A post-Fukushima masterpiece

READ IT by Bruce Mason

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki book cover
• “On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown drew a line that divided time,” says writer, filmmaker, Zen Buddhist priest and Common Ground reader Ruth Ozeki, who divides her time between New York City and Cortes Island.

“In BC, we look west across a big ocean in a post-Fukushima world,” she adds. “For much of the year, I live in an area that relies on the sea, shellfish and fishing and we all worry. In so many different ways, we are interconnected, especially on the Pacific Rim and it’s easy to forget how inextricably linked we are.”

The mega-earthquake and 40-metre-high waves swept 10km inland, killing 20,000 people, displacing another 300,000, moving Japan 2.5 metres closer to North America and causing a nuclear crisis with epic, ongoing, unknown impacts that have terrified the world ever since. The tragic, triple catastrophe also swept away five years of Ozeki’s work, a finished novel that she would re-write: A Tale for the Time Being, internationally acclaimed as a masterpiece, was short-listed last year for literature’s most coveted award, the Man Booker Prize.

Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki

“For several years, I had been studying time and being, reading Western philosophers and essays by Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Zen master,” she recalls. “My job as a writer is to pay attention to voices and in late 2006 I began hearing a troubled teenager in Tokyo trying to speak through a diary, with plans of committing suicide when it was finished.

“I wrote down, ‘Hi! My name is Nao and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. 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.’

“That stuck with me and I followed her life and ‘last’ task: to tell the story of her 104- year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a famous anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun,” Ozeki recalls. Needing a diary ‘reader’ in the novel, Ruth “auditioned” a handful of characters, “ushering” them into drafts of 50 to 100 pages until “the whole thing would lose energy and I’d realize, ‘Okay, that character isn’t right’ and start again. By the end of 2010, I actually finished a very, very different book including the ‘discovery’ of Noa’s diary in the Vancouver Public Library.

“After the tsunami, it really hit home that what I was submitting for publication was no longer relevant or even appropriate. I also realized that – metaphorically and realistically – this presented a tremendously resonant, multiracial and multicultural image. And one of the things that had begun to fascinate me was the debris – tragic remnants of so many people’s lives – that will wash up on our shores, a sad and beautiful way of talking about and clearly illustrating our interconnectedness.”

In a suddenly different world, with family and friends at the epicentre, Ozeki was glued to media through terrible days, weeks and months. “Reality intrudes,” her husband Oliver remarked, suggesting that she step into the book herself, reluctantly agreeing to play a very fictionalized role himself, along with their cat.

Ozeki says, “I realized that the only way to address or talk about this now present reality was to break the fictional container.” Ripping up more than half of the book, she spent months tearing into topics and providing profound, personal insights into cyber-bullying and Silicon Valley, Kamikaze pilots and quantum physics, from ancient and contemporary Japan, to island life in her new home where Noa’s diary would now wash ashore with equally mysterious artefacts.

Legions of fans, like myself, are awed by the arc of her remarkable career, through her award winning films, including Halving the Bones, to the widely hailed debut novel, My Year of Meats, a wildly subversive take on the beef industry, cultural differences, gender roles and sexual exploitation. Her warm and witty saga, All Over Creation, followed, in which she focused on agribusiness, environmental activism and community. But none of this celebrated work prepared anyone for the scope of the universally praised A Tale for the Time Being, now available in paperback.

“We can reflect on how deeply we depend on each other and the infinite number of ways we are connected. Our mutual interdependence is so vast and so deep that, in reality, we can’t live without each other. We can close our reflection by opening our hearts to the people of Japan and to resolve to end suffering and to live together… and in peace,” notes Ozeki.

She now spends less time in Manhattan, more in Desolation Sound, a universal voice from here, reaching out across cultures, time and space. Take advantage of any opportunity to hear the audio version of the book, narrated by the author, whose story-telling is spell-binding and satisfying, leaving so many of us wanting to hear much more.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

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