I just finished reading yesterday Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being at my wife’s recommendation. I want to write about it more extensively, but I don’t have the time right now. I will say, briefly, though, that it’s a wonderful novel that deserves all of the awards and recognition that it has received so far. It tells parallel stories about a sixteen year old girl named Nao (=now?) who is writing a journal in the days leading up to 9-11, and about a novelist named Ruth who finds her journal and other personal effects ziplocked in a bag on a beach off the western coast of Canada some years after the fact. It blends personal reflection, Zen Buddhism, and quantum physics seamlessly, all three contributing to what is ultimately commentary on the emotional lives of its characters. It’s a beautiful novel in which horrible things happen — but the payoff for these horrible things becomes evident at the very end.
The title is something of a play on words, “for the time being” understood both in its usual sense, “at present” or “for now” (Nao?), as well as in another sense in which “the time being” is a noun phrase referring to a being who lives in time. What makes this novel different for me is that I gave a copy to a young girl I know who is planning to travel to Japan, and when I read the horrible things that happened to the young girl in the novel, I wished that I hadn’t given my friend this novel. I wanted to protect her from reading about what happened to Nao along the way.
Now you need to understand how big a deal this is to me as an “English professor.” Weirdly, even though I’ve been teaching English literature and writing for about fourteen years now, I still don’t think of myself as an English professor. I’m something else — What? Perhaps a creator and a philosopher who also happens to teach English for a living? But, as an “English professor,” my commitments are for disclosure, revelation, truth-telling, even and perhaps especially the hardest truths.
To give you a sense of how I think about reading difficult content, I sent the following email to my students last summer with the subject line “On Managing Offensive Content”:
As students of English literature and of the English language, you’re expected to be able to manage offensive content rationally, analyzing it for tone, theme, content, and language conventions as well as evaluating its social and literary purposes. Initial emotional responses of shock or offense aren’t the most important things we should have to say about any cultural product. Rationally and professionally understanding why and how a text creates feelings of shock and offense, and what those texts say about the culture in which they originate, is instead the real business of the study of cultural products.
I do still believe this and will be teaching it to all of my future students. But I did a 180 degree turn this time with this one reader of this one novel. Was I just being overprotective? Maybe, but sorry, I’m going to continue to be. How about extending that principle of overprotection to policy: am I validating trigger warnings here? Without question, at least for people who have really been traumatized. Trigger warnings shouldn’t be there to protect people from offensive content, but to protect them from the unnecessary repetition of trauma. I really don’t care if you’re offended. Get over it. You’re being offended by something real out there, something that people really have to live with. But if you’ve been traumatized — really traumatized — you take care of yourself any way that you need to, including self-censorship, at least until you’re stronger.
But the most important question is this: now that I’ve finished the novel, would I still tell her not to read it?
That’s obviously her decision, not mine. But I will say this: the novelist herself, Ruth Ozeki, was born to an American father (who was during his lifetime a field-defining Mayan linguist) and a Japanese mother, and she has led a fascinating life. She has undoubtedly experienced much of what she wrote about in many of her characters. Her Wikipedia page lists her as having held the following occupations over the course of her life so far:
- Student of English literature and Asian Studies at Smith College.
- Graduate work in classical Japanese literature, study in Japan.
- While in Japan, worked as a bar hostess in the Kyoto district.
- While in Japan, studied Noh drama, mask carving, and flower arranging, and taught English.
- Moved to New York, where she worked in film as an art director.
- Started making films for a Japanese company, some of them award-winning documentaries.
- Started writing novels when she couldn’t get funding for films, which have won numerous awards.
- In 2010, she was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest.
She’s not a novelist. She’s Buckaroo Freaking Bonzai.
More importantly, Ozeki has a character in this novel who worked as a bar hostess. She has another character who works as a novelist. Her best character of all is a Zen Buddhist priest: a 104 year old grandma. We might notice too that she covers three stages of her life in this book: teenage girl, novelist (notice the novelist’s name in the book shares the same first name as its author, Ruth, and Ruth’s husband’s name is the same as Ozeki’s husband’s name), and Zen Buddhist priest, which may have been a grandmother in Ozeki’s novel because that is in part her projection or idealization of her future self. She has distributed herself and her experiences across many characters in this book, calling the novel a “fictional memoir.” I think after all of these experiences, she really has only one thing to say with this book, which takes the form of advice given from one who has grown through many periods of life:
Please stay alive. Everything is going to be alright. No matter how bad it looks right now, everything will be alright. You’re in pain because you’re so beautiful and the world is ugly. You have been absorbing the ugliness of the world and trying to keep others from being hurt by it. That is why you are feeling what you are feeling. But if you stick it out, everything will be alright.