“When I was the age of my protagonists, I was a mess. I was suicidal, depressed, and anxious and survival came through writing. If you suffer and you are a writer, it gives you something to write about. I just cannot think of any literary work that does not involve suffering,” Ruth Ozeki, winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction for ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’ and Man Booker Prize shortlisted author (‘A Tale for the Time Being’), tells IANS.
Also a Soto Zen Buddhist, Ozeki, who teaches Creative Writing at Smith College in the US, started practicing Zen, around the same time when writing happened to her, the two practices ‘grew up’ together. Admitting that initially she thought them to be separate but slowly realised that they supported each other in a deep symbiotic way.
“And both require inward looking from the practitioner. Meditation is looking deep inside and releasing a sense of self, something that fiction writing is. The characters are not me, but a part of me too. I feel they are like aspects of the same practice,” says the author, who is attending the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival organised by Teamwork Arts.
For someone who believes in ‘entering’ writing through sense, Ozeki teaches her writing students how to meditate. She says that even though we think about meditation as something we do with our mind, it is like a physical practice — and something done with the body.
“My feeling is if students overthink — when they just focus on the mind, it does not really work. The reason fiction communicates with readers is that it is an embodied experience. A lot of students get fixated only on the sense of sight, but I try to get them to practice with the different senses.”
Born to a Japanese mother and American father, who met at Yale University, the author recalls being ‘different’ with both of them, and she would code switch, something that has helped with her fiction too.
Writing has always been a redemptive and healing process for her. “When I set out to write a book, it is because something has happened to me or something that I have done has caused much grief. Remorse can be a wonderful place to start writing from,” she feels.
The author of ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’ feels emptiness is ‘sunyata’ the former is not really a great translation of the latter. For her, emptiness is the understanding that everything is transient and impermanent, that we do not have a fixed identity and are always changing, and is in fact dependent arising.
Ozeki, who as a teenager suffered anxiety and depression, talking about the character Benny (‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’) who hears voices feels it would be really helpful for young people to see mental illness presented in a way that offers them alternatives to the psycho-pharmaceutical biomedical model.
“We talk about it as mental illness, but I prefer to think about it as psychic diversity. After all, we all have depression; underlying or not. However, in America, it is not alright to suffer, and you need to ‘fix it’. But depression is a sane way to respond to things, no? I feel youngsters need to be assured that suffering is part of human nature, it is just one part of the spectrum of emotions and does not necessarily need to be fixed, but be worked with.”