The first thing the Japanese American author Ruth Ozeki did the morning after winning the Women’s prize for fiction was meditate. “A very short one,” she says when we meet at her hotel later. She was so convinced she wasn’t going to win (Meg Mason and Elif Shafak were the frontrunners) she had planned “a full schedule” for the day. “Not that I’m complaining,” she laughs. Coolly elegant in black, despite the heatwave, the 66-year-old writer has the sort of glow not often seen in post-award ceremony interviews.
Ozeki can surely lay claim to being the first Zen Buddhist priest to take the Women’s prize, which she has won for her fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. It tells the story of 14-year-old Benny, who starts hearing the voices of everyday objects after his father’s death. His mother, Annabelle, has become a hoarder, and in a sense inanimate things (her husband’s shirts, snow globes, a yellow teapot) are also speaking to her. Clinging to her job as an archivist, Annabelle has let their house overflow with newspaper cuttings: they are metaphorically drowning in grief, garbage and too much news.
Philosophically serious and formally playful (the book itself is talking to us), this cacophonous novel sometimes seems as crowded and whimsical as Annabelle’s eclectic collections. But, as with all Ozeki’s novels, The Book of Form and Emptiness doesn’t shy away from all-too-real issues – global heating, consumerism, mental illness – or asking the big questions: what is real? Is there a limit to human desires for more? And yet the chair of the Women’s prize described it as “a complete joy” and critics have been drawn to her “calm, dry, methodical good humour”. And it is true that this tale of a mother and son finding their voices and a way out of the mess of their lives is both deeply affecting and uplifting.
A passionate environmentalist and feminist, Ozeki grew up reading Rachel Carson and imbibing the “political consciousness” of the 1970s, she says. Her first two novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), which she describes as “a deep-dive into potatoes”, grew out of her concerns about climate change and industrial agriculture (her father’s family were farmers in Wisconsin). Her later novels, A Tale for the Time Being, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and The Book of Form and Emptiness are explicitly influenced by Buddhism. The question “Do insentient beings speak the dharma?”, taken from a Zen parable, is at the heart of this latest novel. “Can objects teach us about reality?” she adds helpfully. “And, of course, the answer is yes.”
The book took eight years to write – “every novel takes me longer – this is not a good trend” – but its roots go back to the death of her own father in 1998. For a year afterwards, Ozeki would hear him speaking to her. “I’d be doing something around the house, folding laundry or whatever, and I would hear him clear his throat and then he would say my name. I would turn around and there was nobody there. Every time this happened, it was a little bit of a shock, like a punch – he’s not there.”
Clearing out her parents’ house in New Haven in 2002 after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she found gifts given to her father from the First Nation communities with whom he worked as a linguistic anthropologist and Japanese artefacts belonging to her mother (also a linguistics professor, born in Japan), a collection of polished pebbles from her grandfather’s time in an internment camp in New Mexico and an empty box, carefully labelled “empty box”. “I knew that these things had stories, but I didn’t know what the stories were. And that was kind of heartbreaking.”
“So start with the voices, then,” the book begins. She wanted to explore “voice hearing on a spectrum”, she explains. As a writer characters “appear” to her: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” so Nao in A Tale for the Time Being “popped into my head”, she says. Then there are those neurotic voices, “the internal sarkiness, the inner critic, all of that stuff”, that bother us all, and more disturbingly the voices that lead Benny to stab himself with a pair of scissors and be diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder. “Why is it that some voices are pathologised, some are normal and some are lionised?” she asks. “What is normal anyway? Normal is a cultural construct, and we’ve made normal very narrow.”
Like Benny, who suffered severe depression and anxiety as a child, Ozeki spent several weeks on a psychiatric ward after suffering “what was then called a nervous breakdown” at boarding school. Following in the footsteps of Sylvia Plath, as you do “when you’re a depressed, poetic young girl”, she then went to Smith College, one of the oldest all-women colleges in the US, where she learned Japanese (traumatised by the war, her mother never taught her because she didn’t want her “identified as Japanese”) and won her first prizes for fiction. She returned to Smith to teach creative writing in 2015 and now, after many years on Cortes Island in British Columbia, lives full-time in Massachusetts with her husband, an environmental artist and teacher.
After graduating, she spent a few years in Japan studying classical Japanese literature, then moved back to New York and fell into the film industry, becoming art director on low-budget horror movies with titles such as Mutant Hunt and Robot Apocalypse. This unlikely experience taught her how to tell a story. Eventually she was making her own documentaries, and while her films were critically successful (she was nominated for the grand jury prize at the Sundance festival), they were “financial disasters”. She gave herself a year to write a novel, which she hoped to sell for 30,000 dollars to cover her debts: she could never have imagined that 25 years later she would be awarded £30,000 for the Women’s prize. She printed out the first draft of My Year of Meats on the eve of her 41st birthday, “so that I could say, truthfully, that I had written my first novel by the time I was 40.”
But after the publication of her second novel and the deaths of both her parents, she “was kind of falling apart” again. So she turned to Buddhism. “Sickness, old age and death – it wakes you up,” she says. “That’s what woke the Buddha up. You just realise that life is all about impermanence and I’m not going to be around for ever. How do I cope with that? Because I actually feel like I am the centre of the world.” She was ordained in 2015.
The first thing she teaches her students is how to meditate, and she uses meditation techniques in her own writing. “I’ll close my eyes and sort of drop into a scene in my imagination, and then I’ll just hang out there. You’re aware of all of the sensations in sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. You’re able to notice a little bit more about what’s going on with your characters.”
Is it the Zen that gives her work that joyfulness that won over the judges? “I just have a weird sense of humour,” she says. “The flip side of anything sad is usually funny. There’s a reason why Shakespeare always has clowns in his tragedies. Everything is funny, and everything is also really sad. It’s both at the same time.” Just like The Book of Form and Emptiness.