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Ruth Ozeki Discusses Buddhism’s Impact on Her Writing at Writers Speak Event

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Award-winning author Ruth Ozeki discussed her works of fiction, writing techniques, and the different elements of Buddhism that inspire her style on Thursday evening.

The discussion was hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center as part of the “Writers Speak” event series and featured Ozeki — a novelist, filmmaker, Zen Buddhist priest, and professor of Humanities at Smith College — in conversation with Meng Jin ’11, a visiting lecturer in the English Department and author of the multi-nominated novel “Little Gods.”

Ozeki kicked off the event by reading a passage from her latest novel “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” which follows the story of a boy who hears inanimate objects and was awarded the United Kingdom’s 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

“I shouldn’t be surprised that the writer of a novel about inanimate objects is able to animate her reading so lovely,” Jing said following the reading.

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Jing also raised attention to the “strange form” of Ozeki’s latest novel, which incorporates the Buddhist element of emptiness and is related to suffering, according to Ozeki.

“Emptiness is one of those concepts that is hard to visualize or wrap your head around. But the image that I like, and I think it works pretty well — it’s an image if you can imagine emptiness as being just a vast, vast ocean,” Ozeki said. “An endless ocean of emptiness, so enormous that there’s no horizon and there’s no edge to it.”

Ozeki, who explained that many people turn to Buddhism after experiencing suffering, said she became interested in Buddhism while watching her parents age. She said she learned to cope with these life changes and her new responsibility of being their caretaker at a young age through practicing Buddhism and meditation.

“I’m not sure I would still be writing if I weren’t also practicing Buddhism. There was something in that practice that keeps me engaged with the kinds of questions that make me want to write,” Ozeki said.

“It also helps me with things like patience. I’m not a very patient person by nature — I’m actually a very impatient person — but meditation teaches you patience,” she added.

During the event, an audience member asked Ozeki’s opinion on the new digital age, which led to a reflection on readers’ different interpretations of her writing through things like fanfiction.

“I know that there has been fanfiction that’s written with characters in my books, and I haven’t read it because I have my own experience with them,” Ozeki said.

Still, Ozeki acknowledged that others interact with her stories differently and expressed appreciation for her readers.

“Every reader has their experience of it, and if that’s how a reader wants to respond, then it’s not my business to object,” Ozeki said, “except to be grateful that they read the book and have been interested — which I am.”

—Staff writer Christina M. Strachn can be reached at christina.strachn@thecrimson.com.

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