Ruth Ozeki, Amplifier

Her latest novel teems with voices — most of them belonging to what she might call “nonhuman persons.”

Photo: Jingyu Lin for New York Magazine
Photo: Jingyu Lin for New York Magazine

When I visited author and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki in Northampton, Massachusetts, in late July, she took me to see the trees. All spring and summer, she and her neighbors had been trying to protect a little grove of serious old cherries from the city’s repaving plan. Ozeki and others had recently ordained ten of the trees as fellow priests, complete with full ceremonial rites — a desperate, last-ditch move that had sometimes saved forests in Thailand. It didn’t work, and at the end of that month, the city sent in cops in flak jackets. The director of the Department of Public Works had to tear off the trees’ garlands and robes before the city workers could chop them down.

Despite the rites, the letters to the editor, the march to City Hall, Ozeki kept assuring me she was mild-mannered. “I am the most conflict-averse person I know,” she said. She wouldn’t cut the messy stand of milkweed around her front door because monarch butterflies might need it during their migration. Her home was filled with leggy plants and shy cats. In my short time there, she offered me two books, cookies, sparkling water, a splash of wine, and melon in a graceful ceramic bowl she made herself. She wore a collarless linen shirt, clogs, and a brass pen on a chain. There was a great lightness and calm to her; Zen precepts come up often in her books and conversation.

But mild she is not. Ozeki, now 65, lived at least four lives before she even started writing. She published her first book when she was 42. From that novel, 1998’s My Year of Meats, through All Over Creation, the Booker Prize–shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being, and a memoir called The Face: A Time Code, she has shifted her readers’ way of perceiving what is “normal” through a sort of slow, capillary action. Her books are not didactic, but they are useful; they’re not mission-driven, but they are richly moral. She writes urgently about the environment — you leave an Ozeki book knowing more about ocean contamination or factory farming — and her novels tend to include a painful parent-child rupture as well as a burbling stream of absurdist humor. The books don’t come quickly for her (“It’s like pulling teeth,” Ozeki said), but they come heavy with lived experience and knowledge about botany, film production, religion, risk. Her friend and onetime editor Carole DeSanti calls the writer “a goes-to-the-root radical.”

On September 21, Ozeki will publish her fifth book, a novel titled The Book of Form and Emptiness. It follows Benny, a teenager whose father has recently died, as he begins hearing the voices of everything around him. His mother, Annabelle, has her own fraught relationship with stuff, and her material possessions have begun to crowd and overwhelm their house. For Benny, this profusion is torture. He can hear every thing speaking in its own language: a spoon calling out its spoon sorrows, a window crying when it kills a bird. This lands him in the psychiatric ward, where he meets a mysterious girl who leads him on a series of adventures that begin in the town’s library. One of the key voices Benny hears in the book is that of the Book itself — the very book we are holding in our hands. Between the chapters, it coaxes him — and us — further into the mysteries of speaking things.

Ozeki started writing The Book of Form and Emptiness eight years ago, but it is eerily suited to what readers are going through now, a quantum companion to A Tale for the Time Being: If time is part of healing, sorting through matter — through stuff — is part of mourning. For the past 18 months, all of us everywhere have been surrounded by and penned in by our possessions as never before. How can we live among so many things and not be stifled? While Ozeki’s home is full of objects she treasures (a pair of exquisite Noh theater masks she made in the ’80s, a lacquer pen of ridiculous loveliness, an oddly primitive doll), her last three books were influenced by the awful experience of taking care of her parents as they grew older, then of cleaning out their belongings. “They were Depression-era people,” she told me. “They never threw anything out.” As Ozeki was going through her parents’ basement, she found an empty cardboard box. Her mother had labeled it in both English and Japanese: “empty box.”

