Ruth Ozeki, winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction

Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist writer, director and priest. Her books are much loved for dealing with issues of science and technology, religion, environmental politics and popular culture using unique and hybrid narrative styles.

His debut novel, My year of meats, was published in 1998. His third novel, A story for the moment (2013), won the LA Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His latest novel The book of form and emptiness (2021), tells the story of a boy who, after his father’s death, begins to hear voices and finds comfort in the company of his own book. She is the winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, as well as the 22nd Annual Massachusetts Book Award, the BC Yukon Book Prize and the Julia Ward Howe Prize for Fiction.

His personal non-fiction work, The face: a time code (2016), was published by Restless Books as part of their essay series called The face.

Ozeki’s documentaries and independent films, including Halve the bones, screened at the Sundance Film Festival and in colleges and universities across the United States. Also a longtime Buddhist practitioner, Ruth was ordained in 2010 and is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation.

At the 2023 Jaipur Literature Festival, he spoke with Ozeki Scroll in about his faith, the important exercise of looking at each other, the deep relationship that is established with personal belongings and more. Excerpts from the conversation.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to write My year of meata novel about the American meat export industry and women/motherhood?
Before I started writing novels, I was a director. I started working as an art director on low-budget horror films, and later started producing and directing Japanese TV shows. I was interested in how commercially sponsored television represents – or distorts – reality in order to sell products, and I wanted to write a novel set in this world.

The novel’s protagonist, Jane Takagi-Little, is a documentary filmmaker, who gets a job making a cooking reality TV series called My American Wife. The series is sponsored by a US meat export lobby group that is trying to enter the Japanese meat market and sell American meat to Japanese housewives.

This was a job I once had, and the novel was based on my real life experience, although most of the plot and what happens to Jane is fictional.

This novel was published under a pseudonym. Can you tell us why?
Yes, “Ozeki” is a pseudonym. When the novel was in pre-production, my father was dying. He came from a very conservative and religious family, and while he was happy for me and supported the idea of ​​the novel, he never read it himself. He knew there were scenes he didn’t like and he was afraid he might offend his family, so I decided to publish them under a pseudonym so as not to worry him. Once I started posting with Ozeki, I loved it! He gave me a sense of freedom that I’ve never felt before as a writer.

You go back to a similar agribusiness in In all creation. Here you unearth how bioengineered attacks affect a farmer and his family. The book came out almost six years after your debut novel. What fascinated you so much about the food industry?
There’s that old saying, “you are what you eat.” Food says a lot about identity, but if we are what we eat, and so much of what we eat is produced in ways that are unsustainable and dangerous to our health and the health of the planet, what does this mean about who we are and who are we becoming? This second novel is also about reality and representation, only this time it’s not about meat and commercial media, but about potatoes and public relations.

I’m also interested in names in A story for the moment. Nao (pronounced “now”) and Ruth. How important are character names in your stories?
Names are absolutely crucial! I love naming characters. Sometimes the names come to mind right away, but often I have to wait to get to know the character before the right name comes along. Often the names I choose are meaningful in some way, and this was the case with Nao’s name. Ruth was both more complicated and more direct. She is an autofiction character, who looks so much like me that the reader is forced to wonder if she is, in fact, meant to be me, and by extension to wonder if the novel is really fictional.

In other words, Ruth disrupts the imaginary world of the novel. This was not a narrative strategy that I employed lightly. It took me about eight years to decide to put the character of Ruth in the novel, but once I did, obviously her name had to be Ruth.

What was it like to look at your own face for three hours in the mirror – an experiment in which you write about it – The face: a time code? Would you recommend the activity to writers or anyone else?
Well, I’d say it was very interesting, not easy at all, and if others feel compelled to do the exercise, do so at your own risk. I had been commissioned to write the piece for a series of essays called “The Face” written by writers on the subject of their faces. The deadline had passed and I was desperate for an essay structure to follow. I’m a meditator, so the idea of ​​contemplating an object in a meditative way is a natural way to approach a problem. And although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out that starting in the 13th century, “mirror zen” was a practice that was performed by Zen nuns.

How do you deal with mourning? How do you view the objects around you, especially the deep relationship we often develop with them? After all, these are the topics you deal with The book of form and emptiness.
The pain is hard. When my parents died, I had to clean out their house and get rid of all their stuff…and they had a lot of stuff! I found it so painful to throw these things away, and it was the little things like my father’s old handkerchiefs and my mother’s torn pajamas or her favorite sweater of hers that caused me the most pain. I had to do it. I’m an only child, so I had no choice. I don’t think I did it very skillfully, though.

I decided to do it quickly, like taking off a Band-Aid, and even though I’ve photographed some of the special things I didn’t want to forget, the whole experience feels blurry. If I had to do it again, I would do it more slowly and carefully. I think that way it would help me feel my pain rather than suppress it. I think I could have appreciated the strong sensations I experienced.

You are the latest winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Is the publishing industry more eager to embrace women writers now, especially those of color or multiple identities?
The publishing industry has embraced female writers for a long time, mostly because so many readers are women, and “Mainstream Women’s Fiction” is such a huge marketing category, and books that fall into this category are written by women. The problem is that mainstream women’s fiction is seen as “commercial” and not “literary,” which can be frustrating for female writers who want to be taken seriously.

I think recently the industry has gotten very excited about embracing books by writers of color and multiple identities, many of which are written by women, and these books seem able to bridge the literary-commercial divide in interesting ways. The Women’s Award is a very powerful and positive influence in shaping the literary landscape. By supporting serious literature written by women, the Prize helps reverse these biases against women’s fiction.

Ruth Ozeki with her book “The Book of Form and Emptiness” which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022. | Image credits: Ruth Ozeki on Instagram.

You are also a Zen Buddhist priest. How has your faith influenced your writing?
On a practical level, I think my Zen practice has helped me become a more thoughtful and patient person. I used to be terribly impatient…actually still am…but through Zen practice I have learned to work with my impatience and turn it into something useful. Most writers I know are impatient. There’s a saying that goes, “Writers don’t want to write, we want them to have written,” and I think it’s true. Writing is difficult. When I start a novel, I know very little about it and I really, really want to know!

Sometimes I have to stay in this state of not knowing for years, and that takes patience. But impatience is also useful, because if I weren’t impatient I wouldn’t do anything. So the trick is to find that place of generative tension between patience and impatience, between knowing and not knowing, and learning to relax and hang out there, even when it gets uncomfortable, because this place of generative tension is where the good work comes in. I think this is true of anything in life.

In your question you use the word “faith” which I think is important. In Buddhism we do not have faith in a deity, but rather faith in a set of philosophical principles and practices that help us live with more awareness and compassion. These principles and practices apply to both life and literature, and so, in that sense, I don’t see much separation between my Zen practice and my writing practice. The shapes are different, but the heart is the same.

Is there a book (or author) you turn to when you’re not in a good mood?
I love rereading the books I read as a child. I recently reread Pride and Prejudice, because Austen always cheers me up. But I also read books on Buddhism and Zen, especially books by my Zen teacher, Norman Fischer. They open my mind and help me remember that spirits are like the weather, sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad, but they’re always changing.

Ruth Ozeki (L) in conversation with Bee Rowlatt at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023. | Image Credits: Jaipur Literature Festival on Instagram.

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