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A conversation with Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki is the bestselling author of My Year of Meats, All Over Creation and, most recently, A Tale for the Time Being. A Tale for the Time Being is the story of sixteen-year-old Nao who lives with her parents in Tokyo and Ruth, a writer who lives on a remote island in Canada, and the ways their very different lives interact. Read more about this enchanting book here.

In creating the character of Ruth for A Tale for the Time Being, you appear to have drawn heavily on your own recent life, situating her in British Columbia, giving her your name, and even naming her husband after yours. In what ways are you and the fictional Ruth most alike, and at what points do you most widely differ?

I think of Ruth’s story as a fictional memoir. The character of Ruth is semi-fictional (although if pressed, I would have to call myself semi-fictional, too!). Character Ruth and author Ruth have much in common—a husband named Oliver, a mother with Alzheimer’s, a moody cat, a house on an island in Desolation Sound—but character Ruth has a more limited perspective and a different set of experiences.

Obviously, I did not really find a young Japanese schoolgirl’s diary on the beach. But the fictional memoir plays out of a set of ‘what if?’ propositions: What if I had found such a diary, and started reading it, and become obsessed with it? What if I’d never encountered Zen, or learned to meditate? What if I could change the past in my dreams? What kind of Ruth would I be?

And the fact is, I did wake up one day with the words and voice of a young girl named Nao in my head, and like my fictional Ruth, I could not stop thinking about her until I discovered her fate. You can look at the novel as a parable about the process of writing fiction. What happens when a character appears and calls the novelist into being? It’s not meant to be taken literally. This is magic—the very ordinary magic of writing fiction.

Ruth, as you point out in the book, is a paradoxical bilingual pun; transposed into Japanese, it can mean either roots or absence. Do you find this paradox at work in your own personality?

I think we’re all paradoxical, but in my case, the paradox is overt and conspicuous. It’s built into my DNA. I’m half-Japanese and half-Caucasian. I’m American and Canadian, and I speak Japanese. I have homes, real and spiritual, in three cultures. So yes, paradoxical, multifaceted, hybrid … this is who I am.

I see this paradoxical nature in my writing, and apparently others do, too. Jane Smiley, in a review for the Chicago Tribune, called My Year of Meats ‘a comical-satirical-farcical-epical-tragical-romantical novel.’ I like that.

The name of the novel’s teenage diarist, Nao, also puns bilingually; the character is continually trying to take hold of the now, only to find that it keeps vanishing into the then. Why is the instantaneous moment so important to Nao, and, evidently, to you?

The moment, this moment, is all there is! If you don’t believe me, just think about it for a minute. Does the past exist? If so, where is it? Show it to me. And the future? I can imagine what it might be, but it doesn’t exist yet, and when it arrives, it’ll never be quite what I imagined.

This present moment is all there is, only most of us are too preoccupied with the past and the future to notice it. Zen Buddhist practice teaches you to be aware and awake in the present moment—to wake up to your life at the very moment you are living it. This is the supapawa! that Old Jiko teaches Nao, and it enables her to wake up to her life, rather than hiding out in her fictional memories of Sunnyvale. It’s very realistic.

Neuroscience has shown that memory is not an accurate representation of an event in the past. Rather, when we remember something, we’re not remembering the actual event, but instead we’re remembering our last memory of the event. It’s an emergent and iterative process, so every time we remember, we change the past a little bit more. It’s fiction!

Nao’s feelings of isolation stand at the center of the novel, but one senses loneliness and a sense of incompleteness in Ruth as well. Though the two never meet, they somehow create between them a mystic wholeness. How are we to understand the ‘magic’ they create?

What a lovely question. There are many ways to answer it, but here’s the bit I think is crucial. Nao and Ruth’s relationship is the creative symbiosis that exists between a writer and reader. Nao is the writer. She writes her book and sends it into the world, and in so doing, she calls Ruth, her reader, into being.

