Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” is one of the best novels I have read in years. Like her earlier novels, “All Over Creation” and “My Year of Meats,” her newest work playfully explores the effects of technology on contemporary characters’ lives.
Ozeki’s characters and narratives carry these issues lightly, but are always compelling. The book begins with a novelist in British Columbia, who finds a diary washed up from across the Pacific Ocean with other debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. It is written in English by Nao, a Japanese teenager. The suspense of “Tale” hooked me as I thought, “Why does the girl write in English? Is the novelist in the novel named Ruth actually Ruth Ozeki writing about herself? Did the Japanese girl survive the tsunami? How did her diary get thrown in to the ocean wrapped securely in plastic?” The narrative alternates between the playful, suicidal and curious tone of the teenage Nao in Tokyo. And the novelist and her husband’s quest to find more about the diary in British Columbia delivered on all of the questions that compelled me to keep reading.
The author Ozeki, who is also a zen priest and filmmaker, shows the range of her interests in this novel, including ideas about time, language play, Proust, quantum physics, Taisho-era feminism, Japanese kamikaze pilots, Japanese teen culture, French literature and more. Even in managing to elaborate on these throughout the book, she never loses sight of Nao, the troubled teenager, and her wonderful voice.
Ozeki didn’t publish a book for a decade before “Tale,” a period during which she cared for her aging mother, who had Alzheimer’s. She wrote most of the novel before the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and then discarded much of it in 2011 to take account of the tsunami as a force in the novel. The novel is not about the tsunami, but incorporating that moment in time adds much resonance and currency to the novel.
In July, “Tale” was one of 13 books nominated for the Man Booker Prize this year, considered one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards for fiction.
On behalf of the International Examiner (IE), I had the unique opportunity of speaking with Ozeki as the novel began catapulting into the world literary limelight. She shared some of her process and inspiration for it.
IE: As a high school English teacher, I am always on the lookout for coming-of-age stories centered on girls to balance out the curriculum. In “A Tale for the Time Being,” your protagonist is a teenage girl determined to be heard, with a remarkable sense of presence and reflection. Unlike the classic male protagonist of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield, she is a diarist – a writer writing to be read. I was intrigued by the character of Ruth, the novelist within the novel, as a concerned adult. This figure is often missing in teen coming-of-age novels. What was your process in shaping these characters and voices?
I am delighted by the comparison to Holden Caulfield. I re-read “The Catcher in the Rye,” and even read it out loud to my friend’s son. During Nao’s development, I was studying that voice, not as a model, but to see what made it powerful. I was also thinking about heroines I love, like Harriet the Spy. I love her. She’s cranky. I was thinking about what makes a young voice effective. I also was auditioning different types of characters as “readers” of Nao’s diary; I’d thought at first that her reader should be a man, but after awhile, it just seemed a middle-aged woman was right, and then there was old Jiko, too, (Nao’s great-grandmother, who is a sympathetic audience for Nao).
IE: I noticed that both characters, Ruth and Nao had a much older person in their lives, although they have very different roles. Your sense of urgency and presence in the matter of taking care of your mother was very moving. Is she “true” in the novel?
Yes. Many of the bits of Ruth’s life are taken from my life. Ruth is semi-fictional. Bits that aren’t real are metaphorical. My mother found a counterpart in old Jiko. Ruth has given up trying to write a novel and is writing a memoir — and failing. So she fictionalizes. Ruth’s failed memoir is fiction. [Laughs] I found myself playing with iteration and recursive mirroring.
The book can be read as an allegory for what happens in the novelist’s mind. You hear a voice, a character, who shimmers into being. Old Jiko you could read as my mother, the Harukis as Oliver — in geekiness and erudition. The fictional world is almost like a shadow world. It is about the experience of reading and writing. There is interdependence between characters’ lives and stories — for both the characters and the novelist — and the novelist is transfigured by the fiction.
IE: How did the character of Nao’s great-grandmother, Jiko — the 104-year-old bisexual Japanese feminist novelist, who is also a zen priest and an active sender of text messages — emerge?
I’ve always been interested in the Taisho democratic, feminist period in Japan before imperialism crushed that 12-year period of democracy. I’ve always been interested in the “bluestockings” or “seito.” The anarchist feminist character was suggested by a Buddhist nun, Setouchi Jakucho, a novelist with a racy past. Because of Japanese law, her child was taken from her and given to her husband after she ran away with his student. Japanese literary society, male-dominated, gave her a hard time. She is still alive, in her 90s. She couldn’t keep writing “without a backbone,” so she shaved her head and became a Buddhist nun. She is still active as a writer, and recently did a hunger strike over the reopening of the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear reactors. She is best known for her modern translation of “The Tale of Genji.” Last I heard, she was writing cell phone novels. If it is popular, that’s what she will use. That’s where I got the idea of old Jiko texting in my novel.
IE: Can you talk about the mysterious crow that travels between parts of the novel?
It is a quiet tribute to [Japanese novelist] Haruki Murakami. There are also two characters named Haruki and lots of cats, like in his books. I like the way he plays with worlds, moving from one world to another. It is impossible to write about Japan without crows.
IE: You wrote our second novel, “All Over Creation,” about “terminator” technologies for genetic engineering of seeds, and in this novel, you address Internet bullying. Does a program like the one Nao’s father created actually exist?
He had these sanitizing bots that could erase from the Internet the online bullying of his daughter. No, this doesn’t exist. I made it up. There would be a great market for this! We are in the middle of a great experiment. Our relationship with memory has changed. We cannot count on painful things to recede. It will be hard for young people to live down the things in their past that they might want to leave behind.
IE: There are great visuals in the novel. I found the trailer for “A Tale for the Time Being,” appearing as if it were introducing a film rather than a novel. Are you still interested in creating films?
Yes, I made that trailer, and I was pleased with how it turned out. I think visually. I make an effort to write in a way that has a visual sense of detail. Coming from a film background, I love editing, and putting pictures together. It was hugely instructive in writing novels. I felt clueless and defeated by narrative time – how to move characters through time. I was in college, approaching it a plodding way. But in film, I learned how to cut between two images of different focal length, how to piece things together and jump through time.