Review: Reading and Conversation with Ruth Ozeki, author of My Year of Meats, All Over Creation, and A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki is best-selling author, a professor an alumna of Smith College (though her mother attended Mount Holyoke!), and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. Her books have won the Kiriyama Prize (My Year of Meats) and the American Book Award (All Over Creation) and her most recent novel, A Tale for the Time Being, won the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She recently gave a reading at Mount Holyoke of selections from My Year of Meats and A Tale of Time Being as well as discussing her experience as a writer and filmmaker.
After listening to Professor Ozeki reading the selected segments of her novels, I can tell you without a doubt what a shame it is that she did not narrate the audiobook of My Year of Meats (though she is the narrator for the audiobook of A Tale of Time Being). Listening to Professor Ozeki speak and read was an absolute privilege. I have been to many events of a similar nature and have found that sometimes the most brilliant writers do not make the best speakers but Ruth Ozeki is absolutely the exception. Her writing is captivating and hearing her read it, using varied accents and subtle voice changes, was fantastic. I could have listened to her read for ages. Her pitch, pace, and presence were all excellent.
Another thing that sometimes falls short at these types of events is what the speaker has to say outside of just the reading and, once again, Professor Ozeki did not disappoint. She discussed her own experiences in filmmaking and television in relation to the experiences of the characters in her novels and talked about the development of novels and narrative voice. One of the most interesting things she had to say came up in talking about the modern day relevance of My Year of Meats as a novel that was written in 1998 and the similarities and differences in of today’s society and culture to the societal climate of the time. I found this especially significant because she was addressing two different points of the book, first the meat industry and second societal awareness of racial matters. She read a section of the book in which the main character, who is biracial, is asked where she is from, where she was born, and finally “what are you?” before stating that she’s an American, in a very powerful and strong scene. In discussing this particular section Professor Ozeki stated that she feels that “young people are more aware now” and talked about her thoughts about categorization and identification when it comes to being biracial.
The event was sponsored by the Mount Holyoke English and Critical Social Thought departments and the Five College Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program. Professor Ozeki was introduced by Professor Iyko Day, who did an excellent job, before the reading and who asked her some very thought provoking questions following the reading.
The problem with this event was the location. While Professor Ozeki was brilliant, it was almost unbearable to sit through her talk because of the multitude of problems the location caused. The event was held in the New York Room of Mary Wooley Hall and was very much packed, which made the room stiflingly hot. On top of that, there was a very, very loud event going on in Chapin Auditorium, including drums and noisemakers, which was incredibly distracting throughout the entire reading and talk. People were walking around and talking loudly right outside the New York Room and accidentally banged the door a couple of times, which was all the more noticeable because of how small the room is. Because the room was both small and packed, every noise that anyone made was very obvious and people coming in late or needing to excuse themselves was very distracting. The microphone which was set up also seemed to stop working at points or providing feedback which was painful to listen to, to the point that Professor Ozeki stopped at one point to ask the audience if they were able to understand her through it.
The other big problem with the space was the way the seating was organized. The chairs were set up in rows, all on the same level, facing the podium at the front and it was very difficult to see Professor Ozeki as she spoke. When she and Professor Day sat down for the conversation portion of the event following the reading it was impossible to see unless you were seated in one of the front rows. This, combined with the outside noise and the problems with the microphone, made it very difficult to fully hear the second part of the event. Combine that with the stifling heat and crowded room and sitting through the second half became almost agonizing. None of these issues were the fault of Professor Ozeki, of course, but they did detract from the experience quite a bit.
In the future I would suggest that readings and talks perhaps be held elsewhere, especially in cases where there are earsplitting events going on in Chapin at the same time. Ultimately though, even with all the issues with the venue, hearing Professor Ozeki talk was absolutely worth it. I just have to stress again how powerful her selections were and how remarkable her thoughts and speech were. Hearing Ruth Ozeki read was an absolute privilege.