Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker – and Zen Buddhist priest. Her books are well-loved for dealing with concerns of science and technology, religion, environmental politics, and popular culture using unique and hybrid narrative styles.

Her debut novel, My Year of Meats, was published in 1998. Her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being (2013), won the LA Times Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness (2021), tells the story of a young boy who, after the death of his father, starts to hear voices and finds solace in the companionship of his very own book. It is the winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction as well as the 22nd Annual Massachusetts Book Award, the BC Yukon Book Prize, and the Julia Ward Howe Prize for Fiction.

Her work of personal non-fiction, The Face: A Time Code (2016), was published by Restless Books as part of their essay series called The Face.

Ozeki’s documentary and independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, and at colleges and universities across the US. Also a longtime Buddhist practitioner, Ruth was ordained in 2010 and is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation.

At the 2023 Jaipur Literature Festival, Ozeki spoke to about her faith, the important exercise of looking at one’s face, the deep relationship one forms with personal belongings, and more. Excerpts from the conversation.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to write My Year of Meats, a novel about the American meat-exporting industry and woman/motherhood?
Before I started writing novels, I was a filmmaker. I started out working as an art director for low budget horror movies, and then later I started producing and directing Japanese TV shows. I was interested in the way that commercially sponsored television represents – or distorts – reality, in order to sell products, and I wanted to write a novel set in this world.

The protagonist of the novel, Jane Takagi-Little, is a documentary filmmaker, who gets a job making a reality TV series of cooking shows called My American Wife. The series is sponsored by a US meat export lobby group that is trying to break into the Japanese meat market and sell American meat to Japanese housewives.

This was a job that I once had, and novel was based on my own real-life experience, although most of the plot and what happens to Jane is fictional.

This novel was published under a pseudonym. Can you tell us why?
Yes, “Ozeki” is a pen name. At the time when the novel was in pre-production, my father was dying. He came from a very conservative and religious family, and while he was happy for me and supportive of the idea of the novel, he never read it himself. He knew that there were scenes that he wouldn’t like, and he was afraid it might offend his family, and so I decided to publish under a pseudonym so he wouldn’t worry. Once I started publishing under Ozeki, I liked it! It gave me a sense of freedom I’d never felt before as a writer.

You return to a similar agribusiness concern in All Over Creation. Here you bring to light how bioengineering aggressions affect a farmer and his family. The book came nearly six years after your debut novel. What was it about the food-producing industry that fascinated you so much?
There’s that old saying, “you are what you eat.” Food says so much about identity, but if we are what we eat, and so much of what we eat is produced in ways that are unsustainable and dangerous to our health and the health of the planet, what does that mean about who we are and who we are becoming? This second novel, too, is about reality and representation, only this time it’s not about meat and commercial media, but instead about potatoes and public relations.

I’m also interested in the names in A Tale for the Time Being. Nao (pronounced ‘now’) and Ruth. How important are the characters’ names to your stories?
Names are absolutely crucial! I love naming characters. Sometimes the names come to me immediately, but often I need to wait until I get to know the character before the right name comes. Often the names I choose are significant in some way, and this was the case for Nao’s name. Ruth was both more complicated and more straightforward. She is an autofictional character, who resembles me so much that the reader is forced to wonder if she is, in fact, meant to be me, and by extension to wonder if the novel is really fictional.

In other words, Ruth disrupts the fictional world of the novel. This was not a narrative strategy I employed lightly. It took me about eight years to decide to put the character of Ruth in the novel, but once I did, of course her name had to be Ruth.

What wass it like staring at your own face for three hours in the mirror – an experiment you write about it in – The Face: A Time Code? Would you recommend the activity to writers or anyone else for that matter?
Well, I would say it was very interesting, not at all easy, and if others feel compelled to do the exercise, to proceed at their own risk. I had been commissioned to write the piece for a series of essays titled “The Face”, written by writers on the subject of their faces. The deadline had passed, and I was desperate for some structure to follow for the essay. I am a meditator, and so the idea of contemplating an object in a meditative way is a natural way of approaching a problem. And although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out that starting in the 13th century, “mirror Zen” was a practice that used to be performed by Zen nuns.

How do you deal with grief? How do you view the objects around you especially the deep relationship we often develop with them? After all, these are the topics you deal with in The Book of Form and Emptiness.
Grief is hard. When my parents died, I had to clean out their house and get rid of all their things…and they had a lot of things! I found it so painful to throw these things away, and it was the little things like my father’s old handkerchiefs, and my mother’s torn pyjamas or her favorite sweater that caused me the most pain. I had to do it. I’m an only child, so I had no choice. I don’t think I did it very skillfully, though.

I decided to do it quickly, like pulling off a band aid, and although I took pictures of some of the special things I didn’t want to forget, the whole experience seems like a blur. If I had to do it again, I would do it more slowly and carefully. I think that way would have helped me feel my grief rather than suppress it. I think I would have been able to appreciate the strong feelings I had.

You are the newest winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Is the publishing industry more eager to embrace women writers now, especially those of colour or multiple identities?
The publishing industry has been embracing women writers for a long time, largely because so many readers are women, and “Mainstream Women’s Fiction” is such a huge marketing category, and the books that fall into this category are written by women. The problem is that Mainstream Women’s Fiction is seen as “commercial” and not “literary,” which can be frustrating for women writers who want to be taken seriously.

I do think that recently the industry has become very enthusiastic about embracing books by writers of colour and multiple identities, many of which are written by women, and these books seem able to bridge the commercial-literary divide in interesting ways. The Women’s Prize is a very powerful and positive influence in shaping the literary landscape. By supporting serious literature written by women, the Prize is helping to reverse these biases against women’s fiction.

Ruth Ozeki with her book "The Book of Form and Emptiness" that won the 2022 Women's Prize for Fiction. | Picture credits: Ruth Ozeki on Instagram.

You are also a Buddhist Zen priest. In what ways has your faith influenced your writing?
On a practical level, I think my Zen practice has helped me become a more thoughtful and patient person. I used to be terribly impatient…actually, I still am…but through Zen practice, I’ve learned to work with my impatience and turn it into something useful. Most writers I know are impatient. There’s a saying that “Writers don’t want to write, we want to have written”, and I think this is true. Writing is hard. When I start a novel, I know very little about it, and I really, really want to know!

Sometimes I have to remain in this state of not-knowing for years, and this requires patience. But impatience is useful, too, because if I wasn’t impatient, I wouldn’t get anything done. So the trick is to find that place of generative tension between patience and impatience, between knowing and not-knowing, and learn to relax and hang out there, even when it gets uncomfortable, because this place of generative tension is where the good work gets done. I think this is true for anything in life.

In your question, you use the word “faith” which I think is important. In Buddhism we don’t have faith in a deity, but rather faith in a set of philosophical principles and practices that help us live with more awareness and compassion. These principles and practices apply to both life and to literature, and so in that sense, I don’t really see much of a separation between my Zen practice and my writing practice. The forms are different, but the heart is the same.

Is there a book (or an author) you turn to when you are not in the best spirits?
I love rereading books I read when I was a child. Recently I reread Pride and Prejudice, because Austen always cheers me up. But I also read books about Buddhism and Zen, and particularly books by my Zen teacher, Norman Fischer. They open my mind and help me remember that spirits are like weather, sometimes they are good and sometimes they are bad, but they always change.

Ruth Ozeki (L) in conversation with Bee Rowlatt at the 2023 Jaipur Literature Festival. | Picture credits: Jaipur Literature Festival on Instagram.