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 that the arc of justice had a certain trajectory, that the world was becoming more progressive. Considering what’s going on in America right now with Roe’s threat against Wade, I’m not sure that’s true anymore.
Ozeki has another good reason to be a candidate for the Woman’s Prize: she won it last week, with her spellbinding and unclassifiable fourth novel. The Book of Form and Void (it is told by a book, to begin with). The award was created in 1996 following an all-male Booker shortlist and a general lack of critical attention to female novelists, but in recent years there have been questions about whether it is still necessary, given the seismic rise of women’s novels published, purchased and reviewed.
Still, 66-year-old Ozeki, who grew up in Connecticut at a time when “women were still considered 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 is the time when we must rewrite the dominant narratives that have given us plunged into a rather difficult situation. ”.
“Women’s rights can always be taken away. And representation is a pretty new thing, isn’t it? When I was little, there were no writers of color, writers who looked like me. I thought you must 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 influenced the way she sees the world. This is no more true than in The Book of Form and Void. It tells the story of Benny, a mixed-race teenager. After his father Kenny dies in a car accident, he realizes that everyday objects – many of them in the cramped Chinatown apartment he shares with his mother, Amanda – have begun to speak to him.
One of these objects includes the narrator, a book, which Benny keeps interrupting, disagreeing with the way the story is being told. It’s a technically dazzling and beautifully playful novel about grief, mental health and perception. Perhaps more than anything, in a book full of voices and stories, he explores the multiplicity of storytelling. “I’ve always liked the idea of an omniscient narrator, but I just can’t do it,” laughs Ozeki. “I grew up thinking it was the right voice for the novel, but it’s also a monotheistic voice, the voice of God. I am not a monotheistic believer [Ozeki is a practising Buddhist] and I never felt allowed to speak from just one point of view. From the beginning, most of my work is told from at least two points of view. It always seemed more reasonable and realistic to me.
Ozeki almost didn’t become a novelist at all. She started out as a filmmaker, producing auteur horror films before moving into television. “But making my own films costs money and I quickly ran out of it. I made two movies using grants and credit cards and at the end I was in debt and unable to pay it back. I couldn’t afford to make another movie so I started writing a novel instead. [My Year of Meats, which was published in 1998] in order to sell it enough money to pay off the credit card.
Instead, she found the process of writing a novel remarkably liberating. “Filmmaking is a very controlling and manipulative medium,” she says. “It takes passivity on the part of 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, the reader has to do half the work of imagination. Without it, the novel simply means nothing. Every reader of my novel seems to have read a very different book from the one I wrote. And that’s great. That’s what I’m looking for, to make the novel feel like a living thing.
However, she fears for the future of the novel in America. “Novels are prohibited. Novels by women, queer people, trans people. I admired Margaret Atwood so much when she recently produced a write-once copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. It may have been a work of art, but it was wonderful. There is a real push to silence us.
She agrees that the rise of augmented reality, or what she calls “realities built and paid for by corporate interests” – the subject of My year of meats, about a documentary filmmaker producing sponsored television for Japanese audiences. “The more forms of visual media we have, from film and television to interactive social media, to sponsored media, [then] the more competition there is for attention. Attention is a commodity, isn’t it? But readers will always be readers. Many of my readers are quite young. I find that extremely encouraging. »
Ozeki divides her time between New York and Massachusetts with her husband and combines novel writing with his duties as a Buddhist priest. “Before, I saw them as two separate things, but now I realize they are expressions of the same thing,” she says. “Certainly the ability to sit quietly and just be in the moment, aware of everything around you, to just sit and watch stories arise, is very useful for writing. “
Plus, meditation gave him the stamina to keep reading a novel, especially one as delicate, intriguing, and groundbreaking as The Book of Form and Void. “There’s nothing like sitting in the same position for hours without moving, even if it hurts, to teach you how to keep going, even when it’s hard,” she smiles. “It took me eight years to write The Book of Form and Void. I shouldn’t listen to all these voices in my head telling me that no one would care, that I should go out and get a good job. Somehow, I suspect those voices have now died down.
‘The Book of Form and Void’ is published by Canongate