Canadian-American writer Ruth Ozeki won the prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction on Wednesday for The Book of Form and Emptiness, a playful, philosophical novel that explores people's relationship with their possessions.
Ozeki was awarded the 30,000 pound ($36,000) prize at a ceremony in London for her story of a bereaved boy’s relationship with books and the objects in his house—all of which speak to him. His world becomes increasingly cacophonous as his widowed mother deals with her grief by hoarding.
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Ozeki, 66, was raised in Connecticut by a Japanese mother and an American father. She began thinking about relationship with objects while clearing out her parent's house after their death.
"They were both children of the Depression, so they never threw anything away,” she says. "Every piece of plastic wrap, every piece of tinfoil, had been carefully washed and saved. I kept thinking, as I was going through this stuff, 'If only these things could talk'."
"As children, things always are speaking to us and we are always making things speak," she adds. “And (I was) trying to get back in touch with that imaginary world — what it’s like to be a child and see the whole world as being alive.”
A professor of English at Smith College in Massachusetts, Ozeki is also a filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest, and her novel was inspired in part by Buddhist philosophy — and by the decluttering doyenne Marie Kondo.
“What she is teaching is nothing more than a traditional Japanese way of approaching possessions and objects," Ozeki says of Kondo. "You take care of your things. The built-in obsolescence that most of our objects have these days seems to me problematic.”
Ozeki has authored three other novels, including the environmentally-themed My Year of Meats and All Over Creation. She was a Booker Prize finalist in 2013 for A Tale for the Time Being, a Pacific-spanning story set after Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
British journalist Mary Ann Sieghart, who chaired the Women's Prize judging panel, says Ozeki’s winning novel “stood out for its sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humor and poignancy.”
“A celebration of the power of books and reading, it tackles big issues of life and death, and is a complete joy to read,” she adds.
Bookmakers had ranked Ozeki’s book a longshot to win, behind New Zealand author Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, Turkish-British author Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees and American writer Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle. This year’s other finalists were American writer Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence and Trinidadian author Lisa Allen-Agostini’s The Bread the Devil Knead.
“This is absurd — I don’t win things,” Ozeki said as she was handed her trophy. Winning the Women’s Prize has especially meaningful for her. “I feel like I wouldn’t be writing if it wasn’t for the support of women and women’s institutions,” she says.
The Women’s Prize, founded in 1996, is open to female English-language writers from around the world. Previous winners include Zadie Smith, Tayari Jones and Maggie O’Farrell. Last year’s winner was Susanna Clarke for her literary fantasy Piranesi.