Ruth Ozeki in Vancouver, BC with the Vancouver Observer: bullying the big wave

Photo by Jenny Uechi

Ruth Ozeki had just finished writing a novel about a Japanese teenager, when everything about Japan changed. It was March 2011, and a powerful earthquake and ensuing tsunami shook up the country, and shook up Ozeki’s story as well. She couldn’t publish it without changing something, because Japan was completely changed, and so was the world. 

Her husband, Oliver, came up with the solution: she should step into the book as a character herself.

Clearly his suggestion paid off, as Ozeki was telling a Vancouver audience about this creative roadblock Tuesday evening at the BC book launch of her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being. Soft lighting and easy jazz music at Mount Pleasant’s Anza Club set the tone for a relaxed evening of conversation with the author.

Ozeki’s novel features a stranger reading the diary of a teenage Japanese girl, Nao. The author had struggled to create a character to serve as the reader, so the tragic but serendipitous tsunami presented a solution.

The diary would be washed up on the BC coast, as debris washed out by the tsunami made their way across the Pacific. Ozeki realised she should be the one reading the diary, thus blurring the line between fiction and reality.

By suggesting that Ozeki include herself as a character, Oliver inadvertently threw himself into the book as well, as husband to the character in the book named Ruth. Like the real Ruth, the character is a novelist living on Cortes Island in BC.

Ruth the character wasn’t the only one in the book who was partly based on Ozeki. The protagonist, Nao, struggles with being bullied, and confides in her 104-year-old great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun (and not just any nun, she clarifies, but an "anarchist, feminist, novelist nun", drawing laughs from the audience). Ozeki, who in 2010 was ordained as a Soto Zen priest, also suffered from bullying as a child.

“We have this idea that fiction is fiction. Wherever did we get that idea?” she told the audience.

Ruth Ozeki answering audience questions with Linda Solomon. Photo by Dave Wood.

At the start of the evening, Ozeki read out a few passages from her book. She likes to read aloud, having started years ago by reading aloud to the children of her longtime friend, Vancouver Observer publisher Linda Solomon. She lamented the fact that many publishers don’t want authors to do their own audiobook readings, preferring to hire professional readers. But she has a way to make sure they use her voice:

“If you throw enough Japanese into the text, they have to let you read it,” she joked. But it may well have been because of her warm and mellow reading voice.

After Ozeki read the passages, Solomon asked her a few questions onstage, before opening up the floor to audience questions. The first question was about the book’s discussion of suicide, and Ozeki explained how suicide is perceived very differently in Japan relative to North America.

The conversation then went through some other themes and motifs of the book, such as Buddhism, the internet, and the notion of a “time being."

The book’s opening passage sets up the concept of a time being, which refers to all people, as we all “live in time.” When asked what message her characters might give to young women like her protagonist, Nao, Ozeki drew from this motif. “We are all time beings; everything changes,” she said, stressing that however life might be today, it will change with time, and feelings will change.

Not only is Ozeki a highly-acclaimed author, she is also a smart and engaging speaker, so the audience gushed about Ozeki as they lounged in the Anza Club's comfortable chairs after the talk. There was a long line to meet the author and have her sign copies of A Tale for the Time Being, and plenty of guests stuck around for well over an hour afterwards.

The book launch kicked off The Vancouver Observer’s Salon Series, which features talks "at the intersection where politics, people and literature meet."

Photo by Anja Konjicanin 

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