This March is the two-year anniversary of the devastating tsunami that hit the northern Japan. Incidentally, the tsunami also plays a role in the new novel A Tale for the Time Being by Hapa Japanese American novelist Ruth Ozeki. The Penguin Group asked me if I’d like to receive a copy for review. After reading the description of the story — which involves a Japanese American writer, a diary of 16-year-old girl, and a Hello Kitty lunchbox of course, I wanted to read it. From the press release:
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
The novel weaves the Ruth’s present-day story with excerpts from Nao’s diary. Of special interest to Bay Area readers, the diary begins as Nao has just moved back to Japan after spending most of her childhood in Sunnyvale, a Silicon Valley town she describes as a California paradise, and where her father was a rock star of a computer programmer. For Nao, life in Tokyo is a definite downgrade, with Japanese classmates who bully her about her weight and her Americanness. Her home life isn’t much better, with her unemployed father drifting into a deep depression. The themes of suicide, death and Zen Buddhism feature prominently throughout the book. Sounds like a downer? At times. But it’s more insightful than it is depressing.
Besides being a novelist and filmmaker, Ozeki is also a Buddhist priest (show off). Subtly woven into the characters’ narratives are explanations of their world views on life and death, suicide, and metaphysics. The turning point for Nao comes when she is sent to spend a summer in Sendai (the site of the tsunami) to live at a mountain top monastery with her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun. Jiko, sort of a female Yoda, makes the Time Being a delight to read.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how Western classics and Judeo-Christian worldview shape English language fictional narrative. But how do you tell the stories of Asians whose experiences may be shaped by Eastern traditions and religions? I’ve wondered a lot about this and how Asian American writers can draw upon these traditions in a way that is authentic and is still approachable enough for the American audience. Ozeki’s novel is a refreshing example of incorporating both Eastern and Western mindsets in a way that feels unforced and un-exoticized. Toward the end, the story requires a little metaphysical gymnastics, or at least a willingness to to suspend disbelief, but no so much that it feels like a college philosophy text.
Ozeki is in the middle of a West Coast book tour, and you can hear her speak at a variety of locations in Washington state, California and New York this week and next. Check Ruth Ozeki’s website for a full schedule of her appearances. She will also be speaking at the Hapa Japan conference in Los Angeles, on April 4, an event I wish I could attend (but alas, I will be in Taiwan that week).
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Update, September 16, 2013: A Tale for the Time Being is one of six novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
A Tale for the Time Being Giveaway
Interested? The Penguin Group is offering a free copy of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being for a HapaMama reader (in the U.S. only). Enter by doing one or more of the following:
1) Leave a comment below
2) Like HapaMama on Facebook, and leave a separate comment saying you’ve done so
3) Signup for an email subscription to HapaMama, and leave a separate comment saying you’ve done so
I’ll pick a winner on Sunday, March 24.
This contest is now closed. Congratulations to Miss Mochi, who will receive a hardcover copy of A Tale for the Time Being.