Interview with Ruth Ozeki: We Are All Time-Beings
by Mary Stein, Aug 12, 2014
Photo of Ruth Ozeki by Kris Krug
I lifted the brightly striped paperback from the display shelf in the public library, wondering at the book’s odd title, A Tale for the Time Being. Pondering the implication that the story might exist for only a limited time, I decided to read it while I had the chance. I checked out Ruth Ozeki’s novel and soon discovered that “time being” is a Buddhist term that includes me and you and all sentient beings. We’re all time beings.
The book tells the story of a lively teen-age Japanese girl, Nao (pronounced “now”) who keeps a diary addressed to an unknown person. Nao has been raised in Silicon Valley, then taken back to Japan when her brilliant-with-computers father loses his job. Both Nao, who’s cruelly bullied at the Tokyo school she attends, and her miserable, unemployed father are seriously considering suicide. There’s a ray of brightness from old Jiko, Nao’s 104-year-old great-grandmother, the presiding nun of a mountainside Buddhist temple far from Tokyo. Jiko has taken the Buddhist vow to devote herself to the enlightenment of all sentient beings, and she views suicide as sheer ignorance. Nao spends time with her, adores her, becomes determined to record old Jiko’s life in her diary before she herself dies.
“Live!” Old Jiko brushed the command in the last moment of her life, fulfilling the tradition of the Buddhist master’s death poem. Live. For now. For the time being. It’s an influential moment in a book that is full of influences mysteriously extending into the past and future and pervading all the relationships of the novel.
The story alternately focuses on a writer named Ruth, who receives Nao’s diary when it washes up, not long after the earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, on the shores of the island where Ruth and her husband Oliver live. As she reads the diary, Ruth struggles with the question of what happened to Nao.
A Tale for the Time Being is Ruth Ozeki’s third book. In addition to being a writer, she’s a filmmaker and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. Recently, when she came to San Francisco to give a talk, journeying from the remote island off the coast of British Columbia where she lives with her husband Oliver, we met for an interview. We discovered we had Japanese cultural interests in common—aikido, ikebana; then we explored how A Tale for the Time Being came to be written. --Mary Stein
Mary Stein: A book like A Tale for the Time Being doesn’t come along very often, one that looks so deeply into the question of what our human lives are for. And I’ve been wondering how it came to be written, the process you went through in writing it. You’ve said that the earthquake and tsunami in Japan occurred at a time when you had serious questions about this book you’d already written, and that the event had a huge effect on how the book changed and developed.
Ruth Ozeki: It was an interesting process. Shall I tell you the whole story, the genesis of this?
MS: I’d like to hear it.
Ruth Ozeki: I started writing this book in December of 2006, long before the earthquake and tsunami, when these words popped into my mind: “Hi. My name is Nao, and I’m a time being.” These are the first lines of the book, and I typed them up and created a file, so that’s when I technically started writing the book. It was very clear to me from the beginning that Nao (though that wasn’t her name at first) was addressing somebody, and that she was writing—in other words, it wasn’t an oral transmission—and so I knew there would be a reader, since every act of written communication requires a recipient. Certain other things were clear, too: for example that she was writing in a diary of some sort, and she was writing in English, even though she was Japanese and was sitting in a maid cafe in Akihabara (an area of Tokyo known for electronics and manga fan culture).
Tthese things were apparent right from the start, but they triggered other questions. Why is she writing this diary? Who is she writing to? Why is she writing in English? Little by little, I started to wonder, and, little by little, the answers started to come. I realized, for example, that she had been raised in California, but her family had moved back to Tokyo, and she was being bullied in school, and her diary was a kind of lifeline. But one question that didn’t get answered was this question of the reader: who was she writing to? She didn’t know, and because she didn’t know, I didn’t know either.
So then it became my job to find out. It was a bit like auditioning actors for a role in a play or in a film. I would imagine a reader, invite that reader into the fictional world, arrange for him or her to find whatever portion of Nao’s diary existed at the time. And the reader would read it and would start to react, and a little bit of back and forth would start to happen, and little by little the reader’s world would grow, and things would start looking promising. Then at some point, maybe 50 or 100 pages in, suddenly the reader‘s world would collapse. I never quite understood why, but I did notice it would always happen when the reader started to develop specificity and started to do all the things that a character needs to do in order to lift off the page and come to life. That’s when the reader’s world would collapse, and this would be an indication that I had the wrong reader, the wrong character cast in the role, and so I would usher that reader out—and then get depressed for a couple of months until I could think of a new reader and start the whole process over again. And this happened about four or five times, with four or five different readers. And finally by the end of 2010 I’d finished an entire draft of the book; it’s completely different from the book that’s in print now—different plot, different reader. And this is the part I think is interesting: the reader was this character who had no name, had no gender, didn’t live any place in particular, had very few friends, had almost no personal history, and was never once referred to by a pronoun that would reveal any of those things. So in other words, the reader was kind of amorphous.