Ozeki was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Her linguist mother, Masako, was from Japan and Hawaii; her father, Floyd, was a white Yale professor of anthropology. (“I always joked when I was growing up that I was half-Japanese and half-anthropologist and that one side was always studying the other.”) The ’60s and ’70s were not an easy time to be growing up mixed race in New Haven. She shrugs off the grade-school bullying now (“Beating me up in the bathroom and stuff like that”), but there were longer-term effects of her feeling out of place. She turned 13 in ’69 and was swept into the era’s transgressive, expansive spirit. “I used to go down to the Green and hang out with everybody — the SDS and the Weathermen and the Black Panthers. That was the first time that I’d seen people of color, you know, asserting themselves in that way,” she said. “I wasn’t Black, so I couldn’t really fit in there either. But I wasn’t white. There was a sense that Oh, I don’t have to just be quiet and passive.

She rebelled. With the family fraying, her parents agreed to send Ozeki away to a Massachusetts boarding school, which led to a long period of division and alienation. She and her mother sometimes wrote; she and her father did not. “I was having really serious emotional problems, exacerbated by the culture of the time,” she said. “At a very young age, we were smoking and drinking and partying, and it was too much for me.” A boyfriend bought her a motorcycle, her first of several. In her junior year, she had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a psychiatric ward — inspiration for Benny’s experiences in The Book of Form and Emptiness. A dash for San Francisco ended early when she and two other runaways couldn’t get anyone to pick them up hitchhiking. Cold and hungry, they slept in a church, where they were found and packed back to school.

In her senior year, she managed to pull it together enough to get into Smith, where she fell for Shakespeare and was known for racing her motorbike across campus. (She is now a creative-writing professor there — a strange, sweet cycle of return.) She spent much of the ’70s and ’80s going back and forth to Japan, including on an exchange program and a year off in the middle of college, when she worked as a hostess in a Japanese nightclub. In the U.S., she was seen as a small, delicate Asian girl. In Japan, she was seen as American: tall, loud, swaggering, funny. It made her fearless. During her longest postgraduate Japanese sojourn, she fell in love with classical Noh theater. Like many other things Ozeki loved, Noh was at the time reserved for men; although she and her fellow trainees poured themselves into rigorous study of chanting, movement, and mask-carving, they essentially remained enthusiastic amateurs. For work, Ozeki set up an English school and wrote textbooks. To get a visa, she almost married a butoh dancer whose troupe performed in sex clubs.

Instead, on a visit to New York, she met a guy who worked in film, married him, and returned to the States. She would spend the next decade or so in different corners of the film and TV industry — first as an art director, prop-builder, and production designer for low-budget ’80s horror movies, like 1987’s Mutant Hunt (it has, she notes with dignity, come out on DVD), and, after a divorce, as a coordinator of Japanese-TV shoots in the United States. She fell further into transpacific television production; in a series of smoky Tokyo editing suites, Ozeki learned how to cut images to tell a story. She used those skills to make a beautiful and strange Super 8 documentary, Halving the Bones. In one extended sequence, Ozeki pretends to have discovered her grandfather’s old black-and-white films of her grandmother in Hawaii. In reality, his reels had been lost, likely confiscated before his internment during World War II; the flickering woman in the “archival” footage is Ruth.

Halving the Bones went to Sundance, but prizes couldn’t cover the debt she’d racked up making movies. Ozeki was broke and depressed, and her mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s. She decided to cheer herself up by writing down her most ridiculous culture-clash anecdotes from her time working in Japanese television; in a headlong rush over Christmas in 1996, she began writing the first draft of her first novel, My Year of Meats. It was “just the weird stuff, the funny stuff, like a road movie,” she said. “I realized, Oh, wow, this is so much easier and cheaper than making a film.” Out of money and in love with the environmental artist Oliver Kellhammer (now her husband), Ozeki moved with him to British Columbia, where they could subsist on a single grant and she could continue to write. When she published My Year of Meats, it became a sensation — a daring, funny, romantic book wound tight with environmental rage. It sold for more than her debts. Ozeki was suddenly a novelist.

