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Ruth Ozeki Tackles Capitalism, Materialism And Neoliberalism In New Book


Benny Oh hears things. Things have spoken to him since he was 13 and his father died. As Ruth Ozeki writes near the opening of her new novel, "The Book Of Form And Emptiness," books are especially talkative.

RUTH OZEKI: (Reading) Shh. Listen. That's my book, and it's talking to you. Can you hear it? It's OK if you can't though. It's not your fault. Things speak all the time. But if your ears aren't attuned, you have to learn to listen. You can start by using your eyes because eyes are easy. Look at all the things around you. What do you see? A book, obviously. And obviously, the book is speaking to you. So try something more challenging - the chair you're sitting on, the pencil in your pocket, the sneaker on your foot. Still can't hear? Then get down on your knees and put your head to the seat. Or take off your shoe and hold it to your ear. No, wait. If there's people around, they'll think you're mad. So try it with the pencil first. Pencils have stories inside them. And they're safe as long as you don't stick the point in your ear. Just hold it next to your head and listen. Can you hear the wood whisper? The ghost of the pine? The mutter of lead?

SIMON: Wow. Ruth Ozeki, the novelist and filmmaker who also teaches creative writing at Smith College, joins us now from Massachusetts. Thanks so much for being with us.

OZEKI: Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Young boy loses his father, starts hearing things talk. It's tempting to call that just a grief reaction, isn't it?

OZEKI: People after a grievous loss start to hear things sometimes. And I certainly did, too, after my dad died. I heard my dad's voice calling my name. And, you know, I'd be doing something random like washing the dishes or folding the laundry. And behind me, just to the right, I would hear him clear his throat and call my name. And I'd whip around, and he wouldn't be there. So it was experiencing the loss and the grief all over again.

SIMON: Yeah. In a sense, is that where this novel begins?

OZEKI: I think that is where it begins. That happened for about a year after he died. And then I kind of forgot about it for a long time. And meanwhile, I'm writing books, and I'm, you know - when I talk about this process, the process of writing fiction, I talk about it and say that characters come to me as voices, right? And one reader at an event asked me, do you mean that literally? And it turns out that this reader's son heard voices as though externally with his ear and found it very disturbing. And I explained that no, no, my voices, the fictional voices that I hear, are more internal. They're inside my head. But I have had this other experience, too.

SIMON: Yeah. He gets professional help, and it's - I don't want to give anything away - maybe not of much help. Is that fair to say?

OZEKI: I think that's fair to say. I mean, his therapist is - you know, his psychiatrist is very well-intentioned. She has been schooled in a certain diagnostic practice, and so she really tries to help him. But I think that ultimately - perhaps it helps him a little bit. Certainly, it's good that she's there and is tracking him. On the other hand, the kind of help Benny needs is not really that. He needs help from a different kind of community of people.

SIMON: Benny finds something, a kind of solace, a kind of understanding, at the library, which is capitalized in the book.

OZEKI: Yes, of course, because the library is a very important character in all of our lives (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. Well, tell us what he finds there. They're a group of people that, from the outside, wouldn't seem to be the kind of people he needs to spend time with, but...

OZEKI: Well, you know, he goes to the library seeking refuge. You know, the world is just too cacophonous for him. And the library is, of course, a place that's filled with objects, but they speak in their library voices. And so Benny finds this very soothing. He's brought to the library by a young woman who he has met for the first time in a dream. And then he meets her - or at least he thinks it's her - in reality on the psych ward where he's also sent. And she leaves him little clues that he follows. And then he finds his way to the library.

And she's part of a group of people who hang out at the library. You could even say that they live in the library. They inhabit it. And arguably, the most important character that he meets at the library is the book itself. It's "The Book Of Form And Emptiness." And the book starts to speak to Benny, and they start having this dialogue. So the entire book is structured as a dialogue between the book who is narrating Benny into being - right? - and Benny himself.

SIMON: I gather from the acknowledgments that you had what I'll call the benefit of professional advice...

OZEKI: Yes, yeah.

SIMON: ...In trying to depict a lot of this. What did you learn?

OZEKI: I learned a lot. I was curious, you know, because I'd had this experience myself of hearing a voice that sounded very real, but no one else could hear it, you know? And it happens that I have a good friend who is a psychologist who has done a lot of work with the hearing voices community. So I was introduced to the hearing voices community. And one of the things I realized is that this experience of hearing voices is a lot more common than we normally think about. If you tell a psychiatrist, you know, that you hear voices, chances are it will immediately be pathologized and, you know, and medicated.

On the other hand, there are so many people like - I mean, Gandhi reported hearing voices. Freud talks about voices. Jung talks about voices. So I think that one of the things that I was very interested in was to really look at what we call, for example, normal and what we call pathological, what we call neurotic and then what we call creative and so to really look at this as a spectrum and to, I suppose, sort of widen the bandwidth of what we might call normal.

SIMON: You're also a Zen Buddhist priest, I gather.

OZEKI: That's right. I am.

SIMON: So is it just too easy to read this book, for example, and see the novelist as Zen Buddhist priest or Zen Buddhist priest as novelist? How much does it inform what you do and what you write, who you are?

OZEKI: At this point, I've been practicing Zen for long enough that I think it sort of is who I am. You know, I don't really think about Zen as outside me. And that wasn't the case perhaps at the beginning. At the beginning, I very much felt that a writing practice was different from my Zen practice. But now I see it as a kind of a continuum. So in fact, in this book, there is a character who is a Zen Buddhist nun. And in my last book as well, in "A Tale For The Time Being," there was also a character who was a Zen Buddhist nun. So in that sense, of course, the Zen Buddhist nuns take advantage of the page time and, you know, talk about Zen philosophy in a very overt way.

You know, that same philosophy was contained, I think, in my previous books. You know, it's a philosophy of interconnectedness, of interdependence, interbeing. And really, when you think about it, that's what novels are.

SIMON: Yeah.

OZEKI: All novels, whether they're written by Buddhists or not, are all about relationships. They're all about the ways that people are not independent of each other, that they depend on each other. That's what makes conflict, and that's what makes a story.

SIMON: "The Book Of Form And Emptiness" is the new novel by Ruth Ozeki. Thanks so much for being with us.

OZEKI: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.