MS: The reader wrote in the first person?
Ruth Ozeki: Yes, which avoided the problem of gender-specific personal pronouns. You didn’t know whether the reader was a man or a woman. You didn’t know much about the character at all, other than that he/she was obsessive-compulsive, had a voice and a lot of physical and psychological problems—lived in a library. So most of that part of the book takes place in a library.
I finished a draft of the book, and I turned it in to my agent. I knew it had problems, and she corroborated this fact, but she thought it was okay and we should go ahead and submit it to my editor. What’s funny to me now is that I had convinced myself that the problems were structural. I had convinced myself that what I was trying to do with gender, playing with a kind of polymorphic and all-inclusive gender identity in this reader character, was interesting. Okay? [smiles] So I was trying to fix the structure, moving sections around and trying to make it work a bit better before submitting it to my editor, when the earthquake happened.
It was such a shock. All around the world, we watched this catastrophe unfold, more or less as it occurred, on the Internet. First the earthquake, then the aftershocks, then the images of the tsunami. And we’d never seen anything like it, a cascading disaster. Then the explosions at Fukushima. It was horrifying, and we were watching it almost in real time, all the while knowing full well we had no idea what was really happening there. I had friends and family and coworkers in Tokyo and in Sendai as well, at the university there. So at first I was concerned on a personal level about their wellbeing. After a few days or weeks, I managed to get in touch with them and was reassured that they were okay. But as the days and weeks went by, and all this began to sink in, I suddenly realized that the world would never be the same. There are certain events of such magnitude that they create what feels like a rift in time, and this was one of them. Suddenly time is divided into “pre” and “post,” and I had written a “pre” book— pre-earthquake, pre-tsunami, pre-Fukushima—and now we were living in a post-earthquake, post-tsunami, post-Fukushima world. And my book was no longer relevant.
I told my agent I was withdrawing the book. It was not going to work. And for the next few months, I pretty much gave up on it. I probably would have abandoned it except that this girl Nao’s voice kept coming back to me. It was still so strong in my mind. She had this life force now. And her diary was there, even if the character of the reader wasn’t. So I couldn’t completely give it up.
I was talking to my husband about this, and he was the one who provided the answer. He pointed out that the fictional container of the book had been broken by reality. And just as the reality of the earthquake and the tsunami and the meltdowns at Fukushima had broken the world, it had also broken the fictional container of the book. To try to pretend these events had never happened was simply not an option. And since that was the case, then the only solution was just to allow the container to be broken—to do something that points to that brokenness. His suggestion was to step in as a semi-fictional character myself, and do so in a way that would allow me to directly respond to the real events and to bring the earthquake and the tsunami into the heart of the book. I thought this was a good idea, but I could see a potential problem. So I said, “Oliver, that’s great. But you know if I’m in the book, you have to be in the book, too.” Thankfully, he agreed.
It’s interesting to me, too, that when I went back through my process journal, which is a journal in which I record my thoughts and ideas about whatever project I’m working on, I realized that at the very beginning, in 2006, I had made notes to myself about including myself, a character named Ruth, as the reader. The voice of this girl had come to me; I’m reading her diary, so therefore maybe I’m the reader! But soon after I had that idea, I discarded it because it felt too meta-fictional, too post-modern, too tricky, too self-conscious—all of these things I didn’t want. So I discarded it and then proceeded on this long, circuitous journey, in order to return to my first thought, which I could never have executed at that time.
MS: I was struck by the quote from Dogen Zenji: “Time itself is being, and all being is time.” . . In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate. Somehow that resonates with this question of the connection between the girl who writes the diary and the Ruth who reads it after it washes up on the beach. The mysteries of connection, of fluidity among “time beings.”