Writers and readers are engaged in a reciprocal and mutually co-creative enterprise, and the book is the field of their collaboration. It’s very personal, and very individual, too. The book I write might be very different from the book you read, and this is because of the symbolic nature of the written word. Every word I write must be unlocked by the eye and decoded by the mind of a reader. My scenes come to life because a reader invests them with his or her experience and imagination. Of course, this means that every reader is reading a very different book, too. The A Tale for the Time Being that Reader A reads is very different from the A Tale for the Time Being that Reader Q reads, and anyone who has ever been in a book club knows this to be true. Again, it’s a beautiful analogue to quantum Many Worlds. The magic of fiction, of the written word, is that it is endlessly and infinitely generative.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book and feeling that it was written just for you? I feel that way from time to time, and it’s not a delusion. There’s truth in it, because I’m co-creating the book with the author, and sometimes the symbiosis is particularly resonant. ‘You’re my kind of time being,’ Nao writes to Ruth, ‘and together we’ll make magic!’ The novel, quite literally, is the magic that they make.

Readers of A Tale for the Time Being will discover a book that poses a host of large questions. To begin with, it is a novel about the tremendous importance but sometimes near-impossibility of communication. Nao seeks an unknown interlocutor through her diary, Ruth’s battles to extract information from the Internet become titanic, and Nao and her father both nearly die because of poor communication. In our age of instant and mass communication, why have we become so bad at talking with one another?

Yes, we do seem to spend a lot of time speaking into the void, don’t we? As Nao says, ‘There’s nothing sadder than cyberspace when you’re floating around out there, all alone, talking to yourself.’

But the point is that Nao’s diary did make the connection and find its perfect reader. Nao sent it out into the world, like a message in a bottle, and it floated up onto Ruth’s shore. It gave Character Ruth a quest (and all characters need quests, after all!) and brought her to life. And you could say that it redeemed Author Ruth’s life as well! So the communication circuit is complete and A Tale for the Time Being goes out into the world.

As to your question of why we’ve become such poor communicators, I think it’s because we’re impatient. The instantaneous nature of our communication media is only exacerbating this very human tendency, which goes back to why I think the present moment is so important. We have to learn to be better time beings. We have to learn to take our time and to stop wasting it. We can do this by cultivating our supapawa! Our supapawa can help us feel less overwhelmed. It trains us to become kinder and more patient with ourselves and others, and most of all, to listen.

Your book also powerfully addresses the question of identity. In A Tale for the Time Being, people are seldom just people. They can be accretions of atoms, pulsations of energy, and, most significantly, what you refer to as ‘time beings’. Would you explain the idea of a person as a ‘time being’?

Well, again, to quote Nao, ‘A time being is you and me and every one of us who is, and was, and ever will be… .’ But it’s not just people who are time beings. Everything that exists in the universe is a time being, because everything, from subatomic particles to galaxies, comes and goes. We are all fluid and constantly changing. This is our identity, not to have a fixed identity. We are temporal beings, and we flow from one form to another.

Old Jiko uses the analogy of a wave. Does a wave have an identity separate from the ocean? Well, yes and no. When it pops up as a white cap or as a tsunami, yes. It is very much its own thing. But it’s never not a part of the ocean, and in time it changes, sinking down and becoming indistinguishable again. We are like waves that pop up and move along the earth’s surface for a while before sinking back down and becoming part of everything else. Forests are like this, too. Each tree, even those that grow to be a thousand years old, eventually dies and becomes part of the humus and the forest floor again, where it nurtures saplings.

These are very old Buddhist teachings, and the phrase ‘time being’ comes from a thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master named Eihei Dogen. He wrote an essay, often translated as ‘Time Being’ or ‘Being Time’, which I think Heidegger had probably read or at least knew about it when he wrote Being and Time.

This is an extract from the reading guide for A Tale for the Time Being, prepared by The Viking Press. You can find notes on Text books for reading groups and classrooms here.