Ozeki’s work reflects her complex identity

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Ruth Ozeki’s recent novel, the 2013 Man Booker-shortlisted “A Tale For the Time Being,” is best described as a hybrid: a fictional masterpiece with footnotes and appendices like a research paper; a colorful scrawl of inventive creativity marked by scientific asides ranging from ocean gyres to quantum mechanics; a playful meta-fiction, the memoir Ozeki never wrote — an unforgettable Zen collusion of time and space housed within a paper shell.

In defying simple classification, the novel becomes a metaphor for Ozeki herself. As her character Jiko might say, someone neither this nor that, “not same not different.” Ozeki calls it a “hyphenated identity.” “I’m half Japanese, half Caucasian-American ethnically or racially, but my citizenship is Canadian/American so it gets even more complicated,” she says during in a recent interview. “And in terms of my profession, I am a novelist/ filmmaker, and a Buddhist priest as well. In stacking these identities on top of each other, I now view this as very enriching and natural. I think most people have much more complex identities than what first appears. We are really fixated on specifying our identity in this culture and this age we are in, but identity is actually very complex.” Much like Ozeki’s bestselling novels.

“A Tale for a Time Being” is Ozeki’s third, and for an artist who started out making documentary films, it seems natural Ozeki brings an agglomeration of research to all of her works. Her first novel explored industrial agriculture and fertility, her second, genetic engineering and corporate corruption. All her works somehow contain an element of Ozeki herself. “In a way, I inhabit all the characters at least for a short period of time,” Ozeki admits, and nowhere is that more evident than in “A Tale for a Time Being.” Ozeki is, yet is not exactly, the character Ruth in the novel, a writer living on a small island in British Columbia who discovers a diary washed ashore that may, or may not, be debris from the March 11, 2011, tsunami. As Ruth the protagonist unravels the riddle of the diary and its accompanying mysteries — a wristwatch from a World War II kamikaze pilot, some letters in Japanese — she also penetrates the mystery of the diary’s young narrator, Nao Yasutani, a Japanese girl who may or may not be considering suicide. Along the way, Ozeki the author considers a wide spectrum of modern issues and ideals — a complicated consideration of being, as an author and reader, that impressed the Man Booker judges.

The maelstrom of Man Booker attention is only now starting to quieten down, but Ozeki tells The Japan Times it was “a thrilling experience.” Various events and readings with the six shortlisted authors culminated in a banquet held last month at London’s Guildhall. “It was high literary theater, a spectacle,” she says. “I came away feeling so happy to have met the other finalists, admiring them and their works. The whole banquet itself was rather amazing.” Typically, Ozeki thinks every book should have won. “I really felt reading those books that each book was the best book. It’s my orientation too, that I find it really difficult to choose just one thing.”

For the child Ozeki, raised on the East Coast of the United States in the 1960′s, questions of orientation and identity drifted in and out of her early life without clear answers. Referring to the Japanese slang word, hafu, Ozeki says: “I think probably as I was growing up, I thought of myself as half, but I always imagined it as a kind of dotted line somewhere in my body. I never could understand quite where the line was, where my Japanese side started or ended. We grew up with all my Japanese mother’s things around, scrolls and paintings, ceramics, lots of photographs, since my grandfather was a photographer.” At 7 years old, her mother took her on her first trip to Japan.

In young adulthood, Japan became her home. During university and afterwards, Ozeki spent a total of 10 years living or working in Japan, studying as a Monbusho scholar at Nara University, working for Japanese television, studying Noh theater, opening a language school. These experiences shaped her hybrid identity. “On the East Coast of America in the ’60s and ’70s,” she explains, “people really identified me as a Japanese girl and I kind of fell into that stereotype as a child. Going to Japan my second year in college as an adult, people treated me as an American. There was something viscerally surprising about that, and that’s when it occurred to me that I was also entitled to be all those very American things, including being loud or obnoxious, having a sense of humor, all of those things that I really didn’t think I could be as a Japanese girl. It was interesting how those stereotypes in a very subtle way informed my sense of who I was.”

And what she believed in. From her earliest memory, Japanese beliefs enthralled her. “The first memory I have as a person is of my Japanese grandparents coming to visit New Haven when I was 3 years old,” she says. “I remember walking into the bedroom and seeing them, sitting on the floor on either side of the bed, sitting sazen, eyes downcast, and they must have just been finishing (meditation) because they were rocking back and forth. This was very impressive to me because I had never seen grownups sitting on the floor before and they were just my height, kneeling there. It was a powerful image.”

Ordained into the Buddhist priesthood in 2010, Ozeki admits she is “a priest with training wheels. Buddhism in the West is still a new thing, and we are in a sense, recreating it, the way Buddhism or any religion is recreated when it shifts and moves and enters a new country or culture.” Ozeki looks forward to growing into her latest vocation, and does not rule out the possibility of furthering her study in Japan. “It would be really interesting to continue my training in Japan, although I am not quite sure how that would be possible.”

Japan also beckons next year as a novelist: the Japanese publisher Hayakawa has just bought the Japanese-language rights for “A Tale For the Time Being,” and Ozeki hopes to be a part of the translation process. She also plans to attend the 2014 Tokyo Literary Festival in March. Jane Smiley, a celebrated author and a former chair of the judges’ panel for the Man Booker International Prize, defined an earlier novel of Ozeki’s for the Chicago Tribune Book Review as a “comical-satirical-farcical-epical-tragical-romantical novel.” For Ozeki, “that really pointed out this blending or blurring thing that I seem to do. It is a kind of trademark of the way I write and who I am.”

For more information on Ozeki, please see www.ruthozeki.com.