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Ruth Ozeki thought she could relax once she came off stage at the Women's Prize for Fiction Awards. "All the shortlisted writers had gone up and received flowers and I knew that the announcement was coming. And I was like, OK, soon this is going to be over and I can go get a drink and celebrate the winner," she laughs and shrugs; "I truly didn't expect it to be me."
Ozeki did get that drink, but as the recipient of the Women's Prize for Fiction 2022. She won for her sprawling, imaginatively rich fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness; an almost magic realist take on grief, mental health and adolescence, told from the perspective of a book itself.
When she stepped on stage, she immediately thanked the collective support of women. It is something she echoes now, talking to me the day after her win. "I realised that my entire life I've been supported by women and women's institutions," she says. "I would not be a writer without the support of women. I was a messed up 18-year-old and being at a woman's college really helped stabilise me. That's where I learned to love writing fiction."
The Japanese-Canadian-American Ozeki, who is also a Zen buddhist priest, has been a consummate storyteller, it seems, her whole life. She began her career as an art director and award-winning filmmaker, whose works include a searing exploration of her Japanese grandmother's life and death, Halving The Bones (1995), which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Her three previous novels – My Year of Meats (1998), All Over Creation (2003) and A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – have attracted similar critical attention. She is an author rightfully praised for her unique voice, her meta-fictional elements and her playful, yet powerful, imagination.
The solace and community provided by books forms the backbone of her latest, prize-winning novel (narrated, after all, by a book itself) and this stems from a personal dependence on the power of storytelling. "I really would say that books saved my life; they were my friends, when I was young," she explains. "When I hit my teenage years, I really hit a rough patch, and started really suffering from pretty serious depression. I ended up on a locked psych ward. All of this has informed my writing."
The Book of Form and Emptiness' depiction of mental health is indeed staggeringly effective and shrewdly handled. For Ozeki – who says she always knew she was a writer – the process of narration, of an almost creative dissociation, has allowed her to weave her own traumas into novels, and helped her work through them. "All books entail some kind of suffering, right? And so, it wasn't a problem if you suffered if you were a writer, because you could make something out of that," she says. "What became really important then was to pay attention to your suffering, and try to understand it so that you could feed your writing. It gave me a little bit of a distance from the oppressiveness of extreme feelings."
What Ozeki has cleverly created in her latest work, is an extraordinary feat of immersion for the reader in this respect. "It is a story about a boy hearing voices, narrated by an inanimate object who is talking," she practically grins. "It's definitely meant to make you question everything. In that way, it's a collaboration between reader and writer." This is not something Ozeki says she thinks about when she writes, but is a welcome and inevitable consequence of fiction. "You're bringing your own lived experience to it. And so the book that each reader reads is his or her own unique book. It is different from everyone else's experience. So it's kind of like a multiverse."
What each reader seems to have agreed, is that The Book of Form and Emptiness is a worthy winner of this extremely special prize. The award is, Ozeki says, especially meaningful to her because of its dedication to women's writing. "I think anything female-centric is going to get criticism, especially if it is about empowering women," she observes. "But what is interesting to me is when people say we don't need an award like this. You know, 'we're all liberated'. That's bullshit: look at what is happening with Roe v Wade in America right now. Look how many places have banned The Handmaid's Tale. We can't take our rights for granted. We have to persevere."
But for now, Ozeki will be enjoying celebrating her win and preparing to write her next book. She is looking for inspiration in the most unlikely of places. "You want to know what is actually inspiring me right now ?" she laughs. "Succession. I'm obsessed. When is the next season coming out?"
The Book of Form and Emptiness, by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate, £9.99) is out now.
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