RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The story we're about to hear starts with the voice of a 16-year-old girl in Tokyo. Her name is Nao - spelled N-A-O. She's sitting in a cafe writing in her diary, explaining to no one in particular that she's about to take her own life. This fictional character came fairly easily into the imagination of writer Ruth Ozeki. And a couple of years ago, she had finished Nao's story and she was ready to send it off to her editor in early 2011.
RUTH OZEKI: Then the earthquake in Japan happened, followed the tsunami and followed by the meltdown at Fukushima. And suddenly when I was watching all of that unfold, I realized that Japan certainly would never be the same and that the book that I had written was no longer relevant.
MARTIN: So, Ruth Ozeki reworked her novel. It's called "A Tale for the Time Being." She wanted to acknowledge the disaster in Japan. She also wanted a second character, someone who would discover Nao's diary sometime in the future after it had washed up on the shores of British Columbia.
OZEKI: As it turned out, that person ended up being a character named Ruth, who bears more than a superficial resemblance to me.
MARTIN: Why did you make that decision? You could have come up with any number of other characters to kind of play off Nao. Why did you decide to make it autobiographical that way?
OZEKI: It was an idea I had when I first started, and I rejected it promptly. It seemed like a terrible idea at the time. And so I proceeded to audition about four or five other characters to play the role of Nao's reader. And I realized that if I could, you know, sort of step back and take the book apart and put myself in there as a character then I would be able to incorporate the tsunami, the earthquake and the issues that arose into the book in a kind of a more considered and serious way. And so that's what I did.
MARTIN: And we should say that the tsunami actually has this unifying effect - essentially, it is the mechanism that delivers Nao's diary to the shores of British Columbia where Ruth finds it.
OZEKI: Yes, that's right. Well, at least that's one theory.
OZEKI: You know, we never quite understand how that diary gets there, but that's certainly what Ruth in the book believes.
MARTIN: In some ways, Ruth and Nao are kind of mirror images of one another. I'm wondering if there was something in her life that did reflect your own experience with culture shock, culture clash. You write about how Nao spent some formative years in California, in Northern California, and she returns to Japan feeling very much like an outsider, even though she is Japanese.
OZEKI: She's ethnically Japanese but she herself was raised in Sunnyvale, California. And so she feels very much like an American kid. You know, her father loses his job. The family is forced to move back to Japan. She's put into a junior high school where she knows none of the social codes. She speaks Japanese but not with the same fluency as her classmates certainly. And so she is bullied as a result of that. In the U.S., I remember, you know, when I was little I was always looked at as, you know, the Japanese kid or the Asian kid. And, you know, I did experience some bullying, especially when I was in California.
MARTIN: But the kind of bullying you describe in the story is really intense. It's very harrowing.
MARTIN: Some of the bullying is frankly too graphic to describe. But can you give us a sense of the level of isolation that now feels as a result of this bullying. What happens to her?
OZEKI: One of the things that was, you know, that was devastating to her was when all of her classmates pretended that she no longer existed. They just ceased to see her. And so she became a non-person to them. She became a ghost. You know, that...
MARTIN: To the point where they actually held a funeral for her.
OZEKI: That's right. They held a funeral for her. And these are stories that I've, you know, that I have read. For Nao, this was a real struggle. I mean, that book is called "A Tale for the Time Being." And, you know, Nao was really struggling with being a being. You know, she had been turned into a non-being by her classmates. The one person in her life who is a source of stability for her, however, is her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Ojiko(ph), who is a Zen Buddhist nun. Her great-grandmother Ojiko teaches her to meditate, you know, just sitting with all of the powerful feelings and emotions and conditions of her life. You know, in the book, it's couched in a funny kind of way because Ojiko calls it her superpower. You know, but it does turn into the source of her strength, I think, and her patience.
MARTIN: There's a heavy theme of suicide in this story. Nao is dealing with severe depression and kind of a preoccupation with suicide. But she has it in her DNA. Her father is suffering profoundly from a sense of despondency. And turns out she has a great-uncle who was a kamikaze pilot in World War II who killed himself. Why was this an idea that you wanted to explore through this character?
OZEKI: Well, I was doing a lot of reading about the problem of teenage suicide, and not just teenage suicide but middle-aged suicide too, especially middle-age men in Japan. And this coincided with reading that I was doing. There was this book that came out called "Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalisms." And it was a collection, a study of the diaries of the kamikaze pilots who had been conscripted from Japan's top universities. So, these were the young, bright minds of Japan. And these men, these young men were beautiful writers. And they wrote these just heartbreaking letters and diaries and...
MARTIN: Because not all of them were sold on this mission.
OZEKI: No. Many of them did not want to participate in this at all, but they, you know, the situation was hopeless. You know, there was no option for conscientious objection, for example. And so they were forced into this, accompanied by an enormous amount of angst. And I think that the idea for those three characters came from this reading and studying that I was doing.
MARTIN: I would say there's probably a good chance that some people who might pick up your book may not have had a whole lot of experience with Japan. And this portrait that you paint of Japanese society is not all that flattering. Did you think about that?
OZEKI: You know, I've lived in Japan for many years. It's a culture that I know well and that I love dearly. One of the things that I've noticed is that very often cultural trends in Japan tend to surface in America several years later. So, when I first started reading about bullying in Japan, I thought, wow, this is, you know, I wonder if this is also going to be one of those situations where several years later it appears in the states. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened. We're not immune to that here. You know, so in that sense, this was a story that's a universal one.
MARTIN: Ruth Ozeki. Her new novel is called "A Tale for the Time Being." She joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Ruth, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much.
OZEKI: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking to you.