I am a poet haunted by the right ways to wrangle with questions of identity, biculturalism, hybridity, Asian-ness, Americanness, femininity, feminism, mothers, aging. I’m haunted by questions of whether the airless unit of language can convert something as complex as a between-self. A poet drawn to long-form narrative but daunted by the technical rigors involved in media-swapping (time and plot, in particular). I had, then, stalked Ruth Ozeki since I’d first heard about her through alumnae of Hedgebrook, the writing retreat where she serves on the Board of Directors.
This interview began, I’ll admit, from a self-serving impulse: how could I capture some of her essence and equip myself with it when I left for Kazakhstan the following month to look at hybridity, and make the choices she did during her post-college years in Japan, years that led to, among other things, her brilliant novel My Year of Meats and her award-winning film Halving the Bones?
As a member of Kundiman, the fellowship of Asian-American writers, I knew that conversations with masters of the craft are equivalent to direct mentorship. Such dialogues give permission. They present a path – not the path – that can give writers confidence to take the calculated risks they need to take for their work. While I cannot promise that cultivating Ozeki’s habits of mind and writing practice will yield a masterpiece like Tale, Ozeki’s grace, compassion and wisdom are, to my mind, an exemplar for being in the world.
Many thanks to her for agreeing to answer my questions. We spoke over the phone; Ozeki is currently in British Columbia. In 2015, she will be Professor of Creative Writing at Smith College, her alma mater.
Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her first two novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), have been translated into 11 languages and published in 14 countries. Her most recent work, A Tale for the Time-Being (2013), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and will be published in over thirty countries. Ruth’s documentary and dramatic independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been shown on PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and at colleges and universities across the country. A longtime Buddhist practitioner, Ruth ordained in 2010 and is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation. She lives in British Columbia and New York City.
Michelle Chan Brown: One thing I loved about A Tale is the way it managed to work through big, complex ideas but also be so entertaining, unaffected, and accessible. There’s a lightness, a delight, in every sentence. I never felt virtuous reading it; I felt I was being given a gift, that I was getting away with something. A lot of it had to do with pacing. There are no flat moments, no muddiness, in spite of many characters, points of view, etc. I wonder how film has influenced your writing – chronology, character development, etc.?
Ruth Ozeki: That’s a great question and a great observation. I learned how to tell stories, how to operate, and work with time, when I was working in film. In college and after, when I was starting to write, I’d grow frustrated because I didn’t know how to handle time. I’d have a character enter the room, and I didn’t know how to get the character across the room without being boring. Take the tesseract in L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, for example. I didn’t know, yet, how to tesseract. In the film business, I picked up that know-how; I explored montage, editing, frame size, and point of view.
Visual media is intolerant of ideas; it’s sensual, dominated by sight, which is very overpowering as a sensegate. When you are working with sight and sound, there is very little left over for processing complex ideas. I left film because I was interested in ideas, and I found that writing was the means that we have to do that. I was committed to doing that in story form. Because I’d had that experience in film and television, I was trained to be very careful about volume: how many ideas. You have to be able to create a readable story. The story needs to trump the ideas. I want my stories to be readable first, and I learned that ideas needed to support but not dominate the story. It’s something I still work very hard to achieve.
At the very end of A Tale for the Time Being, there’s an intrusion – the narrator discussing Schrodinger’s cat. That was one of the sections I worked hardest on, as it was an intrusion, but it seemed really important. By that point in the story, dammit, I deserved it! I knew that it was important to try.
MCB: You’re on the board at Hedgebrook, “a global community of women writers and people who seek extraordinary books, poetry, plays, films and music by women. A literary nonprofit, our mission is to support visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.” Who were your mentors? How did you come to believe that life as an artist was possible?
RO: I didn’t really have any mentors. I had people I worked with. People who inspired me. Certainly, there were people, writers, I admired. I remember going through a long period of not being able to call myself a filmmaker. (I certainly couldn’t call myself a writer, of course, because I didn’t want to be a filmmaker the way I wanted to be a writer!) I was making films, I was working in film, but it took me a really long time. I’m not sure what tipped it.
Ultimately, that permission has to come from oneself. After I did it, I could use that term with more ease, more grace and less self-consciousness. One friend said, “Since when are you calling yourself a filmmaker?” Little by little, you keep doing it, your work gets recognized. Money has something to do with it, of course, product has something to do with it, publishing stories. A balance between your own sense of vocation and dedication and the world’s recognition.
And then, of course, time – that is what you do. That is what you are.
It’s important to remember, though, that just because I’ve written three novels doesn’t mean I’ll write a fourth. I’ll keep showing up as it interests me, but it’s not something I can control. I can only control the showing-up part.
MCB: Can you describe your upbringing? What kind of a child were you?
RO: I’m half-Japanese, half-Caucasian. An only child. It’s an odd situation. Amalgamation of these two parents that are different. Being half, being divided, neither here nor there. I’ve always been aware of that.
I was born eleven years after World War II. No time at all. As a child, eleven years ago seemed like ancient history, but it was just a blink of an eye. I grew up in the shadow. In the aftermath, my parents represented races and cultures that were literally at war, and thus I experienced that sense of dissonance, and not belonging.
