down to my office, which is in a different building, and make a pot of tea. Go to the zen-dō and sit.
Maybe read a little bit, and then go up to my office to spend the day writing.
*The is a spiritual hall or place where zazen, sitting meditation, is practiced. Ozeki has a small zen-dō on her property in Desolation Sound.
If you had to inhabit the life of one of your characters, which character would you choose?
It is an interesting question, because the writer does inhabit the character; in a way, I inhabit all the characters I have ever written, at least for a short period of time. Yet it is hard to know what the character’s life is like outside the book. I don’t know if that is ever mine to know. I have inhabited all the characters I have ever written, and have done so willingly, so I don’t know if I could choose just one.
All of your novels somehow detail modern issues, carefully researched and woven into the narratives: industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, privacy issues within modern technology, bullying, to name a few. In a way, your meticulously investigated issues within your novels read like literary activism. Do these issues reflect personal causes or do your characters reflect the causes?
I don’t really have any causes. I have concerns. I don’t really think of myself as an activist at all, but I do have grave concerns about the world, and I am always reading about the world. The characters and the stories grow out of my concerns. The thing about these concerns is that there’s inherently in all of them a dramatic element. That’s why we call them causes, right?
There’s a dramatic dynamic at the heart of all of them, and I think that dramatic element appeals to me as a story-teller. So when I am reading about something, like for example, genetic engineering, and following these stories in the news, there is something intrinsically dramatic at the heart of all of these stories. You can easily see the two or three opposing forces at work, and this is, of course, what drives a good story. The stories grow out of the drama inherent in any of these issues, but I don’t consider myself an activist. I am a writer.
How old are you inside?
That depends on the day, but generally between 45 and 65, although some days I feel like 104.
With your bicultural background, please explain something in Japanese that is hard to translate into English.
I think kotodama (literally word- spirit/ soul) is one of those beautiful concepts and ideas that we just don’t have a word for in English. It is a uniquely Japanese notion, and it is very beautiful. Anyone who loves language has a sense that there is a spirit in language. Words have a spirit in them, but we don’t identify it as such in English.
When you start looking at etymologies for example, you can get a sense of the shape of the spirit that inhabits any word, and writers are very sensitive to that. I have always thought this way of language, and this is especially true since I’ve been practicing Zen and have more of a sense of ritual: language is a ritual that we perform. And it operates the way ritual operates. There is a set of practices that are very ancient, almost with its own kind of DNA, and these practices or ritualistic elements are handed down from the ancestors. So in that sense, we are literally speaking with the tongues of the dead and we are bringing the dead to life every time we use language.
This is a belief that was also shared with Ancient Greece. The Greeks believed when you recited the poetry of a dead poet, it was the poet who was borrowing the tongue of the living in order to come to life again. There is a sense – whether it is the dead poet who is inhabiting or borrowing the tongues of the living or the kotodama who is coming to life through the living language, there is some type of kinship in these two ways of thinking about language that is very beautiful.
What childhood books made your realize you wanted to be a writer?
Charlotte’s Web, because Charlotte is a writer. It is the story about a writer and a reader. I mean, yes, it’s the story of a spider and a pig, but it’s really a story of a writer and a reader, so that was a huge favorite. Another favorite was Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, which is also about an observer, a writer. It was clear early on that I was attracted to books about writers. Another favorite was A Wrinkle in Time.
What is your favorite aphorism from Jiko in A Tale for The Time Being?
Not one, not two, not same not different.
Kris Kosaka, a resident of Japan since 1996, is a teacher and writer. Currently she works in Hokkaido and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of BC’s online program. She writes frequently for The Japan Times.