Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and a Zen Buddhist priest. She is the author of three novels: My Year of Meats (1998), All Over Creation (2003), and A Tale for the Time Being (2013). Her website and other web sources portray a diverse and fascinating set of life experiences and a considerable skill set: she worked on cult SF classic Robot Holocaust and has done straightforward commercial film work, started a language school in Japan, worked as a bar hostess there, made award-winning films herself (Body of Correspondence, Halving the Bones), done extensive study of Zen, and worked as a Zen teacher. Among other things.
In 2013 A Tale for the Time Being was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize as well as for a National Book Critics Award; it won the Kitschies Red Tentacle Award for Best Novel, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. The reviews in the United Kingdom tended to stress that, as The Independent had it, “her novels are witty, intelligent, and passionate.” The reaction of the American press was more boisterous: The Chicago Tribune noted “their shrewd, playful humor, luscious sexiness, and kinetic pizazz.”
Her work is all that, and much more. Her books are deeply involved in issues of science, technology, gender, and attend both to deep history and to the contemporary. They are concerned with our minds and bodies, but even more particularly with our spirit, and with our commitment to the future. I spoke with Ruth Ozeki at Stanford in 2013 and then corresponded with her during the book tour that followed, and am delighted that My Year of Meats was selected as one of the three books all incoming frosh will read at Stanford this autumn. Now in its 11th year, the texts for this year’s Three Books program address the theme of “Science”: Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller, My Year of Meatsby Ruth Ozeki, and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Falloutby Lauren Redniss. I cannot think of a better humanistic author to feature for this series.
DAVID PALUMBO-LIU: Ruth Ozeki — thanks for sitting down with me as you return from doing extensive travel and readings of A Tale for the Time Being. You have given a huge number of interviews, so I’d like to make this relatively targeted. First, in all your work you are especially interested in the complex interweaving of narrative voices. This latest work is the one in which your Buddhism shows up the most explicitly. How does a Buddhist sense of Self (or non-Self) work to help shape this novel, especially in terms of constructing your different narrators? Who are these “people”? What kind of character “development” or “intregity” should we find?
RUTH OZEKI: This notion of self (Self?) is a great place to start, and immediately I find myself resisting the capitalization of the word, which in itself is significant. The capital S seems to imply a fixed and singular entity, a God-like Self, whereas my sense of self is a more shifting (shifty?) and pluralistic entity, an interdependent collectivity of lowercase gods, demigods, and demons.
A Tale for the Time Being plays very overtly with this notion of self or selves, which in Buddhism is called no-self, or anatman. Buddhism teaches that because everything is impermanent, there is no fixed self that remains unchanged in time. And Buddhism also teaches that there is not an independent self, that can exist separate from others. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this interbeing. So what we experience as the self is more like a collection of fluid, interpenetrating, interdependencies that change and flow through time. The title, time being, refers to just this, and the novel, with its two narrators Ruth and Nao, is a kind of overt performance of these Buddhist propositions of interbeing and time being.
I think in my previous work, too, the choice of narrative voice, or voices, is related to my pluralistic sense of self. This was true even before I knew much about Buddhism. I’ve never been able to write from a single point of view, or even stick to a single grammatical person. All my novels contain multiple narrators, some of whom speak directly, using the first-person pronoun “I,” and others less directly, using third- and sometimes even second-person pronouns. The use of these pronominal shifts and multiple POVs destabilizes the sense of there being a singular “author” running the show, in charge of the fictional world, and I like that ambiguity. In the past, I’ve tried to write in an omniscient voice, but the characters refuse to cooperate. All Over Creation, for example, a novel whose theme is our human need for control and omnipotence, should have been written in a super-omniscient Godlike authorial voice, but one of the characters refused to comply. She kept referring to herself in the first person and insisting that she was the narrator, and eventually I had to cede the role and get out of her way.
Even in My Year of Meats, my first novel, I was playing with fictionalized autobiography. One of the narrators of that book, Jane, is a mixed-race documentary filmmaker who lives in New York. I, too, am a mixed-race documentary filmmaker who lived in New York. I knew readers would assume that Jane equaled Ruth, so I made Jane six feet tall and dyed her hair green, so readers could tell us apart.