Ruth Ozeki: Yes, that’s right. I struggled with this book, and by the end of it I really understood that books were time beings, too. They simply take the time they take. If I had written it any faster, if I’d published the book any earlier, it would not have been the book that it is. The book that is in the world now is in the world because it unfolded in a timely fashion—although mind you, as it was emerging I was never happy with the speed with which it was emerging! I was very frustrated. It felt very slow and flat. There were long periods of time when it stopped completely. I was very impatient with it and with myself. But now I look back on it and I realize that everything was happening at exactly the right time. And I also realized that every book is different. My first two books were very, very different from this one. My Year of Meats was written in a year. All Over Creation took me three years. A Tale for the Time Being took about six years, although looking back through my process journal, I see that I’ve actually been writing this book for about 15 years! I go back to entries in the journal from the 1990s, and find ideas I had that long ago—ideas that came up during Zen practice, for example—which appear in and which shaped this book. I’m hoping that the next book—one can always hope—will emerge quickly and fluently, although somehow I doubt it will.
MS: As far as I know, this is the first book of yours that Zen Buddhism has overtly appeared in, and where your practice has obviously had a great influence.
Ruth Ozeki: Yes. I started practicing Zen seriously in 2001, and I’d been practicing the Tibetan tradition before that, since the mid-1990s. I switched to Zen when I met Norman Fischer, who is my teacher now, and I got very serious about Zen very quickly. I was really looking for something. I was in a difficult situation. My parents were elderly and I was their only child and caretaker. My father died in 1988, and when I started practicing Zen I was taking care of my mother, who had Alzheimer’s. So the practice was really important to me at that time, and I sort of threw myself into it. The way I can see it emerging in this book was through the Dōgen text study that I was doing. In 2002 and 2003, for about two years, I did long and intensive periods of individual practice, studying two essays of Dōgen. One was called Genjo Koan, and the other was called Uji. That was several years before I started writing the book, but I can see how this book grew directly out of these textual studies.
MS: So this practice was part of the process you’d been waiting for.
Ruth Ozeki: That’s absolutely right. But I can see how my earlier Buddhist practice inspired and found expression in the first two books as well. If there’s one theme that keeps recurring in all of my work in an explicit way, it’s this theme of dependent co-arising or inter-connectedness. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “interbeing.” My first novel, My Year of Meats, is about the ways that food connects us globally. It’s about connections in the food industry and media—images. The second book, All Over Creation, too, is very much about interconnectedness. But then, I suppose you could say that all books are about interconnectedness—all novels are, because if there were no interconnectedness there would be no story.
MS: I’m interested in the way you handle characters that might be called villains, like the bullies who torment the teen-aged Nao in A Tale for the Time Being. In this book, and in My Year with Meats, even the bullies are not all bad. But they’re stuck and they’re creating a blockage.
Ruth Ozeki: That’s right. I think we all have a bit of the villain in us, which is why we relate to them, and why most authors I know love to write them! Personally, I relate to all my villains. They’re very real to me, because they are a part of me. We have this idea that there’s this thing called the imagination, and that the imagination makes characters and plots up out of thin air. I think that’s a little bit idealized, and not quite realistic. It seems to me that what we have are these minds that are somehow using all of the experience that we have in our lives to generate these characters and stories. The characters come from inside you, and so there’s no such thing as a purely fictional character. Even the most fictional character in the world is still an expression of who you are and what you’re thinking or can imagine thinking, of your impressions, your love, the things that you fear and that you despise. All of these are extremely personal expressions of the mind, and so the idea that you would make something up out of nothing, be it a villain or a hero, seems kind of nutty to me.
MS: So the conventional separations of fiction and nonfiction don’t really make sense.
Ruth Ozeki: I think it’s a continuum. Certain things are more made up than other things. But even the most made-up things are still very much expressions of who we are. As a result, a villain, like John Ueno in My Year of Meats, is also a part of me. I understand John Ueno very well. He’s not an expression of myself that I cultivate except on the page. Elliot Rhodes in the second book too is a part of me, and I’m very aware of him operating in the shadows all the time. We all have our inner bullies.
MS: “Inner bullies” —that brings it home.
Ruth Ozeki: I think writers in particular, writers and artists, are very aware all the time of our inner bullies, because our inner bullies are always bullying us and telling us that we aren’t good enough, that we should just shut up, you know, “go get a real job, you lazy . . .” etc. I think we have a very intimate relationship with our inner bullies.
MS: Which brings up the question of the visible and the invisible. You mentioned that you’d been inspired by Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue, a book I’m familiar with, and which moves from the visible lowlands toward the invisible mountain, the mountain of spiritual ascent that rises out of ordinary life. I connected that with the character of old Jiko, the ancient Buddhist nun who is Nao’s great-grandmother. At 104 she’s visible, barely, but like the mountain, her inner heights are invisible. And I wanted to ask you about that.
Ruth Ozeki: Doesn’t she say, “Jiko, mountain—same thing? The mountain is tall and will live a long time. Jiko is small and will not live so much longer.” She says that.
