From Chinese fortune cookies to scissors, unusual objects possess a voice in Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Curious, we approached Ozeki at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 to understand her writing process, relationship with objects, obsession with libraries, and Buddhist approach to life. By Sumeet Keswani & Paridhi Badgotri
While most of us today tend to hoard possessions and then neglect them, the winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Ruth Ozeki, strongly believes in tending to every object she retains in her life. In her latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, she presents us with a character who hears objects speak. The protagonist, Benny, doesn’t understand what the objects are saying, but he senses their emotions, and when his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous. Ozeki does not treat this as an anomaly to be rectified. Instead, the voices multiply until we are sensitised to the things around us.
During the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, Ruth Ozeki spoke about her novel at length. But we wanted to know more—about her relationship with objects, about her Zen Buddhism practise, about her creative process—so we sat down with Ozeki for what turned out to be a freewheeling chat full of introspection, nostalgia, laughter, and meditation.
A Conversation with Ruth Ozeki
Kunzum: Your latest book is centred on objects, and it even has a reference to a Marie Kondo-like character. How would you describe your own relationship with objects?
Ruth Ozeki: One of the reasons that I wanted to write the book was because I do have this relationship with objects—it’s a little bit fraught. Sometimes, I love objects; sometimes, I look at an object and think, Oh my god, this object is asking so much from me! It needs to be taken care of, and do I really have the wherewithal to take care of it the way it wants to be taken care of? It’s why, for example, sometimes I just decide [that] I’m not going to buy nice things, because I don’t want to feel guilty for not taking care of them. So, I have a very strong relationship with objects. And I think I always have [had it]. When we are little, we have these kinds of relationships [with objects], right? It’s your special spoon or your special blanket, and maybe I just never outgrew that.
“Things are needy. They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them.”– Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness
Kunzum: You’re right, most people do outgrow these relationships with their favourite childhood objects. Is it some Japanese cultural influence that has made you retain that affinity?
Ruth Ozeki: I think that might be part of it. Marie Kondo herself comes from a Shinto background, which is an animistic tradition. It’s very object-based, object-oriented. My religious practice is Buddhism, but it’s Soto Zen Buddhism. And in Soto Zen, we spend a lot of time taking care of objects—taking care of a room, taking care of an altar…. we do a lot of cleaning, for example. And that’s all part of a mindfulness practice. I became more aware of my relationship with objects when I started practising Zen. [Also] One of the things you have to do when you get older is start getting rid of things. You need to winnow… get rid of stuff. That’s my practice right now―I don’t want to leave this for other people. My parents left me with a huge house filled with stuff; I don’t want to do that to anybody. I don’t have children myself, but somebody else would have to take care of [it] and I don’t want that.
Kunzum: Are you turning into a minimalist then?
Ruth Ozeki: I wouldn’t say that; I’ll never be minima… I can’t even say the word! (laughs) I look at minimalist pictures, and I think, Oh, that must be nice!, but I also know [that] it’s not practical for me. I hate the idea of hanging on to something and and not using it―not taking care of it. If I’m not using it, then I should pass it along. And that goes for books as well. You know books have feelings, right? And so I’d much rather pass the book along to somebody who’d read it rather than hold on to it just because I can―I mean, some books I keep, obviously, because I refer to them all the time, but if it’s a book I’m not going to read again, I think it’s better to let the book go out into the world and find new readers, find new friends.
Kunzum: The objects that you have featured in The Book of Form and Emptiness have a voice. How did you select these objects and how did you find a voice for them?
Ruth Ozeki: Well, I made a rule for myself, because it’s hard to think of random things. If I asked you to think of random objects, you look around and you [might] go, “Oh, pen and cup,” but that’s not interesting. So, I made a rule that If somebody gave me an object, or if an object entered my life that was interesting in some way, then I would put it in the book and see what happens. My editor went to the Bahamas and came back with a snow globe with a sea turtle in it. And I thought, oh great! I’m going to give the snow globe to Annabelle in the book, and I did! And then the next thing I knew, Annabelle was on eBay bidding for snow globes. Then Alice, the conceptual artist, started making disaster snow globes, catastrophic snow globes—and that was interesting. But that was an object that entered the novel because it entered my life. Chinese fortune cookies—that was another one. I got this great fortune cookie that said, “Life is an open book for those who read it.” I just made it into a game.
