Ozeki, Ruth. 2013. A Tale for the Time Being. Viking.

The narratives of fiction offer room for the imagination of alternative outcomes and trajectories of real-life events. A Tale For The Time Being is a 2013 Booker Prize shortlisted novel by acclaimed novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki. Ozeki’s novel takes its readers through two narratives– the present of sixteen-year old Yasutani Nao through the entries logged in her diary, and a Japanese American writer Ruth in a post-tsunami world who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of Whaletown/British Columbia. The 3/11 tsunami event is absent in Nao’s reality at the time of writing her diary, yet it forms the guiding motif in Ruth’s present, one that is informed and shaped by what she learns on the Internet and television, and that which drives her quest to discover the diary owner’s fate.

The alternating episodes of the different ‘present’s’ of Nao and Ruth form the narrative device for Ozeki’s novel, and invokes contemplation of Nao’s unknown future from the reader. As both ‘stories’ progress, readers are also introduced to other forms of tragedy in Nao and Ruth’s lives, both personal and impersonal– 9/11, whale extinction, ijime, and kamikaze conscription, thus expanding on what constitutes ‘disaster’ that is man-made. The novel ends with the fate of Nao and the Yasutani family still cast in uncertainty, albeit in an optimistic light, owing to the ideas of quantum mechanics which Ozeki imbibes the narratives with.

Questions for Undergraduates:

  1. The alternating pre- and post-tsunami realities in the novel continually offer new perspectives which shape the reader’s viewing of ‘disaster’. As a medium for engaging historical discussion, how may we reconcile the irregular temporalities of literary works with academic historical writing? [Tip: Compare the multiplicity inherent in fiction against the chronological linearity of historical time.]
  2. Compare the fiction of a novel or the visual depictions in a comic with first-hand news reporting in documenting the remembrance of disaster. In your opinion, what are the different layers or themes which Ozeki uses to characterise circumstances surrounding 3/11? [For example, how do environmental themes and Japanese folklore value add to the posterity of how disaster events are remembered?]
  3. Take a stand and discuss whether fictional literature contributes more toward re-contextualising the historical past, or supplies the re-imagining of it. Use Ruth Ozeki’s novel and other notable works in the disaster literature genre as a starting point. [Susan Wyndham’s write-up is a useful summary of 3/11-inspired literature. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/a-wave-of-imagination-followed-japans-meltdown-20160408-go23ds.html]

General Questions:

  1. Learning about past events affects our comprehension and view of the present. In reverse, how might the negative connotations associated with environmental disasters skew our remembering of it?

Grace Teo, Nanyang Technological University

Book: A Tale for the Time Being (2013)
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