MS: So it’s right there in the book.
Ruth Ozeki: Yes, but it wasn’t anything conscious. I don’t think I can claim that this connection with Mount Analogue was a conscious decision, but I think these things once again seep into your mind and they feed your imagination in the strangest way, and so the things that feed you may or may not actually appear on the page, but there’s so much that goes into a novel or a story that doesn’t appear on the page. I think the more time you take to write something the more invisible material there is clinging to the page, sort of clinging to the words or forming a kind of substrate.
MS: And requiring something of the reader as well.
Ruth Ozeki: Yes. I was just reminded of a wonderful article that appeared in the Harvard magazine by Jennifer Roberts called “The Power of Patience.” It was an article about the pedagogical benefits of taking time, and how this notion of patience and taking time is something she teaches her students now. It’s a beautiful article; it’s circulating on the web. In any case she quotes another art historian who talks about paintings as “time batteries,” the painting actually contains within it a span of time that is available to you only if you spend the time with it. You can only unlock it by spending time. So Professor Roberts requires her students to write a paper on a certain work of art, and the first thing that they have to do is to go sit in front of that work of art in the museum for three hours. And during that period of time she requires them to keep a log, a diary of the kinds of observations that emerge over time. And of course the more you look at something, the more it reveals of itself and opens to you. And I think that’s true both for the process of creation of any work of art, but also the process of receiving and appreciating it as well.
Certainly one of the things that’s been so much fun about this book relates to the fact that the Ruth character in the book decides that she’s going to read Nao’s diary at the same speed with which Nao wrote it. So she does that—she intentionally slows herself down so that she doesn’t quickly read it all the way through. And her friend Muriel is like, “What are you doing? That’s ridiculous.” But this is something that Ruth felt compelled to do. I regularly get letters from readers telling me that they’ve done the exact same thing, that they’re trying to slow their reading down so that they’re not gobbling, that they’re reading in a more measured way. It always thrills me when a reader says that they’ve tried to do that, even though I very intentionally wrote the book so that people would turn the pages. Obviously I wanted to create suspense that moved the story along. But I think what these readers are saying is that there’s a tension between reading it as a page-turner and wanting to move ahead and learn what going to happen on one hand, and on the other hand, wanting to slow down and really take time. And that is great.
MS: I read the book pretty much as a page-turner, but then went back to certain parts and sat in front of them a little longer.
Ruth Ozeki: There are all sorts of hidden things in the book, lots of little hidden things that readers won’t get unless they sit with it and spend time.
MS: I was struck by how old Jiko spoke about taking more time to do things, that she would live a lot longer that way. That felt like a discovery. In Daumal’s book he speaks of his travelers finding peradams, which are nearly invisible gems embodying moments of insight. I think you’ve got things related to that in your book.
Ruth Ozeki: I hope so!
MS: The sense of fluidity among the characters, the sense of connection among them, gets quite intense at the very end, when a long-dead character has crucial, life-saving information for Nao’s father that one feels is somehow transmitted to him. At points like that, time and space become quite malleable, or maybe non-existent.
Ruth Ozeki: One of the things I wanted to do in this book, a kind of structural challenge, was to try to write the book so that it would work on different levels. That it would work on a purely psychological level, so that you could read this book as psychological realism. That it would work on a Buddhist philosophical level, so that you could read it and see it as a kind of an expression of Zen philosophy. That It would work as a magical realist book, and finally that you could read it as an expression of quantum mechanics principles, as a metaphor for quantum phenomena.
MS: And what’s said about quantum principles somehow links up with what Dōgen says about there being no separation between time beings. It all kind of comes together. There are all these generations in the book, and I was left with the feeling that Nao and her father have a growing sense of responsibility to what you might call their lineage, their ancestors and descendants. And yet they both struggle with the urge to commit suicide. I was wondering how you connected all that.
Ruth Ozeki: I hadn’t actually thought of that, but of course it does connect. Because if Nao had succeeded in committing suicide, that would have been it for the family line. It wasn’t something I was explicitly setting up to explore, but it’s something that I’m very much aware of. I think I’m aware of it because I’m the last one of my own family line on both my mother’s side and my father’s side, so when I die that’s it. There are two family lineages that stop with me, and that’s something I’ve been very aware of because I decided not to have children.
In the Zen tradition, when you formally join a Zen lineage, you become a member of a family of teachers and students and you receive something called a kechimyaku, which translates as “blood line,” which is a lineage paper with a red line tracing from you back through your teacher, and your teacher’s teacher, all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha. There’s something very beautiful and powerful about that. It’s not something I really understood until later in life, how beautiful that sense of lineage is, how important the ancestors are.
