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Japan Tsunami Debris Washed Ashore Inspires Ruth Ozeki's Latest Novel

January 22, 2014 1:32 p.m.


Ruth Ozeki, author, A Tale For the Time Being

Related Story: Japan Tsunami Debris Washed Ashore Inspires Ruth Ozeki's Latest Novel


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. A couple of years after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011, people the West Coast continue to be startled by the debris of the quake turning up on our shores. And that's from houses and added votes and even personal possessions make the long voyage across the Pacific to wind up in the hands of strangers on another continent. The idea that journey spark the imagination of author Ruth Ozeki, a piece of tsunami degree debris is a catalyst for her novel, ìthe Tale of the Time Being.î I spoke with Ruth earlier today, and here's that interview.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ruth, tell us what kind of debris is washed up on the Vancouver shore in your novel, and who finds it.

RUTH OZEKI: The debris that gets washed up on the shore is actually a Hello Kitty lunchbox, and it is discovered by a woman who is living in this remote area called Desolation Sound British Columbia, which was a novelist named Ruth.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Who owns this Hello Kitty lunchbox?

RUTH OZEKI: The Hello Kitty lunchbox is actually kind of a mysterious lunchbox, inside of it Ruth finds the lunchbox and unpacks it and discovers a bunch of different things, including a stack of letters, an old wristwatch and a diary that is hidden inside a copy ìIn Search of Lost Time.î The dairy has been written by a sixteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl and in the diary she is this declaring that she will tell the life story of her great-grandmother who is a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun. She attempts to do this but of course she get so distracted by her own life that she is ends up writing about her own life instead.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I heard that you had the idea for sixteen the-year-old Nao and that was argued your mind, but that you decided to make a travel on the tsunami so to speak to the hands of this Canadian writer, why did that travel speak to you?

RUTH OZEKI: I always knew that the diary would be discovered by someone, someone who would read the diary and then sort of form a remote relationship with Nao through the reading of the diary, and took me a long time to figure out who that person would be, and in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, I realized that and when I realize that this to be field would be crossing the Pacific, and washing up on a coastline here, I suddenly realized that this is a way that I could really include the earthquake and tsunami and the meltdown of Fukushima in the story, this was something that was of great concern to me, in the wake of all of these disasters. It was something that a very much wanted to do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And a character who finds the Hello Kitty lunchbox is a writer named Ruth and you are a writer named Ruth, the character has many similarities with you, is this an autobiographical character?

RUTH OZEKI: I would say definitely yes, it was an interesting situation with the earthquake and tsunami in the meltdown at Fukushima happened, it was almost as if the reality of these catastrophes was so insistent and so large and so devastating that in a way it kind of broke the fictional container of the book, and a novel is a fiction and when reality intrudes like this, you have to allow that to happen and that is when I decided to almost step into the fiction myself as a character and by doing so, it'd allow me to speak directly and respond directly to these events.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Also to guide the journey of the reader.

RUTH OZEKI: Yes, I think that is a journey that I was taking on as well and it was definitely what was important to me to write about, and I also realized that this reality was not going to go away anytime soon, something like Fukushima is the half-life of the disaster like this is huge, and I really wanted to be able to address that and invite readers to think about it as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you find out early on in the diary that now is planning to end her life and I'm wondering, should we believe that this is a real intention to commit suicide or is this an emotional outburst of a teenager?

RUTH OZEKI: It's hard to tell and when we are teenagers we think about these things and I certainly did when I was a teen, and we're still tried to figure out what it is to be alive, we're also trying to sort of explore the edges of our own agency, around power, and now is can tending with some very difficult things and being terribly bullied in school, and she feels quite powerless and it's quite natural and those of circumstances to reclaim power over her own life and death and yes she is contemplating suicide which is also creating a situation where I have decided to tell the life of her great grandmother and so, it away as long as she can continue to write, she will be okay. She is discovering the power of writing as a survival tool.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is the time being that you refer to in the book and in the book's title a tale for the time being?

