Ruth Ozeki: Women Authoring Change

By Hedgebrook Staff

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Ruth-Ozeki_WACprofile_2Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, filmmaker, Zen Buddhist priest and Hedgebrook alumna. We asked her about her work and about being a Woman Authoring Change.

 

Tell us about your work as a writer—do you write in multiple genres/forms?

I’ve written three novels, two screenplays, numerous essays, as well as two poems that aren’t great but aren’t too terrible, either. So yes, I do write in multiple genres, but the genre that I love best is long form fiction. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to write novels, but it took me almost forty years to figure out how. My first attempts after college were disastrous. I just couldn’t understand how to move my characters through a plot, and so the stories would just limp along, growing more and more boring and insipid, until finally they’d just shrivel and die. It wasn’t until I started working in film and television and learned how to edit sound and image that I figured out how to control narrative chronology and move a story efficiently through time. This was a huge breakthrough. But every novel is different, and while I’ve been lucky enough to write three of them, I would never presume that I’ll be able to write a fourth. I hope I can. I’d like to. We’ll have to wait and see.

 

Do you consider yourself an activist?

No, I don’t. I tend to shy away from labels like that. I try to keep up to date with global politics, I vote, I read about issues I care about, I sign petitions and refrain from supporting corporations whose labor or environmental policies I disagree with. But no, I’m not an activist.

 

Would you characterize your writing as activist? Why or why not?

Again, no, I don’t. It’s not up to me to characterize my writing. It’s up to me to write, and to let others do the characterizing.

I imagine some might characterize my novels, especially my first two, as having activist tendencies because they were concerned with the politics of food, but I don’t see them that way. My Year of Meats happened to be “about” the meat industry, but I wrote it in order to think about media and to mull over the nature of representation, authenticity, the “truth,” and who gets to tell it. I wrote about meat because I used to make TV shows sponsored by a meat lobby group, and I knew something about the industry. Similarly, All Over Creation, might be “about” GMOs and activism, but I wrote it in order to ask questions about our very human need to exert our will over nature, as well as to mull over the nature of representation, authenticity, the “truth,” and who gets to tell it. (It’s worth pointing out here that a novelist can write about activists and activism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the novel is a work of activism in itself.)

When I’m writing a novel, I try not to have an agenda, and if I find myself starting to develop one, I do my best to dismantle it. I think, in general, agendas are bad for novels. Readers are very sensitive to agendas, and readers of literary fiction, in particular, do not like to be lectured to. They do not like didacticism mixed into their fiction, and they can sniff out even the faintest whiff of it. There’s a reason for this, which has to do with the nature of fiction. In order to function properly, fiction must be manipulative, and fiction readers must agree to be manipulated. As readers of fiction, we must suspend not only our disbelief but at least some of our critical faculties as well, and so it makes sense that we would be willing to do this only if we are sure we can trust the writer not to take advantage of us.

There’s an unspoken contract that exists between a writer of fiction and her reader. It goes something like this: I (the Reader) agree to suspend my disbelief and allow you (the Writer) to manipulate me and my emotions, on the condition that you do not try to slip in any sneaky messages or political agendas when my guard is down. This contract is a very nuanced and serious business, and as a reader and a writer of fiction, I take it very seriously.

Which is not to say that a writer of fiction must suspend her ethics and her convictions. That’s a very different story.

For me, writing fiction is a particular way of thinking. It’s a kind of thought experiment, or a form of speculation and reflection, and I write novels in order to think about the world in this specialized way that is like no other.

I don’t write novels to change the world, and if you seriously want to bring about political or social reform, writing literary novels is probably the least effective way to go about it.

 

What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?

I try to suspend all hope when I write. I don’t even think about publication, never mind any impact my writing might have on the world. If I thought about this kind of thing, I would never write again! Putting work out into the world is a fraught business, and my hope is that my work might do no harm and perhaps might even be helpful to someone, but since hoping is a hopeless distraction, I just try to stay focused on the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page. And then, once the work is out (and hopefully it will be!), I try to forget about it.

 

About Ruth Ozeki:

Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist-priest. She is the author of the novels My Year of Meats and All Over Creation and the maker of the film Halving the Bones. Her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, published last year, was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, won the 2014 LA Times Book Award and The Guardian’s Red Tentacle Prize for being the most “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” book of 2013. Visit Ruth’s website here.

 


 

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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