"literature is a kind of mirror": an interview with ruth ozeki

-melody j. nixon, electric lit


If the work of writers is to make the familiar unfamiliar, Ruth Ozeki’s newest essay is an exercise in the defamiliarization of our most known and intimate parts — the human face. As one of three writers in a new trilogy released by Restless Bookscentering on the face, Ozeki takes her examination into the realm of meditation, musing on subjects as varied as cosmetic surgery, Japanese mask carving, Japanese-American identity, Zen Buddhist practice, and head shaving. Throughout Ozeki’s essay her refreshing and cultivated wisdom leads us through the mind of a compassionate, grounded human and a writer of real integrity.

Melody Nixon: Your essay, “The Face: A time code” was published last month. In it, you gaze at your own face for three hours and document your thoughts. The immediate response that comes to my mind is this: in the age of the selfie, will this act be seen as first and foremost narcissistic?

Ruth Ozeki: This concern didn’t come up for me at all when I was conceiving of the experiment.

I think I saw it as an exercise in stoicism, rather than narcissism. Narcissism is primarily about self-love, about deriving pleasure or gratification from self-admiration, and I did not expect to derive pleasure or gratification from the observation. Quite the opposite. I expected it would be a somewhat arduous practice of facing my fears, and while I thought it might yield interesting results, I fully expected it to be difficult and somewhat painful, which it was. Indeed, the most pleasurable moment was when it was over!

MN: You do wonder in the essay: “Is this narcissistic?” So I think you do ask the question, and address it subsequently. Ultimately the essay’s exploration is so broad, encompassing themes of aging, feminism, the mistaking of the external self for the person within, temporality, identity-formation, spirituality, and existence, all going well beyond the bounds of self-obsession. Did the exploration of this territory feel like an extension of your familiar self, or did the essay take a direction, in writing, that you didn’t anticipate?

RO: It felt like a natural outgrowth of things that I have written about in the past, that I’ve thought about. It felt like a very natural expression of the interests I’ve returned to over and over in my writing. You can certainly see them in my novels and my film work. It felt like a natural emerging of themes that I’ve toyed with and worried in the past. This was another way to get at and explore it.

MN: Your past writing is predominantly fiction — included in your works is the incredible novel, A Tale for the Time Being. The term “memoir” feels overused to me, and not quite accurate for your style of writing in “The Face: a time code.” But do you view this essay as memoir? And how did you make the choice to switch to nonfiction?

RO: Like you, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of memoir. And yet the premise of the essay series, The Face, was intriguing to me — especially when Restless Books threw out a Borges quote: that was bait I couldn’t resist. The idea of a face being a map of a territory of a life really intrigued me. At that point I had just finished reading Jennifer L. Roberts’ article “The Power of Patience” in Harvard Magazine, and the idea of studying the face converged with my idea of doing this essay as a formal thought experiment. I had just been teaching a series of classes in Buddhism about Dōgen and Dōgen’s view of the self. In Zen there are many kōans about the face. The idea of the “original face” is something that’s very much embedded in the language and philosophy. So these three elements came together quite naturally in my mind.

It was interesting though because during the course of the experiment itself — when I sat down in front of the mirror for three hours — I didn’t know where my mind would go. And I found myself remembering things that I’ve never really remembered before. When I conceived of the essay I knew that probably I would write about Dōgen, and probably I would write about Zen, but I’d completely forgotten about the experiences I’d had doing Noh mask carving. That was not part of my original intention. And suddenly that whole thing came back.

MN: Given this experience, do you think writing can allow us to access the unconscious through memories stored in the body?

…the key to any kind of literary writing is being able to tap the body’s memory…

RO: I find that whether I’m writing fiction or memoirish essay, whatever you want to call it, the key to any kind of literary writing is being able to tap the body’s memory: to enter the writing through the senses, and through the body. If we’re able to do that then the writing itself becomes embodied. We are all human bodies; for the writer to be able to enter a scene or a piece of prose that way I think necessarily invokes a similar response in the reader. I’ve always written with the idea that writing is not just something one does with the mind, that you have to write embodied prose in order to elicit the same kinds of strong, physical, emotional responses, from the reader.

MN: How do other senses come in to play in “embodied” writing?

RO: In Buddhism we talk about the sense organs as being “gates.” There’s the sense gate of the ear, nose, mouth, skin, and eye. All of those sense gates allow sensory input to come in. But there’s a sixth sense in Buddhism, which is the mind. And so the mind is also an organ for sensory experience; the kind of sensory experiences that come in through the mind are thoughts. We spend most of our time as writers operating the sense gates of the mind. There’s something about the way Buddhism flattens the distinction between the mind and, say, the nose, that I find very evocative and appealing. The mind is just another sense gate, and they’re all equally important. They all function interdependently.

MN: The Zen practice of not dwelling on one’s thoughts — of letting them pass, not giving them too much importance — seems like it would have a complex interaction with writing, since writing is a practice of indulging one’s thoughts, of spending excessive time with them. How do Zen and writing interact for you?

