Being in Time: Prof. Ruth Ozeki’s Novel Is 2016 Summer Reading Choice

Ruth Ozeki ’80, Smith’s Elizabeth Drew Professor of English Language and Literature, keeps a “digital scrap” on her computer to remind her of the inspiration for her imaginative 2013 novel, A Tale for the Time Being.

“It says ‘My name is Nao, and I am a time being,’” Ozeki said. “The voice of this young girl announced itself to me and became the driving force behind my book.”

Ozeki’s novel, a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, is this year’s summer reading choice at Smith. The story centers on three generations of women: Nao, an American teenager living in Tokyo who is being bullied at school; her great-grandmother, Old Jiko, a Buddhist nun; and Ruth, a novelist, who finds Nao’s diary when it washes up on a remote beach after the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

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Through their interwoven stories, Ozeki’s work explores ideas such as the purpose of writing, Buddhism and the mysterious nature of time. The first few pages of A Tale for the Time Being and a video interview with Ozeki are online.

This is the second time a book by Ozeki has been selected for the campus-wide Smith Reads program. In 2000, her novel My Year of Meats was the college’s summer reading selection.

Ozeki—who is currently at work on a new novel—will read from A Tale for the Time Being Monday, Sept. 5, at 7 p.m. in John M. Greene Hall. The event is free and open to the public. Book discussions will be held in student houses Tuesday, Sept. 6, from 7 to 8 p.m.

Smith’s Staff Council Diversity Committee is also hosting a brown bag lunch discussion with Ozeki on Monday, Sept. 19, at noon in the Alumnae House Conference Hall.

Here are some reflections Ozeki shared recently about her book.

What does it mean that Nao, the teenage girl in your novel, is a “time being?”

Ozeki: “That phrase ‘time being’ comes from my study of Zen and refers to the idea idea that time is being and being is time. So meditation is simply the practice of being in time; noticing what that feels like and not running away. The title of the book plays with this idea. A Tale for the Time Being can be read as a tale for now, for this particular moment. Or you can interpret it as a tale for time beings—in other words, for us. It’s a bit of a pun.”

Nao’s voice is the one you heard when you began your book. Were the voices of the other characters also there from the start?

Ozeki: “The other voices took much longer. Nao’s voice was very clear from the start. I knew she was a young girl and was writing in a diary. It was also clear that she was writing for a particular reader. But she didn’t know who that reader was going to be—and neither did I. That mystery—the identity of the character of the reader—took me four or five years to solve. I started writing the novel in 2006, and it took me until 2011 to discover that Nao’s reader was a novelist named Ruth—she was me! The realization was triggered by the reality of the tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011. The tsunami broke the real world, and it broke the fictional world of my book. I realized the only way I could write the novel was if I stepped in as a real character and spoke directly to the events of 3/11.”

How much did you end up changing your novel in response to the tsunami?

Ozeki: “A lot! I threw about two-thirds of the book away, maybe about 400 pages, and started again from the beginning. In May of 2011, I began writing all of the Ruth sections, and much of the ending of the book, too. I finished the novel in November—the process went quickly once I realized what I needed to do.”

What does your book say about history?

Ozeki: “I’m fascinated by the field of agnotology, the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt or disinformation. This also includes the study of what’s missing—the holes and gaps in our historical record. Not surprisingly, this is a field pioneered by feminist scholars who are aware of the places where women’s voices are missing. In my novel, the great-grandmother’s life story is a casualty, like so many other women’s stories. That’s also the case with the kamikaze pilots of World War II. We just don’t hear their stories. War is also a time of disinformation. As a novelist, this is the kind of inquiry I’m drawn to.”

Your book also takes on tough issues of suicide and bullying.

Ozeki: “Yes. Growing up as a person of mixed race heritage in the U.S., I experienced some prejudice and bullying—both subtle and not so subtle. I grew up with a sense of not fitting in. But bullying is something I’d been very aware of in Japan, too, where the problem is widely recognized. People talk about it there; whereas in this country it’s only very recently that we’ve begun to talk about bullying. But talking is an important first step in addressing the problem. I admire the schools and colleges that choose to use my book for summer reading programs. They have a lot of faith in their students, and they’re willing to look at difficult issues, rather than look away.”

How do you feel about having a second novel selected for Smith’s summer reading?

 Ozeki: “Honestly, I can’t think of anything that makes me happier. I’m really thrilled that I’m going to be able to welcome members of the incoming class on September 5. As an alumna, it’s personal because my time at Smith was so important. When I came here, I didn’t know what I wanted, but I felt I could try different things. Smith provided a safe container where I could discover who I am and what I love. Every blind alley I went down ended up being incredibly important—and that’s one of the things I learned at Smith, how to make mistakes and learn from them. This has helped me tremendously as a novelist. Writing a novel is one mistake after another, one blind alley after another. Writing is also a way forward, and that’s what Nao learns. I hope her story serves as an inspiration. When you’re young, you feel tremendous joy, and you also confront tremendous challenges. Learning to face into your joys and challenges is what life is about.”