“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
—Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Lake Forest Reads: Ragdale is a community reads program in partnership with the Ragdale Foundation, Lake Forest College, and the Friends of Lake Forest Library. In most years, I engage a live conversation with the author in a keynote event at Lake Forest College. In 2017, I was absolutely delighted to do so with a writer of capacious insight and energy—Ruth Ozeki. As a graduate student in the late 1990s, I discovered Ozeki’s raucous My Year of Meats; I added the book to my dissertation list of expansive postmodern novels, and I taught it many times in my early years at Lake Forest College. The sardonic elegance of Meats is more than matched by the expansive entanglements of A Tale for The Time Being (2013), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and published in over thirty countries.
The book oscillates between the diary of 16-year old Nao, and a writer in British Columbia—the metafictional Ruth—who finds the diary washed upon the shore after the 2011 Japanese tsunami and Fukashima disaster.
Ozeki is currently working on a new novel, The Book of Benny Oh.
What follows is a transcript of our October 2017 conversation, edited for context and clarity.
Davis Schneiderman: I think of A Tale for the Time Being as a global novel. Obviously, part of the book is set in Japan and part of it is set in Canada, and I admire how you are bringing so many different elements together. The pieces of the book are swirling through the ocean, and you are finding the cast offs of one society inside another. This, perhaps, stands in opposition to a more-domestic type of American novel. Could you talk about the global vision of the text?
Ruth Ozeki: I did not start out to write a global novel, but you are right. It became global, and that’s because it reflects what my own life was like; I seem incapable of staying in one place for very long. I’ve lived in Japan, and in New York City, and on this little tiny island off the coast of British Columbia—in Whaletown—which is where the story is partially set, and now I live in Massachusetts. I can’t seem to write about a singular world in a singular voice. In this book there’s the voice of the little girl, Nao, and there’s the voice of Ruth; there is the voice of old Jiko, the grandmother, and there is Haruki and his diaries and letters. The world of the novel reflects my experience of the world, and as a mixed-race person, with a Caucasian father and a Japanese mother, the world has never been a singular place. It was always multiple. That gets translated into that the work.
DS: I like the way that you are embedding those multiple voices. The diary itself is a written form, and reading the written form distinguishes the sections: Ruth’s portion is written in the third person, and the diary portions are written in the first person, with one exception at the end of the novel, where you flip this expectation. But how much did you think about the way you were going to embed the diary, or discover that Ruth was, in fact, writing a diary?
RO: It was always a diary right from the start. But it was a huge diary because she was writing it with the reader in mind, and she was addressing a reader … And she had all the confidence of a young writer who would write this thing and cast it into the world, knowing the right reader would find it, pick it up, and read it. But I didn’t share her confidence. For me, I had to figure out who was going to be Nao’s Reader. Early on in the writing, I made a note of this. I always keep a process journal, where I write about the process of writing whatever it is that I’m working on at the time. It gives me a place to vent and complain and write down ideas.
So in my process journal there’s this little entry that says, “Ruth—I—should be the Reader, I should be Nao’s reader” and there was an exclamation point next to it. Then the next day’s entry in the process journal noted “No, that’s terrible idea!” It just seemed so meta-fictional, and tricky. But in the end—after auditioning five possible readers for the role, none of whom worked out—I returned to the idea of Ruth as Reader.
DS: I hope they went on to get parts elsewhere.
RO: Actually, it’s funny you should say that because it looks like they might. There was nothing wrong with them; they were good readers, but they just didn’t fit in this particular book.
DS: It’s interesting when you talk about the fact that you are Ruth and Oliver is Oliver, because I admit that when I first encountered the metafiction, I was immediately skeptical, because Kurt Vonnegut has been in the book by Kurt Vonnegut, ad nauseum.
