A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
This might seem like an unusual selection for our first CanLit book club, but considering Canada’s multicultural makeup it makes perfect sense. A Tale for the Time Being is narrated by two characters, 16-year-old Nao Yasutani, a Japanese-American living in Tokyo, and Ruth, a Japanese-American writer living on a remote British Columbia island. Ozeki herself is an American-Canadian novelist and a Zen Buddhist priest at that. The Tale unfolds when Ruth finds a lunch box containing Nao’s diary washed up on shore after Japan’s devastating 2011 tsunami. (Read a detailed synopsis of the novel here.)
Our book club members were fully engaged with Ozeki’s Tale, presented in four parts. A number of interrelated themes emerge including:
- Bullying (Nao as both victim and perpetrator)
- Cultural differences and home (Japan, America, Canada, France)
- Death, depression, and suicide (including references to karoshi, the Japanese word meaning death from overwork, as well as kamikaze)
- Wisdom and spirituality (Zen Buddhism)
- Feminism and gender-assigned roles
Nao and Ruth are complex characters with many parallels, but my personal favourite is Jiko, Nao’s great-grandmother and role model, who is a Zen Buddhist nun and an “anarchist feminist.” Also intriguing is the topic of shishosetsu or Watakushi shosetsu, a genre of Japanese autobiographical fiction (I-novel), which brings into question the autobiographical nature of Ozeki’s Ruth as well as the relationship between writers and readers.
A Tale for the Time Being is captivating and intelligent, insightful and creative. It is filled with hope and despair, heartbreak and humour. We are all “time beings,” Ozeki suggests, and reading and discussing A Tale for the Time Being is time well spent: “. . . every single one of those moments provides an opportunity to reestablish our will. Even the snap of a finger . . . provides us with sixty-five opportunities to wake up and to choose actions that will produce beneficial karma and turn our lives around” (p. 62).
You can read more about the novel, a conversation with Ozeki, and discussion questions here.