Ruth Ozeki is an author, filmmaker and Buddhist priest. She’s the author of several books, the most recent of which is “A Tale for the Time Being.” Most of her work is semi-autobiographical with repeating themes of transnational, mixed-race identity, the blurring of fact and fiction, and the impact individuals have on their environments — and vice versa.
I chatted with Ozeki for an episode of “Other: Mixed Race in America,” about what it means to create and consume culture that reflects your experiences. But I wanted to share more of our conversation here.
Ozeki’s answers have been edited for clarity and length.
What about being a writer intrigued you?
I think it was just because I loved to read and I was one of those voracious little kid readers who would always have a book and anytime that I had a moment, I had my nose in a book. The privacy that reading fiction gave me, that sense of solitude but also being in company with another mind was something that was just very important to me, and very precious. From a very early age, I wanted to do that. I wanted to make that same kind of magic happen.
So I remember writing stories when I was little, but, of course, my stories were always about people who weren’t at all like me, because I thought that’s what literature needed to be. So my stories were often set in English countrysides, for example, and really had nothing to do at all with the reality of growing up in New Haven, Connecticut.
Could you tell me about the first time you saw your perspective represented in pop culture?
I don’t really remember seeing my perspective reflected in pop culture. Certainly not in the early part of my life. Now, I think, there’s a lot more representation of mixed-race people in the media and in pop culture, in literary culture as well, but I honestly don’t remember ever really seeing the mixed-race perspective when I was growing up.
I think that’s one of the reasons why it took me a long time to start, to understand that I needed to create this — that it was up to me to do this, and that I also had the right to do it.
The first novel that I wrote was “My Year of Meats” and it features a mixed-race protagonist who shared a lot of historical autobiographical background with me. I remember as I was writing it I was thinking no one will be interested in this story. Maybe I’ll be able to sell it to a small, niche publisher somewhere, but chances are it won’t get out into the world. And so it was very surprising to me when, in fact, it found an audience. It was very gratifying.
You didn’t become a novelist until you were in your forties. Can you tell me about your career up to that point in filmmaking?
When I graduated from college, I went to Japan, I got a monbusho, which is a Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship to study classical Japanese literature. And my intention was to go into comparative literature — to study Japanese literature and English literature because that obviously reflected my racial identity.
When I was in Japan though, I started getting very interested in other things, including Japanese Noh drama and writing.
At the time, I had friends who were working in the film business. And so I ended up getting a job on the set of a film called “Matt Riker: Mutant Hunt.” I was hired as the art director and it was a very, very low-budget production, and they really didn’t have much money to hire a real art director, and so they hired me. I’d never set foot on a film set before. I had no idea what to do, but they told me and I did it and I had a lot of fun.
Then I realized that there was this industry in New York of people who were doing work with Japanese production companies, both television and commercial work. So I got involved with that because, of course, I could speak Japanese, and so it was very easy for me to work with a crew of Japanese people building sets and props for a commercial shoot. Eventually I moved into production. And then from there, moved into directing and editing and producing on set. It was really, I suppose, the place where I learned how to tell stories in a vivid and efficient kind of way.
And this was around the time when you officially changed your name, right?
The name my parents gave me was Ruth Diana Lounsbury. So there was no reflection at all in that name of my Asian mixed-race identity. And it was particularly unfortunate because the name Ruth, of course, it starts with an “r” and ends with a “th” — now those are sounds that Japanese people find very, very difficult to pronounce. So 3/4 of my name was unpronounceable to people I was working with. And so people used to call me “lu-su,” which means “absent” in Japanese. It was a very odd name to have as a mixed-race person.
And then, too, very often I’d find myself in this position of having to call Asian actors or Asian theater companies, and go through this whole rigmarole of explaining to them, my name is Ruth Lounsbury, but I’m mixed race, I’m half Japanese, and I’m looking for an Asian actor who can play a role.
So around this time, I started going by the name Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury. And it was just a way of cluing people into the fact that I had this mixed-race identity.
I decided to publish under the name Ruth Ozeki, and to become Ruth Ozeki professionally. It was a tremendous revelation to me, because I actually did the edit of the book knowing that I was going to be Ruth Ozeki. When I started editing the book, I felt a kind of freedom that I’d never felt before. I felt this freedom to be a person who I think I’d always wanted to be. But had never really felt entitled to before. And so once I had that feeling of writing in this new and very free way, I never really looked back.
Where did “Ozeki” come from?
The name Ozeki came from a friend of mine, actually an ex-boyfriend. We had broken up, but I always thought that the name was great. It was short, it was easy to say, it was kind of cute because it ended with an “i,” but it had the “z” in there, which, you know, “z” is just a really cool letter.
It was very funny because years later, he and I had this conversation, and I had to apologize to his wife for borrowing their name.
Learn more about the other episodes here:
- Race is more than just black and white. This new podcast explores some of that middle ground.
- Why it can be hard to date as a multiracial person
- What happens to your cultural heritage when you marry someone of a different race?
- The long history and legacy of passing in America
- The debate over who counts as ‘American’ is nothing new. Just ask this woman who was put in an internment camp when she was 10.
- ‘That’s my story’: Heidi Durrow on why stories about multiracial identity just aren’t niche offerings