David Palumbo-Liu interviews Ruth Ozeki
Los Angeles Review of Books
David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor; Professor of Comparative Literature and English
Where We Are for the Time Being with Ruth Ozeki
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 Meats by Ruth Ozeki, and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by 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…
…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?…
Read the entire interview here.