I bring this up because I think my mixed-race identity is why I experience myself, and the world, pluralistically. I’m a racially hybridized, genetically pluralistic entity, who has never lived in any one place or culture. As Jane says, “being half, I’m neither here nor there.” Or maybe that was me who said that.
Anyway, I certainly don’t think I’m unique in this regard. All of us are racially, religiously, and/or culturally pluralistic, and increasingly so. As human beings, we’re all trying to integrate and make sense of our pluralistic elements, aren’t we? To find some kind of wholeness?
We find another kind of multidimensionality in your novels, too. They are not only meticulously researched, they are also all very much what we call “interdisciplinary.” You do the usual spadework in terms of nailing down the historical record, and ascertaining various historical perspectives, but on top of that you engage agriculture, anthropology, sociology, genetics, biochemistry, pharmaceutics, food research, internet architecture, classical Japanese literature, media studies, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory. What interests you in bringing in so many different disciplines, so many kinds of literature?
I’ve never been very good at discipline. No, that’s not right. I’m good at discipline. I’m not good at making distinctions. No, that’s not right, either. I understand distinctions, at least at first glance, but I find that under scrutiny, so-called distinctions — the disciplines, categories, differences, separations, and oppositions — start to merge and fall apart.
Again, I think my interdisciplinary approach to novel writing is a genetic predisposition that is related to your first question about self and identity, and to being mixed race. My father was Caucasian-American and my mother was Japanese-naturalized-American. I’m Caucasian-Japanese-American-naturalized-Canadian. The taxonomies get messy because some of these categories refer to race and some to nationality.
When I was a little kid, growing up in the 1950s in the decades after World War II, people used to call me half-Japanese, which was very confusing because I’d never been to Japan, and I didn’t speak Japanese. And if half of me was Japanese the other half must be American, but which was which? I felt like one of those cow illustrations you see in a butcher shop, covered with dotted lines dissecting the rump roast from the sirloin. I didn’t know if my dotted line should run horizontally or vertically. Around my waist? From my crotch to the top of my head? Or diagonally, perhaps? It was all very confusing, because I knew I wasn’t half. I was whole. I was me.
So this is the existentialist excuse for my interdisciplinary and wide-ranging interests. The more practical and perhaps truthful explanation is that I have a promiscuous array of interests and obsessions and a tendency to hyperfocus, and researching is always a good way to put off sitting down to write.
That might also help explain why you are so interested in things like genetics and the genome, alongside literature and art. Science can help map those complexities and mixtures, but how those biological and other elements fit into the ways we register them is something else, the way we act on the basis of them (or not), or invent entirely different sorts of identities. In A Tale for the Time Being, you are very interested in what might be called “web identity.” That is, the avatars of ourselves we find in the virtual world. What sorts of issues are most interesting to you with regard to this subject?
As a former documentary filmmaker and now a fiction writer, I’ve always been interested in notions of authenticity, representation, dissemination, truth, and fiction. These notions have become so much more complex since the explosion of the internet, and now everyone is a content provider, not just media professionals, everyone is practicing authenticity, engaged in representation and rapid dissemination, and caught up in the sticky moral and philosophical dynamics of distinguishing fact from fiction. So this is fascinating!
When I used to make documentaries that purported to tell the truth, I realized what a problematic claim that was, so I just decided to skirt the issue by writing novels and calling everything fiction.
I’ve always been interested in the uses (and misuses) of media, the relative nature of truth, and the way corporate or governmental interests (another murky taxonomic distinction) determine what gets reported as news.
All three of my novels explore themes of power, profit, and propaganda. My Year of Meats, written in 1997, dealt with global corporate media and meat industries, and the vector was television. All Over Creation, written between 2001 and 2003, dealt with big pharma and agribusiness, and the vector was corporate public relations. This latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, is not focused on a single issue, per se, but it deals with bullying, specifically as it is enabled by the internet.
And now that I think about it, I suppose you could say that all three novels deal with bullying.
But digital technologies and the internet are reshaping our relationship with time and space, identity and power, and with ourselves and each other, in ways that we cannot yet understand. I find this profoundly interesting, and in A Tale for the Time Being I tried to engage with all its aspects.
