“Writing novels was not something I felt racially, ethnically, or culturally empowered to do”

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If objects could talk, what would they tell us? This is the question Ruth Ozeki found herself captivated 10 years ago, prompting her to start writing her latest novel. The book of form and emptiness. In this moving and haunting tale, Booker’s shortlisted author introduces us to Benny Oh, a 14-year-old boy who begins to hear voices emanating from objects in his house – a broken Christmas tree, a shoe, a wilted lettuce. leaf – after the sudden and tragic death of his father. “Once you start thinking like that, the world turns around and it all gets a little scary and a little magical,” Ozeki told me on Zoom, his easy magnetic presence transcending the screen.

The Japanese-American author of A tale for the moment, My year of meat and Everywhere in creation is also a Soto Zen priest, and shares that the idea for his latest work came from a Buddhist riddle that asks, “Do insensitive beings speak Dharma?” – “in other words: ‘Do the objects include Buddhist nature?’ Zen philosophy permeates the pages of the Book with form and emptiness; in fact, the words “form and void” are taken from a verse of the Heart Sutra. So it’s no surprise to hear that Ozeki attributes meditation to helping her shape her as a writer. “It really trained me to have faith in the practice of writing and keep coming back every day, even if it doesn’t feel good,” she says, adding that rather than planning chapters in it. ‘advance, it allows “a certain dose of serendipity – that way you are constantly surprised and always engaged with it.

When I ask Ozeki what initially drove her to write, the story unfolds with such a captivating pace and a narrative as rich as its prose. She was born in Connecticut in 1956 to an American father and a Japanese mother, and studied literature first in the United States and then in Japan, before returning to New York in 1985 where she worked as a director. . “I wanted to write novels since I knew what a novel was, but it wasn’t something that I felt entitled to do racially, ethnically or culturally,” she says. “Haiku, okay, but not the great American novel.” After graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, she had ambitions to become a Shakespeare scholar – “because it was literature that I loved” – but said others dissuaded her from following this. Classes. “It was in the late 1970s, and people who looked like me weren’t encouraged to go into Shakespeare studies.”

Ozeki got acquainted with the world of cinema from someone she saw at the time and started working for a low-budget production company. “The director’s realm before that was male gay porn, so it was his first legitimate movie, called Matt Riker: Mutant Hunt,” she explains. “It was very disorganized, and a week before production, they realized they forgot to hire an art director. They looked around the room and I was the only one doing nothing, and they pointed at me. I had never set foot on a film set before; I had no idea what an art director was. But they told me what to do, and I made a whole series of films with them: Breeders, Necropolis, Robot Holocaust… ”, she laughs, before adding in a neutral tone:“ This is no ‘was not a great fit. ”Subsequently, Ozeki landed a job at a Japanese production company, working with the artistic director of legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa on a commercial for Sapporo beer (“ Cyndi Lauper was the star, and she was riding on a pink elephant ”), as well as many TV shows and movies.

But all this time, Ozeki knew she still wanted to write – and it was the work in the editing room that paved the way for her. “Writing was something I was trying to do, but I didn’t really know how to do it,” she explains. “Spending days and months turning hundreds of hours of footage into programs – that’s when I learned to tell a story succinctly, to manage a story arc.” She was awarded a Fellowship to Write a Screenplay and instead wrote her first novel, My Year of Meats, on meat industry media and politics, which won the 1998 Kiriyama Prize and the American Book. Award the same year. “Then I never looked back,” she says.

This was around the same time that she adopted the surname “Ozeki” (which was originally called “Lounsbury”) as a way of signaling her Japanese heritage to others when she broached questions. Asian identity in his work. “I wanted to make it clear that this was a background that I shared,” she explains.

“I grew up in a different time than today. When someone like me came to an interview, for example, and had my CV that said “Ruth Diana Lounsbury”, there was this visible shock. They looked at my face, they looked down, then they looked up. I’m sick of it. Unconventionally, Ozeki’s name belonged to one of her ex-boyfriends, “but it was a friendly breakup, and I always liked the name,” the writer says warmly. “It was short, easy to say and quintessentially Japanese. “

In The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ozeki pays homage to her dual heritage through protagonist Benny, who, like her, is East Asian and American; and also with references to Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, in which “it makes good sense for things to be animated and to have spirits”. she quotes Marie kondoThis is the method of thanking one’s belongings before throwing them away as “pure Shintoism”, setting an example that in Japan it is traditional not to throw away a needle or a pin if it is broken. “You bring it to the temple where they have a ceremonial tofu block, and you put your pin or needle in the tofu so it can have a sweet resting place,” she explains. “You do this out of gratitude because this needle has served you for so long.”

Ozeki began writing the book after her parents died, and the process of cleaning their house made her consider the emotional ways we attach to objects. She explores this through the character of Benny’s mother, Annabelle, who develops a hoarding problem – causing the voices Benny hears to become more and more cacophonous. “My parents were raised during the Great Depression so they never threw anything away,” she says. There is a scene near the end of the book where Librarian Cory describes an empty box her grandmother had, labeled “empty box”. “She can’t put anything in there because if she does, then she becomes what she isn’t – she has to remain an empty box,” said Ozeki, fondly remembering that she found that exact box in. her mother’s possessions, “labeled in both Japanese and English, just in case.”

When I tell Ozeki that The Book of Form and Emptiness reminded me to navigate the world as a child, anthropomorphize inanimate toys, and perceive every object with hyper-consciousness, his eyes s ‘illuminate. “I also remember that feeling, being small and feeling like everything was vibrant,” says Ozeki. “Everything has a will, everything has wants and needs. I wanted to capture this. Without a doubt, in doing so, Ozeki brings his spectacular book itself to life.

The 5 best reads of Ruth Ozeki by the authors of the ESEA

1 / Grocery woman by Sayaka Murata

“Eccentric, poignant, emotionless and calmly profound, Convenience Store Woman is one of my favorite recent novels from Japan. It’s a gift for anyone who’s ever felt at odds with the world – and if we’re being honest, most of us would.

2 / Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

“A calm and powerful story, told from the perspective of a homeless ghost. As Korean Zainichi (South Korean citizen, born in Japan), Miri observes Japan with a clear and precise outside eye.

3 / Mieko Kawakami’s breasts and eggs

“Mieko Kawakami is one of the many exceptionally talented young Japanese writers who are redefining Japanese literary fiction, especially in English translation. She writes without flinching about the female body, about what it is to be a woman in contemporary Japan.

4 / Han Kang’s Vegetarian

Han Kang is a South Korean writer who won the Man Booker International Prize, with her translator Deborah Smith, for this remarkable novel about a Korean woman who stops eating meat and moves away from her family and her world . Like Kawakami, Han explores themes of the body, violence, family, feminism, and mental illness.

5 / Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

“I’m cheating a bit here, because I haven’t read Interior Chinatown yet, but I’ve heard such enthusiastic reviews of this dark-humored, spit-out, big-hearted novel from friends. that I felt compelled to include it. Yu, a screenwriter for breakthrough TV shows like Westworld, tells the story of a full-fledged young actor Willis Wu, who tries to navigate Asian male stereotypes and succeed in Hollywood. It’s at the top of my pile of “to read,” and I can’t wait! “

“The Book of Form and Emptiness” by Ruth Ozeki is available for purchase now. BUY NOW

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