Zen Buddhist priest and novelist Ruth Ozeki transcends gender in her exploration of grief

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For about a year after Ruth Ozeki’s father died in 1998, she could clearly hear him calling her name while she was washing dishes or folding laundry.

The award-winning author, filmmaker and Soto Zen priest explored the grief-induced phenomenon of people hearing the voices of lost loved ones for his latest novel. ‘The Book of Form and Void’ follows Annabelle Oh and her teenage son, Benny, who begin to hear voices emanating from inanimate things – a rubber ducky, scissors and even glass – after the tragic death of her musician. japanese korean jazz father.

Courtesy of Viking

The book, Ozeki’s fifth, weaves together themes of loss, American consumerism, mental health, Zen Buddhist philosophy, and the transformative power of books and libraries.

“I was an only child, so the books were everything,” she told NBC Asian America. “They were my family, they were my playmates – they were just the world to me.”

The daughter of a Japanese linguist mother raised in Hawaii and a white American anthropologist father, Ozeki grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where she says there were few Asian Americans at the time. .

“Many of the fathers in the neighborhood had fought in [World War II] and they had a certain vision of what Asian women were for,” she said.

“I remember this old man who worked at the farm supply store nearby always called me Suzie after Suzie Wong. I didn’t know what the reference was, but I thought it was so cool, and I named all of my dolls Suzie because I thought it was special.

“The World of Suzie Wong” was a 1960 novel, play, and film starring Nancy Kwan playing a Chinese prostitute.

As a teenager, Ozeki suffered from anxiety and depression, which led to a stay in a psychiatric ward when she was 17. Books and writing helped her recover.

She attended Smith College – where she now teaches creative writing – spending her sophomore year in Japan and then trekked through the Himalayas. During the trip, while reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, she realized that she had to write fiction.

After earning degrees in English Literature and Asian Studies in 1980, Ozeki received a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education to pursue graduate studies in Classical Japanese Literature at Nara Women’s University.

While in Japan, she worked as a bar hostess, founded a language school, and studied Noh theater and mask carving. She returned to the United States and worked as an art director on low-budget horror films before embarking on directing documentaries for Japanese television.

Ozeki had drifted in and out of various meditative practices, but began to take Tibetan Buddhism seriously in the early 90s after his father suffered a severe heart attack. “It was the first time that I had a very strong awareness of illness, old age and death,” she said.

In 1994, she had directed her own film, “Body of Correspondence”, which aired on PBS, followed by “Halving the Bones”, an autobiographical film screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Realizing that writing was cheaper than filmmaking, Ozeki published her first novel, “My Year of Meats,” in 1998, when she was 42. Born Ruth Lounsbury, she took the pen name Ozeki – her friend’s surname – to better reflect her identity. and because it freed her as a writer.

His 2013 bestseller, “A Tale for the Time Being,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the LA Times Book Prize, among other awards.

She met poet and Soto Zen priest Norman Fischer in 2000. After practicing with him for about 10 years, she realized that Buddhism was becoming central to her life and she wanted to “help pass it on”.

Ozeki – who is married to environmental artist Oliver Kellhammer and divides her time between the remote island of Cortes, British Columbia and New York – was ordained a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010 and said her practice influences her writing countless ways.

“When I get impatient, which happens all the time, I know how to work with that impatience. I spend a lot of time not knowing what’s going to happen when I’m writing, so when it happens, I know how to m sit with it and not let it throw me off balance,” she said.

“A Tale for the Time Being” and “The Book of Form and Emptiness” are metafictional works that feature overtly Buddhist characters and teachings. Other Asian American authors, such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Lan Cao, and Emily XR Pan also incorporate Buddhist themes into their works, but Ozeki does not consider herself a pioneer of a new genre of Asian American Buddhist literature.

“Categories are more for academics, booksellers and librarians,” she said. “I’m not saying that, but for me, every time I find myself in a category, I want to break it.”

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