Ruth Ozeki on Zen and the Art of Creativity
Fans of Ruth Ozeki's first two books -- My Year of Meats and All Over Creation -- could be forgiven for asking what kind of food her new book A Tale for the Time Being is about. Meats, was, on the surface about the cattle industry (even though it was really about the culture clash between Japanese and American attitudes toward food and everything else). Creation was about potato farming. Sort of. But Time Being is a little bit different -- and a lot the same.
"This book is kind of an outgrowth of the themes what I was most interested in the last two," Ozeki says, as we chat in her publisher's office on the author's 57th birthday. "Like the others, it's about the search for authenticity, and the ways authenticity becomes distorted and used and abused."
Sounds heady, right? Well, it is -- and it isn't. Like both of Ozeki's other books, this one can be read on at least two levels: it's a story within a story about a lonely Japanese girl and it's a way to write about old Japan vs. new, about traditional Japanese womanhood versus contemporary Japanese American women, about, as Ozeki says, authenticity.
Double meanings, duality, is nothing new to this biracial daughter of a Japanese woman and a Wisconsin-born Caucasian father. Ozeki spent much of her childhood in New Haven, Connecticut, idenitifying herself -- "or being identified" -- as "the Asian Kid."
"I saw myself as that and I behaved in all of the Asia-appropriate ways." So, it was a shock when she finally, as a young adult, visited Japan. While Ozeki might have expected to feel either very much at home or uncomfortably other in her mother's homeland, she actually felt happy with her outsideryness. "It was an enormous relief to realize that I was also American and that was OK. There was a huge sense of liberation that I could suddenly express all of the parts of myself that had been suppressed by the [American] stereotypes [of Asians]. "I remember feeling 'Oh my God, it's OK to have a sense of humor. I can be obnoxious and loud and all of these other things because I'm American.' Before that, I'd been holding myself to some equally stereotypical Japanese ideal."
A Tale for the Time Being is also very much an outgrowth of Ozeki's study of Zen, a practice she has been involved with since the mid-1990s, and which helped her through the nursing of her dying mother. In fact, writing, for Ozeki, is very close to a Zen practice. "They're both contemplative," she says. "They both require studying the self. Both require enormous patience, and in both pursuits you spend a lot of time sitting and waiting for nothing; you don't know what you're waiting for, you just wait. The main difference is that in meditation practice, you're studying your thoughts, they eventually arise, and you let them go. In writing, you study your thoughts, then you write them down, and then you let them go."
This novel is about another relationship, though, too –- and that is about the deep connection between writers and their readers. The Japanese girl, Nao (pronounced, pun intended "Now"), is in pain and journaling into the void, but when her book falls into Ruth's hands, her story (and she) is saved.
"All writers understand that we are writing across time, speaking to someone in the future," Ozeki says. "To live is to be in the story. Our lives are our story." So, A Tale for the Time Being is also about the relationsihip between the storyteller and her audience. "What happens when the right book falls into the right reader's hands?" she asks, and then answers: "It's magic."