RUTH OZEKI: It is based on some essays written by a thirteenth century Zen master, and he wrote an essay he has written extensively and he has written one essay particularly translated either called the time or time being or for the time being, and so I've been studying these essays and they picked up on the term and I thought it was an interesting term depending on how you pronounce it, he can either mean something like for now, working mean by switching the emphasis slightly you can refer or hereto as time being or human being were a being or something like that, that was interesting to me because when you think about it that is what we are we're time beings, beings who existed time we have a time limit and this is an interesting way to think about life, because I think by thinking about it this way we realize that we have to take life for seriously and we have to really use the time that we have allotted to us and in this good way, so it is part of the expiration of the novel.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Ruth Ozeki, the author of a tale for the time being, and to take upon what you have been saying, the look really place around with the idea of time and how we use it, and early on in the book Nao writes that she is hearing music, but when we read about it it will be in the past and I wonder if you'll want to send this novel to think more than we actually do on a daily basis about the illusory nature of time.

RUTH OZEKI: Is something that I think about us a lot a lot and it is one thing that as a writer and very aware of and what we write novels in a way or write any book it's like an act of time travel, you cast your words out into the world and you don't know where or when they will be picked up by Richard reader, seared the sort of speaking across time to your reader, this is something I think about quite a bit am also a Zen practitioner and I practice Buddhism and one of the main practices that we do it Buddhism is meditation, and that is simply the practice of being in time. You sit on your cushion and you simply are, that is what meditation is, that is something else that it was investigating as I was writing this book, I was thinking about how this is a practice that has been helpful to me, and it is the practice of really investigating what it is to simply be, simply to be a time being as it were.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As it turns out, Nao's grandmother is a Zen Buddhist Nun and the purpose of Nao's diaries to tell the story of her great-grandmother who taught her Buddhist lessons. Can you give us a taste of what those lessons are like?

RUTH OZEKI: The hundred and four-year-old is an anarchist feminist Zen Buddhist Nun, she gives these tiny little bits of Buddhist philosophy to her great-granddaughter and I think that one of the things that she does is teach Nao as a teenager is suffering and she trained her to find the resilience and patience encouraged to sit with the difficult decisions confronting with her life, but she is also giving very lovely little lessons to her daughter about patients and about non-duality and attachment and interconnectedness of all of these lovely previous propositions that kind of infuse the book zazen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so zazen is meditation?

RUTH OZEKI: Yes zazen is sitting meditation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The book has been nominated for several awards, you are the finalist for the book from the prizes and the national book critics circle award, what significance do these awards have for you as a working writer? What does it mean to get on these lists?

RUTH OZEKI: It's a complicated question even though it appears to be a simple one, the list are very important for publishing industry, and they help create interest in books, and of course that is a wonderful thing, and in the think that sort of generates more in trust among readers for that just the books that are listed but books in general, think there is a kind of excitement that gets generated throughout the industry and is wonderful and helps bookstores all of that, but as an author I really understand the value of prizes and I think they're great. It is a reader and a writer, I have to take a more all-inclusive view of the process of what it is that I do. I know that I read all of the books on the Booker shortlist and every single one of those books deserved to win the prize, they were wonderful books but upon what the price is one books when and the rest lose, and is it a winner or loser dichotomy, or duality is suppose, that does not strike me as representing what reading is all about, because the wonderful thing about creating is that there are seventy books and so many readers, there's room for everyone as a reader that is my feeling, and as a writer basically I have to forget about all of this completely when I sit down to write.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I would understand that entirely. My last question to you is about the way that the book ends and I don't want you to give anything away, but there is a mystery here, that Ruth is trying to unravel and she's trying to figure out where this girl is or who she is, and what it all means, is the unraveling of that mystery with a resolution of that mystery, does that bring satisfaction to Ruth?

RUTH OZEKI: Yes it does, and it is difficult to talk about with giving things away, but I think that in the end truth is very satisfied with the outcome of her inquiry, and she has satisfied herself as to the fate of the girl, so it say that yes it is certainly brought to closure for her.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we will leave it there, I will like to let everyone know that Ruth Ozeki will be at Warwick's Books in La Jolla tomorrow and she will be talking about her book ì A Tale for the Time Being, thank you so much for coming and spending the time to speak with us.