“She has a sense of audience,” said DeSanti. “She has a sense of the theatrical of the situation.” The structures of Noh and Elizabethan theater, Ozeki’s earlier passions, throb in strange ways underneath her novels: As in those two classical forms, her books contain a combination of comedy (often slapstick) and tragedy. She also plays metafictional games. In A Tale for the Time Being, the narrator is a writer named Ruth, married to a man very like Kellhammer. (She gives this Oliver all the good lines.) Sometimes she makes a sly guest appearance, including a self-portrait in The Book of Form and Emptiness. Shakespeare, too, had a habit of self-referentiality: His plays refer to the physical theater much as Ozeki’s latest makes us conscious of the Book we’re reading. Her fellow writer Karen Joy Fowler recalled her own strong reaction to her friend’s work: “When I read A Tale for the Time Being and I saw that she had inserted herself in that way, I did not think, This is something I’ve never seen another writer do. What I did think was, I’ve never seen a woman writer do this. And I was glad to see one of us taking it on.”

In 2013, Ozeki gave a process talk during the tour for A Tale for the Time Being. When she described “hearing” the voices of her characters, one audience member asked her to compare her experience to that of his own son, who he said heard voices and was considered unwell.

The writer had already been thinking about grief and sound; A Tale for the Time Being dealt directly with mental precarity. (Her friends say that book, about a girl on the brink of ending her life, spoke so directly to young readers that they reached out to Ozeki — and she reached back.) But the audience member’s question prompted her to think more deeply about the specific experience of hearing voices — for a year after her father died, she could hear him saying her name — and the way that her own childhood experiences with psychiatric care went awry. To write The Book of Form and Emptiness, she spoke to experts in the hearing-voices community, psychologists, and support groups such as Intervoice (International Hearing Voices Projects), which explores what Ozeki calls “unshared experiences” without pathologizing them. But she also tried to listen inwardly. “Ruth will unpeel the layers of the onion about herself,” said her friend the editor Linda Solomon Wood. “It is why she can do it so well about her characters, and help her friends, and help all these people: because she’s had such a deep and real confrontation with herself.”

Photo: Courtesy of Publisher

The “emptiness” in the new book’s title is not nihilism or despair. It’s tied to the Buddhist teaching that the isolated, independent self is a fiction. Ozeki, who became a Buddhist after her father died and a priest in 2010, describes Zen ideas of selfhood this way: “Imagine the ocean and then this little wave, you know, sort of pops up and looks around and it’s like, Whoa, look at me! I’m a self; I’m a wave; this is fantastic. There’s this ocean around me, but I am a wave. And then suddenly, the next thing you know, the wave is just part of the ocean again.”

That borderless quality became part of the writing process. As Ozeki was working on the new book, she made a rule for herself: If an interesting object came into her life, she would put it in the plot. When she found a picture of Apollo 11 astronauts in the house she purchased in Northampton, Benny became a moon obsessive. She bought a lunar globe and incorporated its found poetry: Benny takes solace in the sweetness of fantastical topographies like the Sea of Crises, the Lake of Dreams. Ozeki admits that she finds objects “noisy.” Another book would try to quiet the overmuchness of the world. Yet instead of treating noise like an aberration to be hushed, The Book of Form and Emptiness multiplies and multiplies it until we’re more sensitized to it — more Benny than ourselves for a little while after closing the book.

This is the kind of paradigmatic adjustment an encounter with Ozeki will do for you. As we stood by the cherry trees — not yet chopped down, still wearing their ceremonial robes — Ozeki put her hand on a trunk. The ritual to make the trees priests was “about honoring the trees as teachers and enacting this idea of the rights of nonhuman persons,” Ozeki said. “We have a very narrow bandwidth [around] whatever it is that we call ‘normal’. But that’s a construct! I have a sense of normal being, you know, vast vast and all inclusive.”

Hearing Things With Ruth Ozeki