Encased within a series of sealed ziplocked bags, barnacled and washed ashore on a remote island in Desolation Sound near Vancouver, B.C., a woman finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox. This woman, Ruth, a novelist floundering in midcareer and struggling with her memoir, discovers within the lunchbox a diary written in a mixture of English and Japanese, some old letters, a sheaf of papers written in French and an old watch with a strange inscription. As layered as the lunchbox and its contents had been, so is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.
Click here to read the chatscript from Ruth Ozeki’s visit to #litchat, July 19, 2013.
The character Ruth seems not unlike the author. Both are of Japanese descent, both are writers, both have lived in Manhattan as well as British Columbia and both have husbands named Oliver. Unlike the character Ruth, Ozeki is prolific in multiple disciplines, including film and is a Zen Buddhist priest. The character Ruth embodies the patience of a Zen priest as she unwraps the mystery of the lunchbox and its contents.
At the heart of the mystery is why the lunchbox washed ashore on Desolation Sound in its ziplocked vessel. Ruth’s husband suspects it to be flotsam from Japan, escaping the Pacific gyre and drifting across the ocean in the first wave of debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami. Ruth begins reading the diary to discover a troubled teenage girl from contemporary Japan, bullied and planning suicide, yet transcendent in her self-imposed task to tell the story of her great-grandmother, a somewhat legendary anarchist and feminist Buddhist nun. Still more layers are pulled off to reveal the story of a reluctant kamikaze pilot who appears to Naoko in a magical realism moment of spiritual awakening.
As Naoko’s story unwinds, Ruth is transfixed by the young girl’s voice, captivated by her circumstances. The novel unwinds in alternating chapters contrasting the harried life of Nao in chaotic Tokyo with the peaceful seclusion of Ruth and Oliver on their isolated island in Desolation Sound. Ruth rations the revelation of Nao’s story by reading only a chapter a day, wanting to “read at the same rate [Nao] had lived.” As Ruth bonds with Nao, readers bond with Ruth. Drawing upon a type of superpower which Nao had frequently referred to, Ruth has her own magical realism moment when the ending of the diary changes and by the last page in the novel Ruth finds peace in Nao’s existence.
Ozeki’s first two novels, both critically acclaimed — My Year of Meats (Viking/Penguin 1998) and All Over Creation (Viking/Penguin 2003) — have been translated into 11 languages and published in 14 countries. Her documentary and dramatic independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been shown on PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and at colleges and universities across the country.
Ozeki is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation. She lives in British Columbia and New York City. (Author’s bio in these last two paragraphs is lifted directly from Ruth Ozeki’s web site.)
View the video trailer for A Tale for the Time Being here.
Follow Ruth Ozeki on Twitter: @ozekiland.