Ruth Ozeki Discusses Storytelling, Superpowers, and Serendipity

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last Thursday, Ruth Ozeki delivered a reading coupled with a talk and a Q&A panel about her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being. This event was funded by the Swarthmore English Department and the Henry Edelman Fund for Special Projects.

William R. Kennan Jr., Professor of English Literature Peter Schmidt introduced Ozeki. An important figure in the world of independent film-making and practicing Zen Buddhist, Ozeki received many accolades for her latest release, including being shortlisted for the Booker Award and receiving the Canada-Japan Literary Award in December 2014. As for her novel, it features an inside look into the diary of bullied sixteen-year-old Nao, who recollects the life of her anarchist, feminist, great-grandmother, Old Jiko.

Schmidt started out by expressing his appreciation for Ozeki’s vivid characters. “The story of the characters all coordinated and converged into the most powerful final-third of any novel that I read in the last thirty years,” Schmidt said. He also touched upon how the key principles of Buddhism were instilled in the novel, such as the impermanence of everything and the web of life.

Ozeki, gladdened by Schmidt’s comments, remarked that she believes that writing is part of a conversation. “I hope that the book will go out, into the world, and invite a conversation with the world. But very rarely do I get to hear that conversation,” she said.

She touched upon the novel’s peculiar title by specifically mentioning how the meaning of the phrase “time-being” changes upon adjusting one’s inflection when saying it. For Ozeki, the phrase, derived from 13th century Zen master Dogen Zenji, meant a literal entity that experienced time. Ozeki said that Nao’s voice just “came out” as she ruminated on this phrase. Even though in the beginning Ozeki only knew a bit about Nao, she allowed Nao to speak and guide the story. She recollected, “She was a Japanese schoolgirl living in Tokyo. I knew she was suicidal, but I didn’t know why. She had a sense of humor, and she wrote in English. But why was she writing in English?

Ozeki said that this type of inquiry was her way of respecting the desires of her characters. For example, Old Jiko carried the voice of her mother, Masako, and the writer Ruth in the story had a strikingly similar background to Ruth herself. Even though these characters were based on voices from her imagination, Ozeki emphasized that the reader will undoubtedly read each characters differently. She proceeded to recite four excerpts from the novel, all of which aptly revealed specific character traits of both Old Jiko and Nao.

After the readings, Ozeki joined Professor Bakarthi Mani and Professor Sangina Patnaik to answer a few questions about the development of the novel. Both professors have taught Ozeki’s most recent novel in their respective classes.

When asked about the research that went into the book, Ozeki mentioned many references, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Ohnuki-Tierney’s Kamikaze, Cherry Blossom, and Nationalism, to random internet articles that her husband sent her, to essayist Jorge Luis Borges. “What you call research, I call serendipity,” she said, referring to how she draws inspiration from an eclectic array of sources.

In addition, she cited celebrated novelist Haruki Murakami as a huge influence for her Tokyo setting. “You can’t write a story in Tokyo without including cats and crows,” she said, referencing Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

Next, Mani brought forth a dilemma embroiling her Asian American literature class; she asked if agency is always procured in the moments before death. Ozeki, referencing her Buddhist mentality, said that we become time-beings the more we appreciate every moment of being alive. She relayed Buddha’s lesson of making his students sit in charnel grounds and meditate in order to become more attuned to the change of bodies over time. “It’s like the idea of contemptus mundi,” Ozeki said. “Only by contemplating or mortality can we fully awake.”

Reference Ozeki’s belief that all humans can cultivate superpowers, an audience member asked what her superpower is. Ozeki answered that her superpower is to practice meditation and quietude through peace and suffering. Another audience member also decried Nao’s graphic bullying and expressed the disgust she felt when reading the passage. “Part of my job is to create a character that you care about” she said. Judging by the positive response from the Swarthmore audience, Ozeki has succeeded in creating a remarkable, relatable story.

Featured image by Leon Chen ’18/The Daily Gazette.

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