Well Read: The Book of Form & Emptiness

Ruth Ozeki
(Canongate, 560pp, £18.99, hb)
Helen Brown

In the year after Ruth Ozeki’s father died, she heard him call her name “softly, just behind my right ear, about five or six times.” It was something that happened while she was quite relaxed: in the bath, washing dishes or folding laundry. She knew who it was because “he had a very distinctive way of clearing his throat. That would come first. Then he would say my name. I would look around and, of course he wouldn’t be there. But in that flash of a moment, it felt like he was there. And who knows? Maybe he was. We don’t know. It’s not something I necessarily believe in, but if I’d been raised in another culture then perhaps I wouldn’t have questioned the idea.”

Ozeki’s fifth book, The Book of Form and Emptiness, is dedicated “to my dad, whose voice still guides me”. And the novel’s twelve-year-old hero, Benji, also hears disembodied voices, which begin breaking into his thoughts shortly after his father is killed in a ridiculous collision with a truck full of live chickens. Feathers everywhere. Within days of the accident, Benji begins hearing the voices of inanimate objects. First his father’s coffin. Later he’ll be addressed by limp lettuce and sad Christmas baubles.

Instead of pathologising Benji, Ozeki invites us to admire his sensitivity. As a Soto Zen priest, who considers writing to be a form of meditation, she was inspired by a Buddhist riddle that asks: “Do insentient beings speak the dharma?” She encourages readers to try listening to objects in our own homes, starting with the one in their hands.

Shhh… Listen!” she writes. “That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you. Can you hear it? It’s okay if you can’t though. It’s not your fault. Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.” For the beginner, she suggests trying to catch the voice of a pencil. “Pencils have stories inside them, and they’re safe so long as you don’t stick the point in your ear. Just hold it next to your head. Can you hear the wood whisper? The ghost of the pine? The mutter of the lead?”

Talking to me via Zoom from across the Atlantic, 65-year-old Ozeki often closes her eyes as she seeks out truthful answers to my questions. It’s like interviewing a serene sea turtle. So when I ask where the character of Benji came from I spend a few seconds gazing at her resting eyelids before she tells me about losing her father, anthropologist Floyd Lounsbury, in 1998.

When I ask how this experience led into the new book, Ozeki’s smooth, peachskin shutters descend again. “I was doing an event at a library about my last book [the Booker-shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being] and I was talking about how characters come to me as voices, when a middle-aged man in the audience raised his hand. He asked if I heard those voices with my ear – outside of my head – or inside my mind. I said that with fictional characters it was the latter, but I had to tell him that I’d had the other experience about my dad so I really knew the difference.”

At that point, the man in the audience said that his son heard voices. He told Ozeki that his son’s voices were “very harsh and critical”. Ozeki understood. She still had “those from the inside” voices telling her she had no talent, that she should “get a proper job”. And the experiences she had after her father’s death meant she could “very clearly imagine what it would feel like to hear those voices ON THE OUTSIDE.”

Ozeki reminds me that “historically, many successful people – including Freud and Jung – heard voices. So did Gandhi and Joan of Arc. There are people who exist peaceably with their voices and find them to be a source of comfort and company. A lot of children hear voices. It’s not uncommon, it’s just not often recognised or understood. In children’s animation, all kinds of objects speak. Sponges flip burgers. They’re encouraged to imagine everything is animate.”

Ruth Ozeki

Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1956, Ozeki is an only child who grew up projecting personalities onto the stuff around her, such as pens and buttons. A favourite game, called “The Crazy Egg Factory”, involved scooping up mud and sculpting it into ovoids, which she lined up in rows. “Then just smashing them!” she laughs. “Clumps of earth can be wonderful toys and you don’t have to feel bad about destroying them. They were just dirt.”

But as the daughter of an American father and a Japanese mother, she was the target of racist bullying. In her second novel, All Over Creation (2004), a character who shares her ethnicity reports feeling like “a random fruit in a field of genetically identical potatoes.” At seventeen, Ozeki had a breakdown “triggered by stress from the bullying and some really inappropriate behaviour that I don’t want to talk about.”

She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for six weeks. “It was traumatic being on the locked ward. But I also had a lot of fun. There was a sense of conspiracy among the inmates, playing tricks on the nurses and pretending to be crazy. But I was heavily medicated which wasn’t great and I realised that I would do whatever it took to ensure I never went back there. I never did. But Benji’s experience on a psychiatric ward is somewhat based on my own.”

Although Ozeki began trying to write novels while studying literature in the US and Japan she tells me she “struggled to move stories along” until she landed a job as an art director on a series of sci-fi films in her twenties, with names like Robot Holocaust and Mutant Hunter. “I learned momentum in the editing suite. I use a lot of film technique in my writing: montage, jump cuts, reverse shots.”

Ozeki found Buddhism in her 30s, when she used meditation to help her quit smoking. She was in her 40s when she dropped her father’s surname – Lounsbury – and took Ozeki from an ex-boyfriend as a way to flag her Asian heritage. She won a grant to write a screenplay but used the money to work on her first novel. Published in 1998, the witty and provocative My Year of Meats, (about the dark side of agribusiness) won the Kiriyama Prize and the American Book Award.

Her father didn’t read the novel. Ozeki says that as a social conservative he probably wouldn’t have liked the sex and swearing. Although he would have enjoyed the critique of capitalism. She tells me that emptying her parents’ home after their deaths fed into her new novel’s obsession with objects. “They had a lot of stuff,” she says. “I found it easy to get rid of some things, but it was excruciating parting with other items. I still have a box which my mother had labelled ‘empty box’ in both English and Japanese.”

In The Book of Form and Emptiness, Benji’s mother deals with her grief by hoarding. She has a complicated relationship with a book called Tidy Magic, a fictional version of Marie Kondo’s decluttering manual. In other interviews Ozeki has described Kondo’s philosophy of thanking objects before throwing them away as “pure Shintoism”.

Before our video call, I imagined Ozeki living in minimalist bliss. But the home she shares with her second husband – environmental artist Oliver Kellhammer – is cosily decorated with books and globes on the shelves. She tells me: “It seems like there’s so much stuff that’s needed to live a life these days. I find that very troublesome. I have a terrible weakness for fountain pens. They unlock stories so it makes sense to me to have a lot of those. But I like to take a small suitcase to a monastery and live out of that for a month and realise I’m perfectly happy. I come home determined to get rid of things and then… what do I do with these?” she waves DVDs of her old sci-fi films at the camera. “I’m never going to watch them! And yet!”

I tell Ozeki that the act of writing novels – especially novels as complex and ludic as hers – seems quite un-Buddhist. “I know!” she laughs. “Here I am writing about clutter and now there are thousands more of my books out in the world! There is an idea that Buddhists should be writing simple haikus. But life is complicated. Writing is how I can make sense of it.” She extends her hand towards me, palm up, and then snaps her fingers together. “A lot of the time we’re trying to grab onto things, experiences. What I’ve learned from Buddhism and from writing is to relax that grasp.” Her fingers open slowly like petals. Her palm floats on my screen like a lily. “If you open up and wait, the thoughts can come and go. You don’t need to grab onto ideas or characters or what you want to happen.” She smiles her turtle smile again. “It really works.”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

Arts & Culture

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