The scissors have a voice [in the book]. And that was a snake-like sibilance—a lot of snipping, stabbing… I might have been watching Harry Potter [at the time]—I think that might have been part of it. But the other was the book itself. The book is the one that has a real voice. And that was an accident. I didn’t anticipate doing that at all. I thought I was writing a third-person omniscient novel. Because, when I was growing up, most of the novels that I read were third-person omniscient. And I was taught that this is the real voice of novels, that true novelists write in third-person omniscient. And that never worked for me—it’s just not how I perceive the world. Anyway, I was trying to do that—write in the third-person omniscient—and then suddenly, Benny starts talking to the narrator. And then, the narrator starts talking back to Benny. And I’m watching this happen and suddenly realise, Well of course, the narrator is a talking book because Benny is hearing objects speak to him. And that’s what a book is. It’s an object that speaks to us, right? I’d been working on it for a while before I figured that out.
“Books will always have the last word, even if nobody is around to read them.”– Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness
Kunzum: In what ways does Zen Buddhism influence your fiction?
Ruth Ozeki: Well, the last two books have had Buddhist characters in them. So that’s on a very overt level. But on a deeper level, A Tale for the Time Being was inspired by a fascicle that Dogen Zenji wrote called Being-Time… In Buddhism, there’s a huge body of commentary literature—there’s a teaching, and then all of these people start talking about the teaching and commenting on it. I now think that A Tale for the Time Being is almost like commentary literature on Dogen’s fascicle. It’s a response to that. With this new book too… there’s a famous Zen story and there’s a question at the heart of the story: Do insentient beings speak the Dharma? In other words, can insentient beings—like trees and flowers and pebbles and oceans―teach us about reality? And of course they can! So, there’s a whole discourse around this idea of who can hear the Dharma expounded by insentient beings. I was working with those stories, and I think that shaped a lot of what’s in the new book—but also the Mahayana texts… the Prajnaparamita Sutra was central to the book and this idea of form and emptiness.
Kunzum: Does your Buddhism practice also inform your creative process?
Ruth Ozeki: There’s this old saying about how writers don’t want to write, they want to have written. And I think that’s true. Writers are impatient, right? I mean, of course we are! And when we start a project, we start from this place of not knowing. There are probably writers who know pretty quickly where their books are going to go—and they write quickly. I’m not that kind of writer. I spend a lot of time not knowing. So, that creates its own kind of tension, because I’m starting out in this place of not knowing and I really want to know, so in between these two poles, there’s a generative tension. [It’s the] Same with patience and impatience. I know that I need to be patient with this process—this last book took eight-nine years to write—but I’m very impatient. And impatience is not a bad thing either, because I need that impatience. If I don’t have impatience, then I’ll just sit around and watch television. So, again [there’s] this feeling of being pulled between these two poles and I think that’s what meditation has helped me with—it helps me sit in the middle of this tension and tolerate it, be curious about it, and stay open to it rather than shutting it down. That’s one part of it and then the other part of it is just being able to be in the body. I think a lot of writing is just a lot of ideas skittering across the page. But for writing to be powerful, it has to really drop down deep into the body because that’s how we experience emotions, right? Some people think of meditation as being a mental activity. I think it’s something that’s done in the body. When I sit zazen—this is Japanese meditation but I think it’s true for other forms too—I’m dropping into my body. Sensations come and go―sight, sound, smell. If you can just be aware of the ebb and flow of sensations, it’ll help your writing. And that’s why I teach my students to meditate. The first thing I teach them is how to meditate.
Kunzum: You’ve said this before: your mother did not want you to be identified as Japanese and you learnt the language during college. Tell us about your journey of reclaiming your identity.
Ruth Ozeki: I was born 11 years after the end of World War II. And Japan was still very much the enemy. The fathers of the people I grew up with had fought in the war. So they looked at my face and saw a projection of the enemy… I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, which was a hotbed of radicalism during the 1960s. And it was where the Black Panther trials were held and where Bobby Seale was on trial for murder. I was 13 at that point. I used to go down to the New Haven Green during the protests. The SDS (Students for Democratic Society) and the Black Panthers were down there, the Weathermen were down there… all of the big radical groups congregated at the Green. Finally, the National Guard was called, and it was a big deal. It was the first time that I had a sense of racial justice. I wasn’t Black but I knew that I wasn’t White either. So, I was really intrigued by this. I remember really wanting to be Black because then I would have a real identity. But being mixed race… it’s not Asian, it’s not really White, it’s somewhere in the middle. Then, when I was in high school, I really wanted to study Japanese but there was no Japanese being offered. So I had to wait till I went to college. And that’s when I started studying Japanese. And I took it very seriously because I’d been wanting this for a very long time. And then I went to Japan, lived there, my Japanese got better, and I ended up working in Japan, then I ended up writing about Japan a lot. So it was an acquired skill. It was a choice for me to dig into my heritage that way. Eventually, writing played a big role. I was also by then working for Japanese television. So I had a professional career interest in Japan.