Picking up on these ideas about truth and power: ethical concerns, it seems to me, are at the core of every one of your novels. You give characters the chance to work out ways to deal with the “information” they get from a vast array of sources, and ultimately they have to make a choice to act in a certain way — and, often enough, to tell a certain story. Is this a fair description? What intrigues you about this connection between ethics and narrative?
It’s a fair description, but being the contrarian that I am, I’m trying to see if I can think of a novel that does not have an ethical dimension at its base. I can’t. It seems to me that questions of right and wrong, or what we think of as right and wrong, are the motivating factors behind all dramatic narrative. Dramatic narrative depends on characters making choices, and choices are inevitably based on notions of right and wrong. The characters’ choices determine the plot, so it seems to me that what we think of as narrative presupposes an ethical matrix in which characters, writers, and readers are all enmeshed. Of course the degree to which that ethical matrix is apparent or hidden depends on the concerns of the writer and why he or she is choosing to write.
In my case, the connection between ethics and narrative is quite overt. I’ve often said that I write from remorse, and I think this is true, although thankfully it was truer in the past than it is now. What sparks the idea for a book or film is usually some kind of irritant, something that is bothering me. Maybe it’s something I’ve done that I wish I hadn’t. Or a decision that I made that I regret. Or a habit of mind or misunderstanding that I’m trying to make sense of. Or simply a more philosophical question — like the nature of time and being — to which I don’t know the answer. Whatever the initial irritant is, it persists, and it starts to merge and interact with my daily life, and it starts to color all the “information” I get from a vast array of media sources in my daily life, and somehow from that somewhat random, alchemical stew, a character will emerge. And one character inevitably generates others, and then they start to act and do things, and before I know it, the plot begins to unfold and everything else after that is just a matter of time.
So my point is that the whole business usually starts from an ethical or philosophical problem of some kind. It starts with a question.
Besides the ethical dimension, I would be remiss if I did not mention the humor in your works that shows up even as (or perhaps especially as) you ask these big questions. Is this again something Buddhistic, or is this just Ruth Ozeki?
Ha! That’s funny. I’ve never thought of Zennists as being a particularly comedic bunch, but actually, when I think about the koans, with all the nose pulling and whacking with sticks, I have to admit they read a bit like the Three Stooges, or Laurel & Hardy. And there’s a slipping-on-a-banana-peel-and-falling-on-your-butt element to Buddhist training in general. It’s designed to trip you up, and if you don’t think it’s funny, well then, you suffer.
However, from a Ruth Ozeki point of view, I guess I’d say again that I’ve never been very good at making dualistic distinctions, and so I never really could understand the difference between comedy and tragedy. One just seems to require the other, if you see what I mean.
And ethics are funny. Ethical quandaries are hilarious, don’t you think? We try so hard to figure out what is right and what is wrong, and we botch things up so terribly! It’s hilarious and also tragic.
And here, once again, we run into the problem of taxonomy, because I don’t see a way of really separating comedy from tragedy. They are, as the ancients knew, two faces of the same coin. I was really happy when Jane Smiley, in a review for the Chicago Tribune, described My Year of Meats as a “comical-satirical-farcical-epical-tragical-romantical novel.” That pretty much describes everything you need to know about my aspirations as a novelist!
I know you are now devoting yourself to teaching Buddhism. How is that going? Any stories you would like to share as a way to close out this interview?
It’s going well, at least for the time being. I’m still a novice priest, and part of my training is to serve as “head monk” this fall with my Zen sangha or community in Vancouver, BC. There’s a tradition in Buddhism to do annual periods of intensive practice during the rainy season. Usually these take place in a monastery, but in our lineage, which is comprised primarily of lay practitioners, we all continue to live at home and lead our lives, and within that, we step up the intensity of our Zen practice, and to practice in our homes and workplaces.
So this fall, as head monk, I’ll be teaching classes and giving talks and offering tea and generally serving the sangha however I can, including cleaning the toilets. That’s one of the head monk’s jobs. It’s a way of making sure nobody, myself included, gets any lofty and therefore problematic ideas about what it is to “teach” Buddhism. So in case you happen to have some lofty idea of what Zen is all about, you can think of me scrubbing toilets and that should take care of the problem.
David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University.