The Buddhist As Novelist

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 21 2014 @ 4:57pm

Discussing her new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki connects her Buddhism to her writing, noting in particular the way her “sense of self is a more shifting (shifty?) and pluralistic entity” than is typical:

A Tale for the Time Being plays very overtly with this notion of self or selves, which in Buddhism is called no-self, or anatman. Buddhism teaches that because everything is impermanent, there is no fixed self that remains unchanged in time. And Buddhism also teaches that there is not an independent self, that can exist separate from others. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this interbeing. So what we experience as the self is more like a collection of fluid, interpenetrating, interdependencies that change and flow through time. The title, time being, refers to just this, and the novel, with its two narrators Ruth and Nao, is a kind of overt performance of these Buddhist propositions of interbeing and time being.

I think in my previous work, too, the choice of narrative voice, or voices, is related to my pluralistic sense of self. This was true even before I knew much about Buddhism. I’ve never been able to write from a single point of view, or even stick to a single grammatical person. All my novels contain multiple narrators, some of whom speak directly, using the first-person pronoun “I,” and others less directly, using third- and sometimes even second-person pronouns. The use of these pronominal shifts and multiple POVs destabilizes the sense of there being a singular “author” running the show, in charge of the fictional world, and I like that ambiguity. In the past, I’ve tried to write in an omniscient voice, but the characters refuse to cooperate.