RO: And it is such a guy thing to do. It is such a guy thing to put yourself in the book and I was like OMG I don’t want to do that …
DS: But I think you did it in such a deft manner that I never felt it has to be a mere device and I never caught myself thinking “Oh, is the real Ruth Ozeki like the Ruth in the book?” What I mean is that, as a reader. I always feel the distance between the two. And because the subject of the book is this kind of recursive time that falls in upon itself, it seemed thematically appropriate for me as a reader.
RO: And recursive “being” too. It is very much about time and being … It is something that I play with, and I did make a really heroic effort not to be in the book. I had pretty much forgotten about the idea of Ruth as Reader, as I was auditioning all of these others. I actually finished a draft of the book that was 600 pages, and I was about to turn it into my editor. I’d given it to my agent and I knew it had problems. I mean it wasn’t a very good draft but it was done.
DS: You sound like my students.
RO: Like my students too. So, I gave it to my agent and she agreed it wasn’t a very good book. And we were just about to send it on to my editor, hoping maybe she could help—she is a wonderful editor—and that was when the earthquake and tsunami hit: March 11, 2011. I had written this book that was set partly in Japan, and now the earthquake, the tsunami, and the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant had changed everything. It was like after 9/11. It took writers quite a while to figure out how to write about New York, because there was a pre-9/11 New York and then there was a post-9/11 New York. Nobody knew what the post 9/11 New York was going to be, right? In that sense, it created a rift in time that separated our experiences into pre- and post-.
The earthquake and tsunami in Japan did the exact same thing. It was a terrible time and we all spent those weeks and months after watching YouTube videos of the wave coming and wiping out towns and cities in Japan. And somewhere during this period I realized that the book that I had just finished writing was no longer relevant. It was no longer a viable book because I’d written a book that was a pre-earthquake and pre-tsunami and pre-Fukushima, and now we were living in a post- world. And that’s when I gave up and I withdrew the book and that was going to be the end of it, but Nao’s voice just kept coming back to me. Finally, it was Oliver who proposed a solution: he pointed out that the earthquake and tsunami had broken the very real world of Japan and it had also broken the fictional world of my book. I realized the only way to continue with the project was to allow the fictional world to stay broken. And the way to allow a fictional world to stay broken was to enter it myself as a semi-real character. That would mean that as you are reading the book you’re always kind of wondering, is this real or is this not? It allowed the brokenness to exist.
DS: If you tried to set the novel at Fukushima it would be very difficult, because the novel is not about this climate disaster but about the manner by which people far away view that disaster, and the critical distance you give—by locating this within Ruth and Oliver, who are far from it— becomes one pupil of the binocular focus.
RO: They are far from it. And we all have that experience more and more now as we live in a mediated world. We know what’s happening from the Internet, from YouTube and Facebook and social media. We know what’s happening everywhere. And as we sit behind our little screens and watch, as we watch the hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico, as we watch the fires in Sonoma … we just feel helpless. We feel paralyzed. It was that experience I wanted to express, of being trapped on this little tiny island on the edge of the universe, experiencing it all but not experiencing it at all—watching it and taking it in and trying to make sense of it.
DS: Yes. We have become passive viewers on the site of our slow extermination. Unless you can reclaim experience as your characters do, a novel will feel empty. One of the things that I want to delve into to explore that is this: Ruth is constantly forgetting that Nao has written in the past. Ruth is confused about this to the point: when we read a compelling book or watch a movie, we’re in it; we feel like we are in it. That becomes important later on with the dream at the end of the book. Could you tell us about what I read as Nao’s existential struggle to separate herself from the text?
RO: You’re a reader; I’m a reader. We’re all readers. We all know what it’s like to fall into the fictional world and to lose yourself in it completely. I wanted to evoke that, but it was tricky to write because you don’t want your reader to be aware that in fact they’re falling into the same time slip as the character. Then, there is the way that story works on us, the way that story does transport us and change us, so that a text written in the distant past can change us here and now, in the present. And this cause and effect goes in many directions, because the way that we imagine something here in the present can change what we experience as the past as well.
