The prophecy foretold by the outcropping of Hello Kitty lunch boxes and the endless barrage of English department emails was finally realized when Ruth Ozeki came to campus last Thursday. Following a lunch during which the aforementioned meal tins (you try finding a synonym for lunch box) were given to a few lucky students, Ozeki read from her work “A Tale for the Time Being” for a roughly five-sixths full room of students, faculty, and community members.
The event was introduced by Professor of English Peter Schmidt, who offered a few comments about his own relationship with Ozeki’s work. He praised Ozeki for a few things in particular: her skillful integration of subjects like science and philosophy, the way that her book moves powerfully forward while forcing the reader to stop and think, the manner in which she establishes an “interdependent self.” It was a well-spoken note, a helpful few things to keep in mind as the show continued.
Schmidt then ceded the podium to Ozeki, who opened with a short piece on her own presence on campus. She explained a few of her challenges and interests as a novelist.
One of the major “rewards of the writing process,” Ozeki said, was hearing how other people connected to her work. It’s why she tours and speaks — aside from, at least I like to think, the publicity — and it’s an essential part of her work as a writer.
“Writing is part of a conversation,” she explained. “But when I’m writing, it’s always at home by myself.”
At home, becoming increasingly anxious and self-aware, with a variety of ways to be judgemental. On this note, she commented that every part of the writing process came with a computerized date and time stamp: “I know exactly how long this book took me to write,” she said, reminding everyone in the audience that great novelists don’t just sit around farting ideas. Good writing, Ozeki made clear, is a grueling process.
The author then commented on how the ideas for the novel came together. She recalled hearing a voice that later became one protagonist, then another, then realizing character details based on what she had been hearing. The Zen Buddhist concept of a “Time-Being” translated from the Japanese “Uji” is central to the novel, a notion that Ms. Ozeki revealed coming in contact with while she read through the work of Zen Master Dougen. It’s a complex idea involving people’s existence in time and, in a sense, as time. The concept is a little dense to explain here, but it’s addressed in the book which, if those damn lunch boxes were still around, I would strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of.
After her own introduction, Ozeki started reading. She read passages from both of her narrators, Ruth and Nao, pronouncing the h in “whip” and leaving the burden of the translation of Japanese segments on the listener. The segments were chosen to explain the novel’s narrative structure, which Ozeki called a “dialogue” that she had set up. It’s interesting to hear about, and especially interesting to consider while reading the book.
After the reading, the session turned into a panel with Professors of English Bakirathi Mani, Sangina Patnaik and Schmidt asking questions and Ozeki offering thought-provoking responses.
First, Patnaik asked about the author’s research processes and influences. The author cited “The Tempest,” Borges’ “Library of Babylon,” and, perhaps most notably, Haruki Murakami.
“It’s hard to set anything in Tokyo without there being cats and crows,” she said as a comment on similarities that avid readers might draw between the two authors’ work, and then revealed that the two Harukis in “A Tale for the Time Being” were named as homage.
Mani followed up with an investigation into Ozeki’s exploration of agency in her work. Here, Ozeki drew from insights into the Buddhist tradition — she is a skilled practitioner — and spoke to what she sees as a choice in exercising will. It was fascinating to hear her explain her Buddhist influences with an approach different from that of a reviewer or an academic, someone who at best can say what the influences are, but can never really say how they begin to manifest themselves.
Lastly in response to Schmidt’s question, which I am sorry to say I can’t read in its hurried transcription, Ozeki had some very inspiring things to say. When we know nothing, she said, we are full of possibilities. It’s an idea that persists in her writing.
“I write an ending that is emotionally satisfying, but leaves all of the questions unanswered,” Ozeki said. “If you leave it open, the character lives on.”
She then grounded the concept of her fiction to something that the audience could easily take away, immediately apply to life.
“You can willingly cultivate this lack of knowing,” she said, “and everything starts to become intimate and interesting.”
Solid advice, for the time being.