Novelist and filmmaker Ruth Ozeki was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1956 to an American father and a Japanese mother. She received a BA with a double major in English Literature and Asian Studies from Smith College in Northampton, MA, graduating summa cum laude in 1980.
After studying classical Japanese literature at Nara University on a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship, she taught English at Kyoto Sangyo University, started a language school called The Speak Easy Language Lab, and worked as a bar hostess in the city’s entertainment district while. During that time, she also studied flower arrangement, Noh drama, and mask carving.
Ozeki entered the film industry after her return to the U.S. in 1985, working as an art director and prop designer in New York before moving over to television production. Before writing her three novels, My Year of Meats (1998), All Over Creation (2003), and A Tale for the Time Being (2013), Ozeki made two award-winning films, Body of Correspondence (1994) and Halving the Bones (1995).
As of 2010, she is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest.
adapted from www.ruthozeki.com/about/biography
International Documentary Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award, for Halving the Bones (1994)
New Visions Award, San Francisco Film Festival, for Body of Correspondence (1994)
The Kiriyama Prize, for My Year of Meats (1998)
American Book Award, for All Over Creation (2004)
“Ruth Ozeki is bent on taking the novel into corners of American culture no one else has thought to look—but where she finds us in all our transcultural and technological weirdness.”
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma
“Ruth doesn’t look away from our problems, but through them to the other side.”
Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible
from “My Year of Meats,” Shambhala Sun, November 1999.
On titling her book My Year of Meats
Last year my first novel was published. It’s called My Year of Meats. It’s a good title, I think. A funny title. A little proud, a little awkward, a little perverse. The My, right up front like that, claims it and makes it personal. And although the Year is tinged with nostalgia, the comic bluntness of Meats saves it from sentimentality. Finally, the “s‚” hanging on to the tail makes the whole thing sound foreign. All this is intentional. It describes exactly what the book is about.
Some people liked the title. Some were dismayed. My editor, bless her, caught between a rock (me) and a hard place (the fickle tastes of the American book consumer), sort of rolled her eyes at my textual analysis of the title’s workings, then asked me to change it.
“Meat,” she explained, patiently, “is a tough sell.”
“Why?” I asked, always eager for new lessons.
“It does not sound delicious.”
Of course she is absolutely right. We are all squeamish about meat. All of us. Even the most voraciously carnivorous. So I tried to be less rock-like, to be like water, to change the title. We all tried. But even in the interest of sales, the name refused to budge.
from “The Art of Losing: On Writing, Dying, & Mom,” Shambhala Sun, March 2008
On the honewake ritual, the basis of her award-winning documentary Halving the Bones
Like many second-generation Japanese kids in America, my mom had little connection with her Japanese roots. In Hawaii, where she had grown up, she was sent to Christian church while her parents practiced Buddhism. When World War II broke out, my grandfather was interned in Santa Fe, my grandmother was left behind in Hawaii, and my mother was put under house arrest in Michigan, where she was attending graduate school. After the war, my grandparents moved back to Japan. My mom moved to the east coast to continue her studies, and she saw her parents very rarely. My grandfather passed away shortly after their return to Japan, and by the time my grandmother died, at the age of ninety-three in an old-age home outside of Tokyo, Mom hadn’t seen her for many years.
When she called me in New York to give me the news of my grandmother’s death, my mom told me that she couldn’t go to Japan to attend the funeral. It would be a Buddhist ceremony, she said, and she had a bad leg—arthritis or something—so she wouldn’t be able to squat on the floor during the service. She was afraid she would be an embarrassment to the family if she were forced to use a chair, and she asked me if I would go to the funeral in her stead.
So I went to Tokyo, to my aunt’s house. My grandmother had already been cremated by the time I got there, but I arrived in time for her funeral ceremony at the family temple and her interment in the family grave. Before we left for the temple, my aunt took me into the parlor, where she was keeping my grandmother’s remains. She showed me the urn, which I dutifully admired, then she went to the kitchen and brought back a small Tupperware container and a pair of wooden chopsticks, the disposable kind that you get with take-out sushi. I watched as she lined the Tupperware with one of my grandmother’s fancy handkerchiefs, opened the urn, and started poking around inside with the tips of her chopsticks like she was trying to fish a pickle from a jar.
I was surprised to see that the remains were bones instead of ashes and to watch my aunt, picking them out and packing them in Tupperware. But most of all, I was surprised to hear her name each bone as she moved it. “This is a piece of your grandmother’s skull. This is a bit of her rib…” When she had transferred several bones, she snapped the top onto the container, burped it to remove the extra air, and handed it to me, instructing me to take the bones home and give them to my mother.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a custom—not the Tupperware part, but the rest of it—called honewake, or dividing the bones, which is often practiced when a person’s family lives in different places. It’s also practiced when a women dies, so that her parents can have some of her remains, as a consolation, while the rest are buried with her husband.
To make a long story short, I came back from Japan with the bones and a large box of my grandmother’s belongings, but for one reason or another, I didn’t get around to bringing them to my mom for several years. She and I had grown apart, much as she had grown apart from her parents. I was busy with my career, a marriage, a divorce, and talking about death is never easy. She knew I had her mother’s bones. I kept hoping she’d ask me about them, but she never did, and I didn’t want to bring up the subject. So the bones sat on a shelf in my closet, a skeleton that haunted me for years.
On writing fiction
I did documentary film for a long time, and I spent a lot of time behind the camera, fervently wishing that the reality I was filming would conform to my narrative propriety. But you can’t control it.
I think I’m a control freak. When I write fiction, I have the illusion of being able to control these fictional worlds and these characters, and to make them say what I want them to say. Of course, the problem is that it is an illusion and by the end of it you realize that you’re not in control of it at all; the characters have taken over and they’re driving the vehicle. Or at least I think that’s probably the way it should feel if you have the characters right. But I think that’s why: I like the illusion of control that I have at the beginning of a book. I can really make up the world.
In the research for All Over Creation, I thought it was important that I go visit the scientists who are doing the gene splicing and various kinds of transgenic potato breeding. So I did. I spent time in the labs, talking to them. And I realized that had I not been a literary person, had I been a scientific person, I’d be right there. That’s the kind of work I’d probably be doing because of the enormous sense of excitement over creating new things, new species…inventions. I think that’s why I write fiction, the same reason: to create something new. But it’s good: there’s a limit to how much damage I can do, writing fiction.
On the impulse to collect
The reason that I write and the reason that I made films, the reason that I’ve done all of this kind of stuff is that I love to collect things. I’m a collector. When you write, that’s what you do: you walk around and collect stories, impressions, scenes. Everything becomes potential material, and it really changes the way that you interact with your life. In that sense, it’s really quite an acquisitive relationship with the stuff that I pass through. Whether I’m acquiring that visually or as text bites, it’s pretty much the same kind of process.
My Year of Meats (1998)
All Over Creation (2003)
A Tale for the Time Being (2013)
“The Anthropologist’s Kids,” in Mixed, ed. Chandra Prassad. W.W. Norton (2006)
“My Year of Meats” (excerpt) in The Moral of the Story, ed. Peter Singer and Renata Singer, Blackwell Publishing (2005)
“Ships In The Night,” in Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home In The World, ed. Jessica Chan, Penguin (2003)
Body of Correspondence (1994)
Halving the Bones (1994)