RO: It’s actually not a contradiction. We’re so used to thinking about our thoughts about ourselves, our own experience, as being something more than other stories we tell. What we experience and the stories that we tell about our traumas and our tragedies and our struggle — the constant narration that’s going on in our minds all the time — we’re creating narratives about ourselves. That’s how we define our sense of self in the world. And somehow we latch onto that and think, “that’s real.” Whereas, “the stuff I’m putting in novels is not real, it’s fictional.” In a way it’s an elevation of the stories of the self, and a distancing from the stories we “just” write about in stories and books. I would say it’s the other way around. Treating all of them as just exactly what they are; stories. Whether we’re telling them to ourselves about ourselves, or whether we’re telling them on the page to share with others; there’s not that much difference.

Which, to go back to Dōgen: any kind of writing or any kind of expression is just a way of this particular arrangement of molecules that I call myself expressing itself in the world. It’s not Me. This ever-changing entity that I call myself and that I experience as myself is just a conduit or a vector for the writing that I put out in the world.

In other words, we privilege our own self-narratives. We think of them as more real. But I would argue that they’re just more narratives.

MN: You’re very clear and honest in expressing your fears and insecurities in “The Face: a time code.” Could you talk about your experience of vulnerability during the process of writing the essay? How does this relate to a Zen framework?

RO: I find Zen practice to be entirely about facing your insecurities. Every moment on the cushion is an intimate encounter with one’s own insecurities. Zen is also filled with performance. There are ritual and formal elements that are designed to trip you up, to make you screw up. The precision with which everything is done in Zen — it’s a diabolical plot to make anyone who tries it, fail. Then you go back to your cushion, after you’ve made a mess of yourself, in some arcane piece of ritualistic blunder; you go back to your cushion and sit there for another five hours and dwell on it. The whole experience is designed to force you to confront your insecurities, and let them go. You feel a wave of shame and insecurity, and then you let it go. You do this over and over and over again, and eventually, 10, 20, 30 years down the line, your relationship with your own insecurities becomes a little bit less firm. And I think the same thing is true with writing.

As an artist you’re pulling things out of the air. You’re pulling things out of your own body, your own experience, out of the air around you, and you’re giving them to the world. And it’s an incredibly vulnerable-making exercise. There’s nothing more vulnerable making than that; except maybe taking off your clothes in Times Square.

MN: How has your relationship with your insecurities changed as you get older?

RO: I’m almost 60 now, and I’ve been doing this for a really long time, so I think my relationship with my own insecurities has gotten a little bit lighter. I’m not quite as bound by them as I used to be. That attitude itself is something I can share, and something I can experiment with on the page.

MN: You can experiment with your vulnerability?

RO: With the idea of trying to hold myself a standard — of honesty, of truth telling — that feels just a little bit uncomfortable at times. In the same way that staring at your face for three hours in the mirror is uncomfortable. It’s not a pleasant experience at all. So I think I was replicating that on the page in “The Face.” Holding myself to a standard of discomfort and seeing what I could make out of it.

Where that becomes problematic is when there are other people involved in your narrative. Then you have to marshal another set of standards to bring to bear on that particular type of exercise or writing. When I’m writing about my parents, or other people, they’re not there so I can’t ask them to be complicit. It requires a different set of standards.

MN: How much do thoughts of your parents influence your work?

RO: I was just thinking about my mother, and was thinking about how, when I was a little girl, she was never concerned about closing the blinds when she changed her clothes. Not that there was anyone outside who could see. Still, I remember the blinds would be open and I would feel a bit concerned about that — anybody could look in! — and she would always just laugh at me and say, “who would be interested?” She was never concerned or shy about [the body]. That stayed with me; that it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. You could keep your blinds open, and no harm would come to you. I’ve always felt that.

MN: In the essay you explore the social and personal implications for women of the ideal of youth as beauty. You write about women trying to live up to impossible ideals, primarily through cosmetic facial surgery. I found your own reason for not wanting surgery — that you sincerely felt it would make you unhappy — refreshing to hear. Can you speak about that feeling? What lack might physically altering one’s face provoke?

RO: It’s once again a bit of a Buddhist thing; you realize when sitting in meditation that giving things up is actually a form of liberation. So when you give something up you’re suddenly not bound by it anymore. Which is why we have phrases like, “the tyranny of choice.” Choice is tyranny. Accepting things the way they are is a form of liberation from that. That’s been an important realization, throughout my life; that the more I can give up attachments, and not care so deeply, and learn to accept things — including my face — for what they are, then the happier I am.

There was a real sense of meeting myself, and a deep sense of recognition: “oh, there you are.”

It was the feeling I had when I shaved my head when I was ordained [as a Zen priest] — this feeling of suddenly looking at myself in the mirror and recognizing myself for who I am, without all the things attached to me. There was a real sense of meeting myself, and a deep sense of recognition: “oh, there you are.”

