Monday, January 27, 2014

An evening with author Ruth Ozeki

On Tuesday, January 21st I had the privilege of hearing Ruth Ozeki - author of the Booker shortlisted novel A Tale for the Time Being - speak at Stanford University. 

On the relationship between reader and writer: 

Ozeki says that all of her novels begin with a question that she needs to work out. When she is writing she exists in a world that does not include the reader, but she sees a work of fiction as being a collaboration between reader and writer. As she puts it, after she has done her bit - and if she has done it well - it is then picked up by the reader who brings their unique experiences completely to that fictional world.

"Without that the fictional world will not come alive. This is replicated every time that book is read, by each individual reader. Together we create this fictional world." 

On writing and survival: 

Suicide is central to A Tale for the Time Being, and Ozeki explains that in Japanese storytelling it functions almost as a trope. As a non-Christian nation, suicide is not viewed as a sin, and is sometimes seen instead as a redemptive act. 

"For me writing is a form of survival, a trick I learned early on" and "every story is a story of survival as long as it is told. The telling is the survival." She says that in A Tale for the Time Being, "Nao is learning this as a young writer. As long as she continues to tell stories she will survive." 

Writing is always "in retrospect" and Nao is trying to catch up to now. And she does ..." Ozeki does not elaborate, aware that many in the audience have not yet read the book but for those who have this makes sense. 

On being a practicing Buddhist:

"It is very complicated practicing Zen in the west. Every time Buddhism moves to a different culture it changes. At every level there is tension there ... Anytime we start to idealise something ... then we are in trouble." 

In Ozeki's words "In the west Zen is so Protestant". She compares these western attitudes to the Japanese phenomenon of Zen priests - along with employers and professors - bringing their acolytes out at night for the explicit purpose of getting drunk.

On being a Buddhist and being a writer: 

Referencing Zadie Smith's essay, Fail Better, Ozeki says that in Zen meditation, as in writing, you have to try and fail again and again and again. "Zen meditation is a constant practice of failure." But she says that this is not a failure as you develop the faith that you can come back. And so too in writing, she says that it is not failure but is the very definition of the writing process. 

Quoting a 13th century Zen master she says "Life is a continuous mistake" and for Ozeki this idea is liberating.

On My Year of Meats (1997)

Ozeki completed the book just as Mad Cow disease blew up. She says everybody panicked, thinking that her book was too late, they had missed the moment but "little did we know the story was never going to go away". As an author she says she is very happy the book is still in print but "as a citizen of the world I wish the book was obsolete." 

She describes My Year of Meats as a book about the engendering of ignorance and corporate media. And she says very frankly that she needed a product and happened to choose meat because it was "funny" whereas other choices, particularly tobacco, were not.

"When I'm writing a novel there is usually a seed of remorse." In the case of My Year of Meats that remorse derived from her 30s when she was making tv programs sponsored by unsavory corporations, including the meat and tobacco industries. 

After writing My Year of Meats she felt she had given short shrift to the farmers who she describes as being caught between a rock and a hard place. And so she wrote All Over Creation, which is about genetically modified organisms. 

On writing a novel as a 'thought experiment': 

Ozeki says that "the minute you ask one question it engenders another. As a writer it is a thought experiment, it has a natural end to it. When the questions are answered enough it is finished. This book [A Tale for the Time Being] was about not knowing. I finished the book when I realised the book was about not knowing."