Sunday, May 18, 2014

Our May Author: Ruth Ozeki

This month we are reading, Ruth Ozeki's multiple award-winning novel, A Tale for the Time Being. The book concerns a Japanese girl named Nao and a struggling North American novelist, Ruth, and the accidental connection that is made between the two by the teen's diary. The narrative spins out to explore themes such as suicide and bullying, the Fukushima tsunami, Alzheimer's and Zen practice, to name just a few. Most of all I liked the empathetic connection over space and time formed by Ruth's reading of Nao's journal and Ruth's desire to act on her concerns. It felt very much like what we try to experience with every book we read and discuss here at Rights Readers-- trying to establish greater empathy with distant cultures and better ground our activist impulses.

To help you learn more about the author and the book, Ozeki has a great website to browse called Ozekiland. The video above from her publisher gives a concise summary of some of the sources and themes of this very layered narrative.

Here's a good print interview to check out: The Shores of My Imagination: A Conversation with Ruth Ozeki » Public Libraries Online Sample:
PL: As a reader you get so caught up in the Ruth version of the story and the fates of characters that might not exist. 
RO: And I was doing that on purpose. I was very much playing with what’s real and what’s not real. And how do we experience reality, how do we experience the gradations of what’s real and what’s not real? And also how do we experience uncertainty? Having planted the seed of uncertainty, it’s always going to be there vibrating in the background. 
And the book is about not knowing, too. Once again, I go back to the tsunami and the thousands of people who were washed out to sea. And we don’t know. There’s so much that we don’t know. 
I look at the Ruth section of the book as being my failed memoir. Because in reality I was thinking about writing a memoir, in fact I was working on a memoir—
In a Granta Podcast, Ozeki talks about Tale and an essay she wrote for the publication about her grandfather and a mysterious photograph she has of him and about the ways she feels linked to him across time-- themes that are obviously similar to the novel. She also wrote a short piece for Shambala Sun, Nothing is Wasted, about her grandmother's death that is worth a look as well.
The Missouri Review (for literary insight) and Oregon Public Radio (where she talks about caring for her aging mother and her Zen practice) podcasts are both worth a listen. Both interviews are also downloadable via iTunes.  On the Ozekiland blog, be sure to checkout the post On Zen Nuns & Novelists about Jakucho Setouchi, the inspiration for the character of Old Jiko. Here's a video of the activist nun talking about empowering the elderly and Japan Times reports on her anti-nuclear hunger strike.

Finally, Nineteen Questions puts some interesting queries to the author and our resident language buffs will appreciate this one:
With your bicultural background, please explain something in Japanese that is hard to translate into English.

I think kotodama (literally word- spirit/ soul) is one of those beautiful concepts and ideas that we just don’t have a word for in English. It is a uniquely Japanese notion, and it is very beautiful. Anyone who loves language has a sense that there is a spirit in language. Words have a spirit in them, but we don’t identify it as such in English.
Ozeki's sensitive and playful use of multiple languages is certainly one of the joys of reading this novel. Visit nineteenquestions for her full explanation of this Japanese term.
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