MS: And also there’s that vow to keep coming back until all sentient beings achieve enlightenment–that’s quite a responsibility, too.
Ruth Ozeki: That’s right. I was exploring the idea of certain karmic patterns repeating through generations. Even though Nao’s father didn’t really understand that he was repeating his uncle’s karma, that’s what was happening. There is the idea that there are these karmic patterns that can come down through the family line if something doesn’t change or turn it around.
MS: I was wondering about this idea of the “time being,” the implications of that. What happens when you die? Are you still a “time being”? Do you have a point of view about that?
Ruth Ozeki: That’s a good question. I don’t know what happens when I die—I haven’t died yet. Or maybe I have died a thousand times. Hard to say. I don’t believe in reincarnation or anything like that. I don’t believe in a soul or that there’s some essential part of me that’s going to continue on and be reincarnated. I don’t believe that, though a lot of people do. I may not be right, but I just have no way of knowing. I tend to be quite empirical when it comes to this stuff. Yet it seems pretty clear to me that when a person dies they don’t disappear, either. That seems quite apparent. So who knows what happens? Any being on earth has a sphere of influence, and you influence other people, anybody you run across. Every time you have an interaction with another being—be it sentient or non-sentient, plant or animal or object—there’s an exchange that happens, and so when you die, the residue of that exchange is still in the world.
MS: And that must have to do with the attitude you’re aware of or unaware of, or maybe intentionally aware of in trying to interact with another person.
Ruth Ozeki: Exactly.
MS: There’s an incident near the end of the book when their cat is desperately injured. Oliver thinks he’s as good as dead, they might as well let put him out of his misery, and Ruth says let’s take him to the veterinarian and maybe he’ll recover.
Ruth Ozeki: In a way, it was because he cared so much that he moved directly into despair and hopelessness. I understand that—caring is so painful it’s easier just to cut it off. So it’s over. And giving up all hope is easier than hoping. Writing that scene was challenging because in the lives of these two people on this island, not much happens. They live these very quiet, comfortable lives, as so many of us do in this country, while in other places in the world all hell is breaking loose and people are suffering tremendously. So we watch these terrible things happening—wars, genocides, tsunamis—and we simply don’t know how to respond, and then our cat gets into a fight with a raccoon, and it feels like a huge tragedy. I was very interested in the idea of trying to juxtapose a large and small catastrophe in a way that didn’t feel demeaning, that was respectful, in spite of the discrepancies of scale. Because, you know, people suffer. It’s hard to figure these things out, it really is.
MS: That’s really so, isn’t it? That’s helpful. I noticed that in your earlier book, My Year of Meats, the idea of a happy ending and the wish for it is touched on. I’m wondering what you think makes for a happy ending.
Ruth Ozeki: In My Year of Meats, the character Jane, who is a DES (Diethylstilbestrol was taken by many pregnant women from 1940-71) daughter with an elevated risk of developing cancer, explicitly says something to the effect that “I don’t think I can change my future simply by writing a happy ending. That’s too easy and not so interesting. I’ll certainly do my best to imagine one, but I’ll just have to wait and see.” So there is a sense of not knowing, but somehow being okay with not knowing, even though we all want to know.
I felt with this book; the situation was similar. At the end of the book you still don’t know the outcome. You really don’t know the answer to any of the questions that were set up at the beginning of the book. But it’s okay not to know. This comes directly from a Buddhist teaching, something that Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said: “Not knowing is most intimate.” I think by the end of the book, that’s what you have, a sense of intimacy. You don’t have answers to these questions, but there’s a sense of closeness and intimacy with the characters, and that makes it okay somehow. And that was a kind of a challenge, because I kept waiting for somebody—my editor, a critic—to say, “But none of the questions were answered!” And nobody complained about it. I keep my fingers crossed, but nobody has complained about it yet.
MS: There’s the sense at the end that Nao could be somewhere in the depths of the ocean—or she could be in Paris!
Ruth Ozeki: Right. Although, you know, the book ends the way it began, with one person writing to another person. At the beginning, when Nao starts to write her diary and is casting her words out into the world, you see that this act of writing calls forth a reader. And to my mind, when Ruth writes her final letter to Nao at the end of the book, given the logic that the entire book has established thus far, it means that she is calling forth a reader, too. We don’t know for sure whether Nao will receive that letter, but it feels like a happy ending to me.