MN: I really liked your description of the time period after you shaved your head, when you felt both unable to hide and as though you no longer wanted to hide. You just were.

RO: I had this incredible feeling of: my head is part of my body. These are not two separate things. There’s a continuum of skin that goes from head to toe. It’s not like this head is this thing that has to be washed in certain ways with certain products and has to be treated specially for various reasons. Your head becomes like your elbow or knee.

MN: This ties in with the Noh mask sections of your essay. In addition to the rich detail of those sections, I’m struck by their metaphorical quality. For example, you describe a Noh performer who’s about to put on a mask; he holds it before his face and transfers his emotions into it and the mask in turn imbues him with the role he’s about to play. Did you deliberately include the Noh masks as a metaphor for constructing identity?

RO: That idea was there, lurking in the background, especially in the sections of the essay where I’m talking about the ways that a child’s face is projected upon. A child assumes those projections, and from them constructs a sense of self. There’s an exchange happening between one’s self, one’s face, and the world that perceives one’s face. And through this exchange we create roles for ourselves.

MN: Our identity is constructed for us, and we meet it.

It wasn’t until I went to Japan that I realized I could have a raucous, loud voice, I could have a sense of humor.

RO: Yes, it’s not just a one-way process. And I really felt this when I was growing up, because I grew up thinking of myself as a Japanese girl. Even though I wasn’t, I was American. I had a slightly “Japanesey” face, and that’s what Caucasian Americans in my neighborhood reacted to when they saw me, and so that became the identity I assumed. When I went to Japan for the first time the shock was that people saw me as American. I suddenly realized, “Oh my god, I’m an American. All these years I thought I was Japanese. But I’m not Japanese at all.” I don’t speak Japanese, I didn’t look Japanese in that context, I looked like a Caucasian American, and I sounded like one. This was very liberating for me. Because, in addition [to this identity] when I was growing up I appropriated all the stereotypes that applied to young Asian girls: that they should be intellectual, good at maths, preferably violin-playing, quiet, docile, pretty, maybe sexy. Included in that was never anything like having a sense of humor. That was not part of the stereotype. It wasn’t until I went to Japan that I realized I could have a raucous, loud voice, I could have a sense of humor. I could be obnoxious; I’m an American! This was part of my birth right too. That was very liberating for me.

MN: A dismantling of one of the masks.

RO: Exactly.

MN: Near the end of the essay you confront death, in one of the most original passages about death I’ve read recently. You see it as something your parents have done, and something you too, in turn, will do; it’s almost like a ritual or a family practice. Can you talk about the notion of impermanence, why you chose to include this in the essay?

…in Western culture, we’re so far removed from death.

RO: Structurally it seemed important for the essay to go from the arc of childhood until death. The more philosophical and deeply personal reason was that, as I get older — as we all get older, I think, we start to see our parent’s faces in our own face. And that’s a very disquieting, uncomfortable feeling, because we have various feelings about our parents and it’s a constant reminder — especially if your parents have died — of what’s in store. At the same time, especially in Western culture, we’re so far removed from death. We don’t come face to face with it very often. When we do, we don’t have the means to accept it and to be comfortable with it in any kind of way. For me, the process of watching my parents die, and being with them during their dying, was extremely important. It made death feel a little bit more familiar to me, and a little bit more intimate. So now when I think about it, I have the memories of their faces when they died. I know what those two precious faces look like at that moment of death. And since my face is little by little growing more like theirs, I know where we’re going. And I can think about that, I can experience that now, with a kind of love. Because that is the primary emotion I feel when I think about my parents faces, and when I think about their faces at death.

MN: In your acceptance speech last year for a Russian literary award, the Yasnaya Polyana Award, you said: “We writers often take credit for bringing people together with our books, but people are already deeply and fundamentally connected, and our work is just an expression of this primary connection.” What is the primary connection that is being expressed through your essay?

RO: It’s the idea that we all have faces, and we all have feelings about our faces, and we all have long relationships with our faces. There’s something about knowing that. You walk out on the street and every face you meet you think; wow, here’s this person with a face, and this person has feelings about her or his face; this is something we share. Maybe not the exact feelings, but the sense of identity that a face expresses. That’s a very poignant and beautiful thing.

When you go out onto the street and see a group of young girls who are all dressed up, you think, “look at all the effort they’ve put into being beautiful.” And, “I hope that they’re happy, really happy tonight with the way they look and not too tormented.” It’s sweet because you understand the relationship it’s possible to have with your own face, and so you assume — well, everybody’s got some version of that. It’s a way of feeling a connection. If readers come away with a little bit of that feeling, that would be nice.

MN: I did definitely feel recognition and comfort from reading you — another person — have many of the same thoughts I have had in relation to my own face.

RO: I think that’s why we read: because literature is a kind of mirror. We read it to find out about the world, but we also read to find out about ourselves, and our reactions. The mirroring works there as well.