Ruth Ozeki, winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction

Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, director – and Zen Buddhist priest. Her books are beloved because they address issues of science and technology, religion, environmental politics, and popular culture using unique and hybrid storytelling styles.

Her debut novel, My Year of the Flesh was published in 1998. Her third novel, A story for the times (2013), won the LA Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest novel, The book of form and emptiness (2021), tells the story of a boy who, after the death of his father, begins to hear voices and finds solace in the company of his own book. He is the recipient of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, as well as the 22nd Annual Massachusetts Book Award, the BC Yukon Book Prize, and the Julia Ward Howe Award for Fiction.

Her personal non-fiction work, Face: time code (2016), published by Restless Books as part of its essay series entitled Face.

Ozeki’s documentary and independent films, incl Splitting bones in half, have been screened at the Sundance Film Festival and at colleges and universities across the US. Also a long-time Buddhist practitioner, Ruth was ordained in 2010 and is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation.

At the 2023 Jaipur Literary Festival, Ozeki spoke to about her faith, the important exercise of looking into one’s face, the deep relationship one creates with personal things and much more. Extracts from the conversation.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you come to write? My year of meata novel about the American meat industry and women/motherhood?
Before I started writing novels, I was a director. I started working as an art director for low-budget horror films and later started producing and directing Japanese TV shows. I was interested in the way in which commercially sponsored television presents – or distorts – reality in order to sell products, and I wanted to write a novel set in this world.

The protagonist of the novel, Jane Takagi-Little, is a documentary film director, who gets the job of recording a reality series of cooking shows called. My American wife. The series is sponsored by an American meat export lobby group that is trying to break into the Japanese meat market and sell American meat to Japanese housewives.

It was a job I used to do, and the novel was based on my real-life experience, although most of the plot and what happens to Jane is fictional.

This novel was published under a pseudonym. Can you tell us why?
Yes, “Ozeki” is a pseudonym. At the time the novel was in pre-production, my father was dying. He came from a very conservative and religious family, and although he was happy for me and supported the idea of ​​the novel, he never read it himself. He knew there were scenes he wouldn’t like, and he was afraid it might offend his family, so I decided to post under a pseudonym so he wouldn’t worry. When I started posting under Ozeki, I loved it! It gave me a sense of freedom that I had never felt before as a writer.

you return to a similar agribusiness concern The whole creation. Here you discover how the aggressions of bioengineering affect the farmer and his family. The book came out almost six years after your debut novel. What fascinated you so much about the food industry?
There is that old saying, “you are what you eat”. Food says so much about identity, but if we are what we eat, and so much of what we eat is produced in ways that are unsustainable and dangerous to our health and the health of the planet, what does that mean about who we are and who we are becoming? This second novel is also about reality and representation, only this time it’s not about meat and commercial media, but about potatoes and public relations.

I am also interested in the names in A story for the times. Nao (pronounced ‘now’) and Ruth. How important are character names to your stories?
Names are absolutely crucial! I like naming characters. Sometimes the names come to mind right away, but often I have to wait until I get to know the character before the right name comes. Often the names I choose are meaningful in some way, and that was the case with Nao’s name. Ruth was both more complicated and clearer. She is an auto-fictional character, who looks so much like me that the reader has to wonder if she was, in fact, supposed to be me, and thus if the novel is really fictional.

In other words, Ruth disrupts the fictional world of the novel. This was not a narrative strategy I used lightly. It took me about eight years to decide to put the character Ruth in the novel, but when I did, of course her name had to be Ruth.

What was it like to stare at your own face for three hours in the mirror – the experiment you write about in – Face: time code? Would you recommend this activity to writers or anyone else?
Well, I’d say it was very interesting, not at all easy, and if others feel compelled to do the exercise, do so at their own risk. I was commissioned to write a piece for a series of essays entitled “Faces”, written by writers on the subject of their faces. The deadline passed and I was desperate for some structure to follow for the essay. I am a meditator, so the idea of ​​contemplating the subject in a meditative way is a natural way of approaching the problem. And although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out that since the 13th century, “mirror Zen” was a practice performed by Zen nuns.

How do you deal with sadness? How do you view the objects around you, especially the deep relationship we often develop with them? After all, these are the topics you deal with The book of form and emptiness.
Grief is hard. When my parents died, I had to clean out their house and get rid of all their stuff…and they had a lot of stuff! It was very painful for me to throw away these things, and the little things that hurt me the most were my father’s old handkerchiefs, my mother’s torn pajamas or her favorite sweater. I had to do it. I’m an only child, so I had no choice. However, I don’t think I did it very skillfully.

I decided to do it quickly, like I was taking off a Band-Aid, and even though I photographed some of the special things I didn’t want to forget, the whole experience feels like a blur. If I had it to do over again, I would do it slower and more carefully. I think that way would help me to feel my sadness, not suppress it. I think I would appreciate the strong feelings I had.

You are the latest winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Is the publishing industry now more willing to embrace women writers, especially those of color or multiple identities?
The publishing industry has long embraced women writers, mainly because women make up so many readers, and “Mainstream Women’s Fiction” is such a large marketing category, and the books that fall into this category are written by women. The problem is that mainstream women’s fiction is considered “commercial” rather than “literary,” which can be frustrating for female writers who want to be taken seriously.

I think the industry has recently become very enthusiastic about accepting books by writers with diverse identities, many of them written by women, and those books seem to be able to bridge the commercial-literary divide in interesting ways. The Women’s Award has a very strong and positive influence on shaping the literary landscape. By supporting serious literature written by women, the Prize helps reverse these prejudices against women’s literature.

Ruth Ozeki with her book “The Book of Form and Emptiness” which won the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction | Image credits: Ruth Ozeki on Instagram.

You are also a Zen Buddhist priest. In what ways has your faith influenced your writing?
On a practical level, I think my Zen practice has helped me become a more thoughtful and patient person. I used to be terribly impatient…in fact, I still am…but through Zen practice I have learned to work with my impatience and turn it into something useful. Most writers I know are impatient. There’s a saying that “Writers don’t want to write, we wish we had written,” and I think that’s true. Writing is hard. When I start a novel, I know very little about it, and I really, really want to know!

Sometimes I have to stay in this state of ignorance for years, and that requires patience. But impatience is also useful, because if I wasn’t impatient, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. So the trick is to find that place of generative tension between patience and impatience, between knowing and not-knowing, and learn to relax and hang out there, even when it gets uncomfortable, because this place of generative tension is where good work comes from being done. I think that goes for everything in life.

You use the word “faith” in your question which I think is important. In Buddhism, we have no faith in a deity, but instead believe in a series of philosophical principles and practices that help us live with more awareness and compassion. These principles and practices apply to both life and literature, so in that sense, I don’t really see much of a difference between my Zen practice and my writing practice. The forms are different, but the heart is the same.

Is there a book (or author) you turn to when you’re not in the best mood?
I love re-reading books I read when I was a kid. I recently read it again Pride and Prejudice, because Austen always cheers me up. But I also read books on Buddhism and Zen, especially books by my Zen teacher Norman Fischer. They open my mind and help me remember that spirits are like the weather, sometimes good and sometimes bad, but always changing.

Ruth Ozeki (L) in conversation with Bee Rowlatt at the 2023 Jaipur Literary Festival | Image credits: Jaipur Literature Festival on Instagram.

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