Kunzum: Does your earlier career in cinema and TV influence your writing?
Ruth Ozeki: I think it did at the beginning. In My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, you can see a sort of cinematic quality. I think there are elements of it in the recent books too. When I write scenes, I tend to pretend that I’m a camera—and I move into a location and test the shots and [then] start to write.
Kunzum: For your protagonist, who struggles with depression, libraries are a refuge. What role do bookstores and libraries play in your life?
Ruth Ozeki: I love books. And I always have, ever since I was a child. When I was little, I spent a lot of time in libraries. My mother would take me, and librarians were so kind, they would give me books and let me read. I was a precocious reader, so when I was 11-12 years old, I was reading Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. It was a while before I could afford books, but I used to love going to secondhand stores and buying used books. The first two books that I wrote, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, I did most of the research in libraries. They are sanctuaries, and we need them.
Kunzum: Can you give us five book recommendations for our readers?
Ruth Ozeki: What pops to mind right off is The Aleph and Other Stories (by Jorge Luis Borges), but any of his books would be great. I love Borges. I’m reading a book called Reader Come Home (by Maryanne Wolf), which is a book by a neuroscientist who studies reading and is particularly studying the impact of digital reading methodologies on the human brain. And one of the things that she’s discovering is that our ability to process things deeply and to think critically is being impacted by scrolling culture. That’s a book I’m reading now and loving because it’s affirming what I already know about myself. Oh, another book is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. And my student Leila Mottley’s book, Nightcrawling. Longlisted for the Booker and Oprah Winfrey’s pick. She was my student when she was younger, just 17. She was in my creative writing advanced class… Another book that I really liked was Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth. Karen has a wonderfully dry narrative voice, and Booth is just kind of brilliant. It’s a magnificently researched piece of work. I also love George Sanders’s work.
Kunzum: You were talking about reading Philip Roth as a child. We’d love to know which writers have had the most influence on your work.
Ruth Ozeki: That’s also hard. I’ve always admired Kurt Vonnegut. The reason: he’s funny, he’s got a good sense of humour. The narrative stance he takes is interesting to me. And his overt political engagement is interesting too. Any writer who has studied Shakespeare, in a way, has to say Shakespeare—I learned that when you juxtapose comedy and tragedy, you get a bigger response and it has more impact. When I was writing A Tale for the Time Being, I had Dogen open and I also had the The Tempest open. When I started writing every day, I would read a little bit of Dogen and I would read a little bit of The Tempest. It was just the poetry and the language, you know, Shakespeare’s language is just so exquisitely powerful. There must be many more…. Did I say Borges? I really love Borges!
Kunzum: Was there a particular writer who made you want to become a writer?
Ruth Ozeki: When I was really little, I wanted to be a writer. So, there were some very important children’s books. Charlotte’s Web (by E. B. White). We think it’s a book about a pig and a spider, but it’s not. It’s a book about Charlotte, who’s a writer. And it’s a book about the importance of a word, of sentences. I loved that story. Another book was Harriet the Spy (by Louise Fitzhugh), which was a book about a little girl in New York City who carried around a composition notebook wherever she goes (pulls out her own composition notebook)—she would write notes in her composition notebook, and she got into all sorts of trouble. All of the children’s books, you know, Little Women (by Louisa May Alcott)—because Joe was a writer. The Once and Future King (by T. H. White), I loved. I also loved A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L’Engle). A lot of those books are about little girls who are writers—or spiders who are writers. I found those very inspiring when I was a kid. I never really wanted seriously to be anything but a writer. I mean, maybe there was a brief period where I thought I could swim competitively or play the flute in the Boston Symphony, but I wasn’t good enough at those things. So, I quickly came back to wanting to write—I think that’s my habitat.
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