Ruth Ozeki answers my first question almost before I can finish asking it. “Do I think the Women’s Prize is still important? Of course it is. We all assumed the arc of justice had a certain trajectory, that the world was becoming more progressive. Given what’s going on in America right now with the threat to Roe v Wade, I’m no longer sure that’s true.”
Ozeki has another good reason to stand up for the Women’s Prize: she won it last week, with her bewitchingly uncategorisable fourth novel The Book of Form and Emptiness (it’s narrated by a book, for starters). The prize was established in 1996 following an all-male Booker shortlist and a general lack of critical attention towards female novelists, but has in the last few years faced questions over whether it’s still needed, given the seismic uptick in novels by women getting published, bought and reviewed.
Yet Ozeki, 66, who grew up in Connecticut at a time when “women were still thought of as second-class citizens”, warns against complacency. In her acceptance speech at the ceremony in Bedford Square Gardens on Wednesday evening, she thanked “the women who have supported me, because now more than ever this is a time that we need to rewrite the dominant narratives that have landed us into quite dire straits”.
“Women’s rights can always be taken away. And representation is a pretty new thing, right? When I was growing up there weren’t female writers of colour, writers who looked like me. I thought you had to be white, male and dead,” she tells me now.
Ozeki was born to an American father and a Japanese mother; she says her dual heritage has always informed the way she looks at the world. No more is this true than in The Book of Form and Emptiness. It tells the story of Benny, a mixed-race teenager. Following the death of his father Kenny in a car accident, he realises everyday objects – many of them in the cramped Chinatown flat he shares with his mother, Amanda – have started talking to him.
One such object includes the narrator, a book, whom Benny keeps interrupting, disagreeing with the way the story is being told. It’s a technically dazzling, gorgeously playful novel about grief, mental health, and perception. Perhaps more than anything, in a book that abounds with voices and stories, it explores the multiplicitous nature of storytelling. “I have always loved the idea of an omniscient narrator, but I just can’t do it,” Ozeki laughs. “I grew up thinking it was the proper voice for the novel, but it’s also a monotheistic voice, the voice of God. I’m not a monotheistic believer [Ozeki is a practising Buddhist] and I’ve never felt the authority to speak from a single point of view. From the beginning most of my work is told from at least two points of view. That’s always seemed more reasonable and realistic to me.”
Ozeki nearly didn’t become a novelist at all. She started out as a film-maker, producing arthouse horror films before moving into TV. “But it costs money to make my own films and I soon ran out. I made two films using grants and credit cards and by the end I was in debt and unable to pay it off. I couldn’t afford to make another film so I started writing a novel instead [My Year of Meats, which was published in 1998] with a view to selling it for enough money to pay off the credit card.”
Instead, she found the process of writing a novel remarkably freeing. “Film-making is a very controlling, manipulative medium,” she says. “It demands a passivity from the viewer, which is why it’s so wonderful to lie on the couch and watch episode after episode of Succession. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. But for a novel to work it requires the reader to do half the imaginative work. Without that the novel simply won’t mean anything. Every reader of my novel seems to have read a very different book to the one I’ve written. And that’s great. That’s what I’m after, to make the novel feel like a living thing.”
She fears for the future of the novel in America, though. “Novels are being banned. Novels by women, by queer people, by trans people. I so admired Margaret Atwood when recently she produced a non-burnable copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. It might have been a piece of performance art, but it was wonderful. There is a real push to silence us.”
She agrees there are threats, too, from the rise of augmented reality, or what she calls “realities constructed and paid for by corporate interests” – the subject of My Year of Meats, about a documentary-maker producing sponsored TV for a Japanese audience. “The more forms of visual media we have, from film and TV to interactive social media, sponsored media, [then] the more competition there is for attention. Attention is a commodity, right? But readers will always be readers. A lot of my readers are pretty young. I find that immensely encouraging.”
Ozeki splits her time between New York and Massachusetts with her husband, and combines writing novels with her duties as a Buddhist priest. “I used to see them as two separate things but now I realise they are expressions of the same thing,” she says. “Certainly the ability to sit quietly and simply be in the moment, aware of everything around you, to simply sit and watch stories arise, is very useful for writing.”
What’s more, meditating has given her the stamina it takes to keep on at a novel, particularly such a tricksy, questing, form-breaking one as The Book of Form and Emptiness. “There’s nothing like sitting in the same position for hours on end and not moving, even though it hurts, to teach you about keeping going, even when it’s difficult,” she grins. “It took me eight years to write The Book of Form and Emptiness. I had to not listen to all those voices in my head telling me no one would be interested in it, that I should go out and get a proper job.” Somehow I suspect those voices have now gone silent.
‘The Book of Form and Emptiness‘ is published by Canongate