Novelist and filmmaker Ruth Ozeki succeeds in her art by keeping to the margins
As the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father, novelist Ruth Ozeki often feels like she's on the outside looking in. "The thing about being mixed heritage is, you are neither here nor there," Ozeki said last week, over a double latte outside Green Library on a golden spring afternoon. "In the U.S., I am Japanese. In Japan, I'm American. I'm never in the mainstream."
Which suits Ozeki fine. Outside "is the only place for a writer to be," she said. "Otherwise, you lose your perspective, your edge. You stop seeing things."
Ozeki, author of two highly praised novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, and the writer and producer of award-winning documentary films, including Halving the Bones, has been on campus since mid-April as a writer in residence in the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages. The program annually brings writers from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds for month-long residencies.
Ozeki's best-known work explores issues of what she calls "hybridity," the juxtapositions of different races, cultures and customs—which often coexist in a single setting or character—which she catalogs with the precise eye of an anthropologist. Ozeki's late father was the linguistic anthropologist Floyd G. Lounsbury, a Sterling Professor at Yale University.
"The reason I am attracted to writing about protagonists of mixed race is because it embodies a kind of conflict," Ozeki said. "As soon as you have a duality, you have a conflict. And conflict is what literature is always about."
Ozeki earned bachelor's degrees in English literature and Asian studies from Smith College, followed by graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara Women's University in Japan.
In spite of their own work—Ozeki's mother, Masako Yokoyama Lounsbury, also was a linguist who taught at Yale—her parents didn't encourage her toward an academic career, Ozeki said. "Both felt the halcyon days of the academy were over. They saw the writing on the wall, in terms of the commercialization and corporatization of academic life."
On May 2, Ozeki gave a reading on campus of her short story "The Anthropologist's Kid," which will appear in Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience, to be published by W. W. Norton. Ozeki's story, which is set in New Haven, Conn., and told from the perspective of the son of an anthropologist and a Japanese mother, is "a little bit taking the piss out of the academy … in the most respectful way," Ozeki said. The story ends in what Ozeki called "suspended ambiguity," familiar territory for the writer. It is "not evil and not good, but the vast area that is suspended between those poles," she said.
In Japan, Ozeki taught English and studied Noh performance, and working as a bar hostess, she received another education in language and culture. (The bar's upscale customers stopped treating her like a sex object once they learned of her academic background, Ozeki said.) When she returned to the United States, she began to work in film, initially as an art director for low-budget horror movies, with titles like Robot Holocaust and Mutant Hunt, before beginning to write and produce her own documentary films.
She was broke, however, and carrying thousands of dollars in credit card debt when she began My Year of Meats on Christmas Eve 1995. She had been awarded a grant to work on a screenplay in Canada, but she couldn't bear the thought of working on it for a year and then going out to raise money to make a film, she said.
Instead, she decided to write a novel, which she hoped to sell for enough money to pay off her debts. "It worked," Ozeki said, although the enormous success of her debut novel "was a complete surprise to me." Told primarily through the eyes of a financially struggling Japanese American filmmaker, My Year of Meats explores issues including domestic abuse, anorexia, childbearing and the use of hormones in the meat industry. "The idea of anybody being interested in a novel about a mixed race documentary filmmaker making a cooking show about meats was patently absurd," she said. But as a filmmaker, she had learned to follow her compelling interests, "even if you think no one is going to be interested," she said.
Ozeki's second novel, All Over Creation, looks at themes including genetically engineered food, environmentalism and agribusiness. During her residency, Ozeki has researched topics including tissue engineering.
Science "can be so poetic … it can be so fraught with tension and drama and conflict," Ozeki said. "The future of our species is going to turn on the decisions that we make vis-à-vis science and technology. There is no end to material there, as far as I can see. It's the age we live in now, the defining metaphor of the moment."
As her residency neared its end, Ozeki was effusive over the intellectual abundance of the university and the intelligent company of its students, who are "brimming with the future." Stanford is "magical," she said. "You wish for something and it appears." She said she felt something like relief at the recent invasion of caterpillars, which provided a small rent in the veil of perfection.
Or it could be "I feel a little bit like a parasite, dangling from the branches of the trees," said Ozeki, laughing, ever the outsider. "Maybe I am feeling a sense of kinship—feeding off the largess of the campus."
Ozeki will speak this weekend at a two-day symposium on Asian American film and media. Titled "Sexuality, Race and Nation," the symposium begins Friday at 2 p.m. at the Stanford Humanities Center and on Saturday at noon at Wallenberg Hall Amphitheater. Ozeki is scheduled to appear Saturday at 3 p.m. with filmmakers Darrell Hamamoto and Celine Parrenas Shimizu.