Back in the early ’70s, Ruth Ozeki was an archetypical high school wild child. But the equation was slightly off. It was sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, minus the rock ’n’ roll, plus literary fiction.
At the height of the arena rock era, the editorial board for Ozeki’s high school literary magazine modeled itself after Lost Generation writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anaïs Nin and Colette.
“We were young and filled with our own sense of drama,” Ozeki said.
Meetings were in the mold of Gertrude Stein’s famous writing salons. Opinions were effusive, and the usual teenage debauchery was amplified.
“We did drugs, suffered anomie, and engaged in passionate or meaningless sex,” Ozeki wrote in a 2013 essay, “and some of us [girls] even tried to commit suicide. We were brief but brilliant flames, fueled by the romantic-heroic ideal of the writer, burning up our lives and minds on the altar of our Art.”
Years later, some of Ozeki’s classmates have realized their dreams of entering the canon of contemporary literature, although many seem to have grown out of self-destructive theatrics. Novelists Susan Minot and Julia Glass, as well as historical nonfiction author David Michaelis, were all high school friends.
Ozeki took a more circuitous route to becoming a published author. After graduating from Smith College she studied classical Japanese literature in Nara, Japan. In the 1980s she moved to New York and established herself as an art director for low-budget horror films such as Tim Kincaid’s “Robot Holocaust.”
The next decade saw Ozeki transition into a career as a filmmaker. In 1995 she premiered her autobiographical documentary, “Halving the Bones,” at the Sundance Film Festival. The film playfully blended fact and fiction, a theme that would continue in her work as a novelist.
This fall Ozeki will publish her fourth novel, “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” her first since 2013’s “A Tale for the Time Being,” which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Before her latest hits the stands, though, she will make an appearance at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. Her talk, titled “When Your Book Speaks, Listen!” will take place at 10 a.m. June 25 and be held over Zoom.
When Ozeki talks about her books speaking, she means it literally.
“Books come to me as voices,” she said.
For her second novel, “All over Creation,” the voice came as two simple, untethered sentences: “It starts with the earth. How can it not?” What followed was a sprawling story that grappled with the wounds that are inflicted by those we love most, and the philosophical contingencies of genetically engineered crops.
At one point during the writing process, Ozeki locked horns with the novel’s protagonist, Yumi Fuller, over control of the narrative perspective.
“Eventually I gave in: ‘OK, fine, you want to write the book, you can narrate the book,’” Ozeki told the News&Guide. “I had to give her an educational upgrade so that she would be capable of language like that and thinking like that.”
In “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” Ozeki has made the concept of hearing voices a central theme. When 14-year-old Benny Oh loses his father, he begins to hear voices spoken by inanimate objects around him. His mother begins hoarding the objects, and the sound is deafening.
“He is oppressed by those voices and ends up tangled up in the juvenile psychiatric system,” she said.
Benny finds solace at a local library, and eventually, he finds “The Book of Form and Emptiness.”
“At its heart it is the story about a boy and a book who helps him find his voice and teaches him how to listen to what really matters,” Ozeki told LitHub.com.
If you have come to this article after scouring the internet for a sneak preview of Ozeki’s new book, you are in luck. She shared with the News&Guide the sentence that a voice uttered in her head when she first set out to write it. While we’re not entirely sure of the context of the line, it also serves as a fantastic piece of advice for aspiring writers, like the attendees of this summer’s virtual conference.
“A book must start somewhere.”
A mix of things
Many reviewers have branded Ozeki’s work a “mix” of things. Jane Smiley, a reviewer for The Chicago Tribune, dubbed “A Year of Meats,” her first novel, “a comical-satirical-farcical-epical-tragical-romantical novel.”
“I read that review and it just kind of summed it up for me,” she said. “Oh, right, that’s how I write. I think the whole thing stems from being mixed race.”
Ozeki’s mother was Japanese and her father was Caucasian American, a personal history that she shares with the protagonists of her first two novels. As a kid she felt pressure to adhere to the limited scope of the mid-20th-century Asian American stereotype.
“Japanese girls could be certain things,” she said. “They had to be serious, they could be smart, they had to be quiet. … They certainly didn’t have a sense of humor. This was pre-Margaret Cho.”
But when she started to spend time in Japan during college, the perceptions of her peers shifted. Japanese people saw her as an American, an archetype that had been built up by years of cultural exportation from Hollywood.
“For the first time I realized I could be raucous. I could be rude. I had a sense of humor.”
Ozeki attributes her characteristic mix of tragic and playful elements in her writing to these experiences.
“Where does my voice come from? I think it’s a successful integration of two halves — a personal integration of two stereotypes.
Zen and writing
In 2010, Ozeki was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest by her mentor, Zoketsu Norman Fischer. At first the spiritual shift threatened her career as a novelist. As she became more adept at letting things go, mulling over dead-end drafts became more difficult.
But in time she learned to integrate the two. The dissolution of an egocentric perspective (in Western terms) was required for both meditation and good writing.
“As a novelist I spent my entire life slipping into one identity after another,” she said. “That mapped very nicely with my Zen practice.”
After Ozeki’s ordination her stories began to draw from her spiritual life. The title for “A Tale for the Time Being” comes from Zen Master Dogen’s essay “The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.” Ozeki chose the phrase “time being” for its instability — the way that it changes meaning with inflection.
“Hi! My name is Nao, and I’m a Time Being,” the novel begins.
She continues to play with the themes of time and impermanence by telling the story nonlinearly. The book’s central narrator is a teenage girl who has been transplanted from California back to her parent’s native Japan. After finding Nao’s diary in a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on the British Columbian coast, Ruth (yes, Ruth) becomes the lens through which the reader gets Nao’s story.
With each new novel Ozeki manages to expand themes that are inexorable from her work: mixed-race identity, family trauma and contemporary culture. Relentless curiosity and careful consideration are the foundations of her profound body of work. She may be a novelist, but her writing is grounded in deeply personal truths.
More information about her life and work can be found at OzekiLand.com.
For more about the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, go to JHWriters.org. ￼