DS: This is a great segue to time and Zen and Proust, and we should see if if can just briefly cover all of it. Full disclosure: I’m a Proust enthusiast, although I can’t read French, and somewhere deep down the audience is saying “no, don’t talk about Proust!” Deep in In Search of Lost Time, Proust writes that a work of art creates the conditions of its own reception, in that a work may build an understanding audience over time. But Proustian time is important here. I think it’s related to Dōgen’s time.
RO: The novel started because I was reading Dōgen, the 13th-century Japanese Zen master. He wrote a wonderful but really baffling essay called “The Time Being,” where he puzzles through a fluidity of time, writing that time moves forward and it moves backwards and it spirals and moves in all directions. After sitting with this for a while, and thinking about it, I tried to parse that out in fictional terms: I wanted to have the book somehow perform that concept. The book is a kind of a performance of this idea of time moving in different directions, and Dōgen’s way of viewing time is kind of mind blowing, but it also made me keenly aware of how we think of time as being linear. The past is behind us, the future is in front of us, now, and we are a very progress-driven culture … so the future is ahead of us, right? But that’s very arbitrary; that is a very arbitrary and culturally bound way of perceiving time and in some Native American cultures or in Eastern cultures, time is not viewed that way. Time is much more fluid; it’s much more cyclical. And then there are other cultures who flip it completely and have a very different spatial sense of time. In our culture, we think of the past as being behind us. It’s over, and we’re moving ahead into the future. But the Aymara tribe in Peru, for example, views the past as being in front of you. The past is in front of you because you can see it. The future is behind you because you can’t see it. To think about time in a different spatial context changes the way I think you experience the moment.
DS: If the past is in front of you, there is no reason for me to pay my parking tickets.
RO: Or your tax return, that matters.
DS: Well, I haven’t paid taxes in many years. Proust is also playing with intensely personal time. He plays with the game in the book where it can take you longer to read about a party than to attend it. The scale of the texts expands upon time. I have never thought of Proust and Zen together with each other but you have linked them.
RO: You know one of the things is I think that Dōgen and Proust both do so brilliantly is to take a moment and then expand it. Dogen writes that in a single day, there are—I’ve forgotten the number, but I think it’s six billion nine hundred million moments … [Ed’s note: 6,400,099,980 moments].
The idea is that even in the snap of a finger, there are sixty-four moments, which expands the possibility of what can be done in a single moment. Dōgen’s point is that if a snap of a finger has sixty-four moments, that represents sixty-four opportunities to make a decision that will turn your life around.
You have sixty-four opportunities in a snap of the finger to make a decision that will produce beneficial karma and help the world. And it’s a very beautiful kind of thing. And Proust does a similar kind of thing, in that he will take a moment in a memory and then unpack it, and the moment just gets bigger and bigger, and you watch it, and you fall into it, and you watch it expand.
DS: It overwhelms you. We’re talking about moments and you’re talking about my favorite character from A Tale for the Time Being, Jiko. She’s 104. She’s a Zen monk and we know that during WWII she was an anti-war activist. Her son Haruki was a reluctant kamikaze pilot. Talk about where she came from, because I keep going back to her again and again.
RO: She’s witty. So that’s my mom. Her wit is totally my mom. That kind of deadpan—you never know quite when she’s joking or not. My mother had Alzheimer’s at the end of her life and she would say the most outrageous things. And then I would catch her smiling at me. She knew she had Alzheimer’s and she was just having me on. She would do this kind of thing all the time. So, there was a little bit of my mom in Old Jiko, and there was also a little bit of a wonderful Japanese nun Jakucho Setouchi. She was a novelist before she became a nun—I think she is 93 now—and she also is very funny and was very inspiring to me. At the age of 50, she had a bit of a breakdown, and that’s why she shaved her head and became a nun. She said at the time she was willing to give up writing. She knew she wasn’t going to be able to continue writing unless she could find a backbone, and, for her, ordination became the backbone. Zen practice was the backbone. Luckily, she continued to write, and she’s famous for translating The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese with a focus on female sexuality.
