Former Vancouver Downtown Eastside resident Ruth Ozeki has hit the big time. The author, filmmaker, Zen Buddhist priest, and Smith College creative-writing professor managed back in 2013 to get shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her third novel, A Tale for Time Being.
Her newest title, The Book of Form and Emptiness, is a novel about a teenage boy named Benny Oh who hears voices coming from inanimate objects after his jazz-musician father dies. Benny seeks solace by spending enormous amounts of time in a library.
Lo and behold, this might seem familiar to those who’ve worked in Vancouver’s central branch.
“There’s an old public bindery in the library and all of that is based on the Vancouver Public Library,” Ozeki told the Straight by phone from her home in western Massachusetts.
In fact, she loves the VPL. She researched her first novel, My Year of Meats, in the central branch while she was living on East Cordova Street from 1996 to 1998. In 2007, it was chosen in One Book, One Vancouver, which was a book club for the entire city.
“That’s when I got the tour of the library and they took me down into the basement, and showed me the old bindery,” Ozeki said. “At that point, it had been closed.”
A VPL staffer told Ozeki that some believed the basement of the central branch was haunted.
“Security guards said that they heard music—and the music was calypso music,” Ozeki recalled. “And so all of that made it into the book.”
There’s yet another Vancouver connection to The Book of Form and Emptiness. She used to live behind the Union Gospel Mission thrift store. In her new book, there’s a Gospel Mission thrift store.
“A lot of the scenes of Benny’s house and the alleyway behind the house were taken from memories of living there,” she said.
From 1998 to 2015, Ozeki resided on Cortes Island, which is between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland. She was attracted by the quiet beauty of Cortes.
Ozeki mentioned that this peacefulness is something that she wanted to evoke when Benny leaves the city for the first time and goes to a mountain. This results in him experiencing different sensory perceptions.
“He hears the difference between the made and the unmade,” Ozeki said.
She decided to focus on objects in her new book because she's given a lot of thought about how they've become so disposable in modern society. In fact, sometimes manufacturers plan for items to become obsolete so that consumers will feel a need to purchase the next version.
"I was thinking how sad that would be if you were an object to know that your obsolescence was built into you and you would break or die and be discarded," Ozeki said.
She added that she wondered what would happen if voices expressing this sentiment could come forth. "That's what Benny hears."
Benny's mother, Annabelle, also has a fascination with objects.
"What I love about Annabelle is she has a real appreciation for the potential in material," Ozeki explained. "She loves going to the craft store because what she sees is the promise of things becoming beautiful. She sees the vitality and the vibrancy in matter.”
The Book of Form and Emptiness also addresses the issue of hoarding through Annabelle's character.
Ozeki noted that as the daughter of a Japanese mother, she feels that she grew up with a different attitude about objects.
"When I see a phenomenon like Marie Kondo blazing through the world with her minimalism, it's not just about minimalism," she said. "It's this idea that you would treat an object with respect.
"So for example if you have a pair of socks that keep your feet warm and they develop a hole doing that, you wouldn’t just throw them out," Ozeki continued. "You would take that extra bit of time to hold them in your hand, feel a little bit of gratitude to them, and then throw them out. That’s beautiful. That kind of thing is more a part of Japanese culture than it is of our culture. She’s done a great job of making us more aware of that."
What is normal?
Ozeki also revealed that at times in her life, she’s heard voices.
“After my dad died, I heard his voice calling me,” she said. “It sounded just like he was standing behind me and clearing his throat. And he would say my name. I would whip around and he wasn’t there.”
On other occasions, she’s heard voices of her characters speaking to her.
She pointed out that sometimes, hearing voices is celebrated, especially when it’s linked to creativity or inspiration. Moreover, she noted that famous figures in history—including Mahatma Gandhi and psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung—said that they heard voices. But she said that others who hear voices are pathologized and medicated.
“We fail to see that ‘normal’ is a cultural construct,” Ozeki said. “So what I was playing with in this book is what happens if we expand the notion of normal and make it more generous and make it more all-inclusive. What would happen then?
“That’s really the territory that I’m exploring in the book."