Talking books and spoons: author Ruth Ozeki channelled her attachment to objects into The Book of Form and Emptiness

At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, the winner of last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction says her latest work is a commentary on grief, mental illness and consumerism

Published - February 07, 2023 02:21 pm IST

American-Canadian author and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki.

American-Canadian author and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki. | Photo Credit: Danielle Tait

When she first heard that she won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022, Ruth Ozeki began to meditate. This is not unusual, for Ozeki, 66, is also a Zen Buddhist priest and practitioner. Her prize-winning work, The Book of Form and Emptiness, is about Benny Oh, a 14-year-old boy who starts hearing the objects around him talk after the death of his father. His mother Annabelle copes with her grief by hoarding objects and working hard at a job that is fast losing relevance in a digital age. While objects and their voices torment Benny, they provide comfort to Annabelle. 

The novel is a commentary on grief, mental illness and consumerism — issues that Ozeki is passionate about and has dealt with in her earlier books too. Her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. In a conversation on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, the American-Canadian author talks about our relationship with objects, why every book is semi-autobiographical, and how she was inspired by the Japanese decluttering expert Marie Kondo. Edited excerpts:

You have spoken about how, after the death of your parents, you had to throw away their belongings, which was obviously difficult. And that you kept hearing your father’s voice. The voices that Benny, in your book, hears came from that experience. But where did this idea of speaking objects come from?

The idea of objects speaking has to do with my attachment to things, such as a scarf or a spoon. I have always had a favourite spoon. It also had to do with a Zen koan (story) about insentient beings. So, the question at the heart of the story is, do insentient beings speak the dharma? In other words, can objects, trees and pebbles teach us about reality and the world? The answer is ‘yes’. But in the modern world, we treat objects with disrespect. In Japan, which is traditionally an animistic culture, there is a sense of taking care of things, of being careful with the way we handle things and how we throw them...

Like how Marie Kondo talks about decluttering?

Yes, absolutely. That’s what she teaches. She comes from a Shinto tradition, which is animistic. If, say, a sock has worn itself out after taking care of your feet, you don’t just throw it out carelessly; you take a few seconds to hold the sock, feel grateful for it and then discard it. There is no harm in this practice. It helps people take care of their material objects. And that means trees and the planet all become important.

What is our relationship with objects in today’s world?

In Zen Buddhism, we talk of attachment. There are only three responses a person can have to a situation: attachment, aversion or being neutral. Consumer capitalism amplifies our sense of attachment and attraction by convincing us that we’re not enough and the only way we can be enough is if we have something new, whether a car or a pair of glasses. That kind of rampant materialism has terrible effects on the health of the planet.

You say every book is semi-autobiographical. Are there objects from your life that you have brought into this book?

I had a rule that if any object made its way into my life, I would put it in the book and see what happens. My editor came back from a trip to the Bahamas. She knows that I love sea turtles and brought me a cheesy snow globe with a sea turtle in it. I thought it was perfect and gave it to Annabelle’s character. I was at a Chinese restaurant and we got fortune cookies. One of them said, ‘the world is a beautiful book for those who read it’. I decided fortune cookies had to be a part of the book. Then, when I was writing about libraries, my friend told me to read Walter Benjamin. I read the letters he exchanged with Theodor Adorno. In one letter, Adorno makes a reference to Benjamin’s snow globe collection. That made me feel like it was all meant to be.

Writers spend a lot of time thinking about plots, characters, etc., which can be stressful. Do you think of writing as a form of meditation or do you meditate to get away from the stress of writing?

They are symbiotic practices. The writing supports my Buddhist practice and my Buddhist practice supports my writing. There is always a generative tension while writing. You have to live with that tension for a long time. Meditation helps me to remember to relax in the middle of that and allow that generative tension to become energy instead of something that makes me crazy.

Mental health figures a lot in your books. Why is that?

I was a messed-up young person. I spent time in a psychiatric ward. I struggled with being different. I tell my students, there is nothing wrong with them if they are unhappy. In fact, that’s a sane response to the world we’re living in, to climate change, war, racial and social injustice. My last two books were about young people. Young people spend a lot of time trying to understand their emotional range. They have strong feelings but they don’t know how to work with them. In America, there’s so much emphasis on happiness, which is exhausting. The first noble truth in Buddhism is, after all, suffering. But you need to know how to handle that suffering, how to survive it. You could then even use that as material to write about later.

How did the book become a character in the book?

I have always wanted to write in the third-person omniscient because it’s the classic way of writing. But it never worked for me. In this book, after 30-40 pages, suddenly Benny’s voice popped up in my head and started talking to the book. He tells the book, ‘You’re leaving out all the good parts!’ And the book starts answering Benny. That’s when I realised that the book has to be a narrator. Because The Book of Form and Emptiness is about talking objects and the book is a talking object. It had to be a character in the book.

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