Earlier in her career she became infamous because she wrote about sex from woman’s point of view. This was considered very risqué and she was labeled a pornographer and got into all sorts of trouble and was scorned by the primarily male literary elite of the time. She struggled throughout her career and yet she managed to become ordained, and become an activist. After Fukushima, she went on a hunger strike to protest the reopening of nuclear reactors in Japan. She’s really wonderful and admirable and also very funny; she’s a funny woman. An interviewer once asked her, “Do you have any regrets about becoming a nun?” She thought about it, and responded: “Only one, if I knew that I was going to live this long, I would have waited.” Because, of course, nuns are celibate.
DS: There’s that great scene—perhaps like your mother’s sly smile—where Jiko and Nao are going to the convenience store and they are being bullied by the pack of girls. Nao, of course, wants to avoid these girls but Jiko walks over and gives a respectful bow and, ultimately, the girls bow back. Jiko thinks that they are boys with their brightly colored party gear. Yet I did have the suspicion that Jiko knew what was going on and that this is all just an elaborate act. I also like how you are talking about a kind of Zen tradition that includes social activism and humor.
Could you talk about the quantum? There is a very interesting connection between Zen and quantum physics and quantum mechanics. The smaller things get—maybe like the smallness of the snap—the less predictable the behavior. We cannot extrapolate from the laws of traditional physics, because the subatomic world is not predictable in ways we imagine we can measure. But Zen shares some ideas that are commensurate with that state. Are these two things linked for you?
RO: I have to say that Ruth in the book didn’t have a terribly good memory, and neither do I. But as I recall, the quantum element in the book was something that popped in at the end, as I was writing it. Oliver—that’s my husband Oliver—sent me an article by Rivka Galchen from the New Yorker about quantum computing, and it suddenly occurred to me that the character of Haruki #2 should be working in that field. I suddenly had to do this crash course in quantum theory. It was a very bizarre feeling because all of the pieces were laid in already, and it was almost like the book anticipated this article and had laid in all of the pieces on its own, without me. For example, of the imagery of the cat and Oliver in a box and Schrödinger’s Cat, and Dōgen and the idea of the multiverse…all of this was very much one part of the book already. The book was just waiting for the quantum element to drop in. This idea of the observer effect—the idea that by looking at something you change it—that’s what happens in the book when Ruth opens the diary and reads it, and ends up almost time travelling into the narrative, where she affects the outcome.
DS: And I love that the diary is a box, and that Schrödinger’s Cat is in a box. A nice thing about the quantum theory is that if you feel like your memory is not doing well here, there‘s another universe where you have perfect recall.
RO: Exactly. The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. And I also felt this pertains to the experience of writing and reading, too: I write a book and I send it out to the world. I am thinking, this is this is my book and I know what’s in it. This is my fictional world and I know it so intimately, or, at least I thought I did. But then I send it out to the world and you read it, right? At that point, collaboratively we have created a fictional world that is very different from the world I thought I wrote. It’s different from the world that I created, because it’s something that we co-created. But then it goes out further in the world, to other readers. Once again, the same thing happens and these universes just proliferate. Each reader creates a different tale for the time being. There are literally hundreds of thousands of tales for the time being out there, proliferating all the time.
Davis Schneiderman is Krebs Provost and Dean of the Faculty and Professor of English at Lake Forest College. He is the author or editor of more than 10 books: his first story collection, there is no appropriate #emoji will be released in May 2020, and his recent novels BLANK, the plagiarized novel [SIC], and the ink-smeared novel INK.; along with the novel Drain, a cli-fi dystopia story from Northwestern University Press. He co-edited the collections Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game. He was a long-time contributor for The Huffington Post, and has interviewed Sherry Turkle, John Waters, Regina Taylor, among others.