I grew up in New Haven; my father was in the anthropology department at Yale, and the only other Asian families, the only so-called Orientals I knew were the wives of other anthropologists. Only the wives. That was weird. And interesting. Ethnographic introspection.
I think all of my books reflect that. The way that cultures intersect, the way cultures affect each other. They say every writer has a theme. Mine is duality. Overcoming duality. Buddhism is about non-dual nature.
I grew up in an Anglo world, where people saw me as little Japanese girl, even though I didn’t know what I meant. I continued to identify that way until I went to Japan and was identified as an American, and I could be that, raunchy, with a sense of humor.
This feeling of not-quite-belonging…it’s a very good training ground for writers and artists. Writers interrogate that. People in the mainstream, perhaps, understanding where and who they are, and who you are, have no need to write – you can be a banker.
RO: Yes. Hyper-vigilance comes from being a girl, and being an ethnic Other. Constantly observing and figuring out what the cues are. Again, training for writing.
MCB: Nao is one of my very favorite characters. I could recommend this book to all my students for her voice alone, and for the way you explore her experiences – bullying, for example – in a way that never feels perfunctory or topical. Can you discuss how you got into her headspace?
RO: I don’t know. She got into my headspace. Some characters are just like that. In December 2006, she announced herself. Hi, my name is Nao and I’m a time being. The first lines I started to hear. The attitude is there, the humor is there. It was all there, right from the beginning. It was there. She was there, fully formed. I didn’t know what had happened to her, but I knew who she was. I knew she was disturbed and suicidal, but not whether she was really suicidal, or in a teenage-drama kind of way. When a character presents herself that strongly, my job as a writer is to stay, to inquire. I never had hesitation about her storyline. I just had to show up. We had some negotiations about her language and her linguistic tics, but my relationship to her was editorial.
MCB: I’ve been racking my brain for an elegant and accurate way to touch on the subject of cultural/racial/linguistic hybridity, and its influence on art-making. At the risk of asking a pretentious question, how has being biracial/bicultural affected the form and content of your work?
RO: This goes back to the first book [My Year of Meats]. Jane Smiley called it a farcical/tragical – a hybrid! She had to use so many hyphens to describe the book. That’s always been true for all of my work, that there’s something essentially hybrid. All of my work contains multiple points of view. You see montage, faxes, and newspaper clippings, intruding into the narrative. There’s never just one narrator; characters will alternate with each other. The relationship between author and narrator becomes problematized as well.
Hybridity even extends to – is this fact? Is this fiction? That negotiation is pushed to the forefront. Breaking containers, breaking context, combining, hybridizing things… it does very much lead back to the essential question. Who am I?
I lose interest quickly in a “traditional” narrative. All Over Creation started out that way. At its heart, the book was supposed to be about control over life, death, nature, reproduction. Obviously, a book like that ought to have an omniscient narrator. There would be this God-like narrator – me – and it would all unfold from there. Then one of the characters, the one most like me, decided that she needed to be the narrator. We got into this power struggle. The character refused to come forth in the third person – she insisted on speaking in the second person. Eventually she shifted into the first person. I didn’t anticipate that, but the only way I could get her into the book was to allow her to speak in the second person.
I ended up rewriting the book in order to allow her in. I had to get out of the way again. That was my foray into writing a traditional book.
MCB: You’re a Buddhist priest. Can you talk about how you came to meditation, and what role it has in your writing (and non-writing) life?
RO: Meditation and writing are complimentary practices. Meditation as a practice of return, a still point, your fundamental nature – that’s what you do, on a cushion, and at the desk. Bringing it back to the present moment. You’re practicing over and over again to return to the moment. A wonderful practice to apply to writing. It’s also a practice in faith; more faith and confidence in your ability to stay present. What’s so important, with the blank page, again and again and again, is learning to forgive yourself for when you write something that’s not very good. The practices help each other. One of the things that’s interesting about Soot Zen, a simple practice called “just sitting,” is that there’s no method involved. You are just simply practicing being in time.
In other practices, meditation is a road to enlightenment. In my practice, meditation is enlightenment. You are expressing your fundamentally enlightened nature, which corresponds to a similar type of artistic expression. Meditation is also creative expression, in and of itself. The creative arts, painting and music, are performances of a person in that moment. To think of meditation in that way gives it an energy. They feed each other, so much so that they’re extensions of each other.
MCB: I wonder about the anxiety of product.
RO: Meditation is goalless – it exists for the sake of practice. Certainly, in writing, I’ve found…of course, I want to write to another book, but if I go in with that, it doesn’t help me that much. It gets in the way. What doesn’t get in the way, what helps me is a non-goal oriented curiosity. An inquiry about what it means to be human.
Michelle Chan Brown’s Double Agent was the winner of the 2012 Kore First Book Award, judged by Bhanu Kapil. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Cimarron Review, The Missouri Review, Witness and many other journals and anthologies. A Kundiman fellow and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Michelle is poetry editor of Drunken Boat and has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and others. In the fall, she’ll head to Almaty, Kazakhstan on a Fulbright. Find her online at www.michellechanbrown.com.