Jhe first thing Japanese-American author Ruth Ozeki did the morning after winning the Women’s Fiction Award was meditate. “A very short one,” she said when we met at her hotel later. She was so convinced she wasn’t going to win (Meg Mason and Elif Shafak were first) that she planned “a full program” for the day. “It’s not that I’m complaining,” she laughs. Coolly elegant in black, despite the heatwave, the 66-year-old writer has the kind of glow you don’t often see in interviews after the awards show.
Ozeki can certainly lay claim to being the first Zen Buddhist priest to win the Woman’s Prize, which she won for her fourth novel, The Book of Form and Void. It tells the story of 14-year-old Benny, who begins to hear the voices of everyday objects after the death of his father. His mother, Annabelle, has become an hoarder, and somehow inanimate things (her husband’s shirts, snow globes, a yellow teapot) speak to her too. Clinging to her job as an archivist, Annabelle has left her house overflowing with clippings: they are metaphorically drowning in grief, garbage and too much news.
Philosophically earnest and formally playful (the book itself speaks to us), this cacophonous novel sometimes feels as cluttered and whimsical as Annabelle’s eclectic collections. But, as with all of Ozeki’s novels, The Book of Form and Void doesn’t shy away from tackling all-too-real issues – global warming, consumerism, mental illness – or asking the big questions: is this real? Is there a limit to human desires for more? And yet, the president of the women’s award described her as “a complete joy” and critics were drawn to her “quiet, dry and methodical good humor”. And it’s true that this story of a mother and son finding their voice and a way out of the mess in their lives is both deeply touching and uplifting.
A passionate environmentalist and feminist, Ozeki grew up reading Rachel Carson and soaking up the “political consciousness” of the 1970s, she says. Her first two novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), which she describes as “a deep dive into potatoes”, were born out of her concerns about climate change and industrial agriculture. (his father’s family were farmers in Wisconsin). His latest novels, A Tale for the Time Being, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and The Book of Form and Emptiness are explicitly influenced by Buddhism. The question “Do insentient beings speak Dharma?” from a Zen parable is at the heart of this latest novel. “Can objects teach us about reality? she helpfully adds. “And, of course, the answer is yes.”
The book took eight years to write – “every novel takes me longer – it’s not a good trend” – but its roots go back to the death of his own father in 1998. For a year after, Ozeki the would hear him speak. . “I was doing something around the house, folding laundry or whatever, and I would hear him clear his throat, and then he would say my name. I turned around and there was no one there. Every time that happened it was a bit of a shock, like a punch – he’s not there.
While clearing out her parents’ New Haven home in 2002 after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she found gifts given to her father by the First Nations communities he worked with as a linguistic anthropologist and Japanese artifacts belonging to his mother (also a linguistics professor, born in Japan), a collection of polished pebbles from his grandfather’s time in an internment camp in New Mexico, and an empty box, neatly labeled “empty box”. “I knew these things had stories, but I didn’t know what those stories were. And it was kind of heartbreaking.
“So start with the vocals, then,” the book begins. She wanted to explore “voice hearing on a spectrum,” she explains. As a writer, characters “appear” to him: “Hi! My name is Nao and I am a moment,” so Nao in A Tale for the Time Being “came to mind,” she says. Then there are those neurotic voices, “internal sarkicity, inner criticism, all that stuff,” that bothers us all, and more troubling, the voices that lead to Benny stabbing himself with a pair of scissors and being diagnosed as schizo- affective. disorder. “Why are some voices pathologized, some normal and some adored?” she asks. “What’s normal anyway?” Normal is a cultural construct, and we have made normal very narrow.
Like Benny, who suffered from severe depression and anxiety as a child, Ozeki spent several weeks in a psychiatric ward after suffering “what was then called a nervous breakdown” at boarding school. Following in the footsteps of Sylvia Plath, as one does “when one is a poetic and depressed young girl”, she then entered Smith College, one of the oldest women’s colleges in the United States, where she learned Japanese (traumatized by the war, her mother never taught her because she didn’t want her to be “identified as Japanese”) and won her first fiction awards. She returned to Smith to teach creative writing in 2015 and now, after many years on Cortes Island in British Columbia, lives full-time in Massachusetts with her husband, an environmental artist and teacher.
After graduating, she spent a few years in Japan studying classic Japanese literature, then returned to New York and fell into the film industry, becoming an art director for low-budget horror films with titles like as Mutant Hunt and Robot Apocalypse. This unlikely experience taught him how to tell a story. Eventually, she was making her own documentaries, and although her films were critically successful (she was nominated for the Grand Prize for Fury at Sundance), they were “financial disasters.” She gave herself a year to write a novel, which she hoped would sell for $30,000 to cover her debts: she never imagined that 25 years later she would receive £30,000 for the women’s prize. She printed the first draft of My Year of Meats on the eve of her 41st birthday, “so that I could say, honestly, that I had written my first novel at the age of 40.”
But after the publication of her second novel and the death of both her parents, she “was falling apart” again. So she turned to Buddhism. “Illness, old age and death – it wakes you up,” she says. “That’s what woke up the Buddha. You just realized that life is all about impermanence and I won’t be here forever. How can I deal with this? Because I really feel like the center of the world. She was ordained in 2015.
The first thing she teaches her students is how to meditate, and she uses meditation techniques in her own writings. “I close my eyes and kind of fall into a scene in my imagination and then just hang out there. You are aware of all visual, sound, olfactory, taste and tactile sensations. You can notice a little more what is going on with your characters.
Is it Zen that gives his work that joy that won over the judges? “I just have a weird sense of humor,” she says. “The flip side of anything sad is usually funny. There’s a reason Shakespeare always has clowns in his tragedies. It’s all funny, and it’s all really sad, too. It’s both.” Just like The Book of Form and Void.