Northampton author Ruth Ozeki wins prestigious literary prize in Great Britain

  • Ruth Ozeki’s “The Book of Form and Emptiness” took the author about eight years to finish. “I’m a pretty slow writer” she told the Gazette last year in an interview. FILE PHOTO

  • Northampton writer Ruth Ozeki, seen here at Smith College, has won the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction in Great Britain for her 2021 novel “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” which comes with a £30,000 purse (about $37,700 in U.S. dollars). GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Ruth Ozeki, at far right, poses with fellow writers Jhumpa Lahiri, Eleanor Catton, Colm Toibin, and NoViolet Bulawayo in 2013 when they were finalists for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Ozeki holds her third novel, “A Tale for the Time Being” (Catton won the award that year). AP FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/20/2022 5:29:41 PM
Modified: 6/20/2022 5:29:21 PM

NORTHAMPTON — “The Book of Form and Emptiness” may have taken Ruth Ozeki eight years to write, but it’s now paid off in a big way: She’s won Great Britain’s prestigious Women’s Prize for Literature, which comes with a £30,000 purse (about $36,700 in U.S. dollars).

The Women’s Prize for Literature, created in 1996 and originally known as the Orange Prize for Fiction, is given annually to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom in the preceding year.

“The Book of Form and Emptiness,” published last year in the U.S. by Viking and now by Canongate in Britain, is Ozeki’s fourth novel and her longest, a story that “stood out for its sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humor and poignancy,” 2022 Chair of Judges Mary Ann Sieghart said last week in London in an awards ceremony.

Ozeki, who lives in Northampton, centers her story on Benny Oh, a young teen of mixed race living in the Pacific Northwest who’s mourning the sudden death of his beloved father. Benny soon begins hearing voices coming from objects in his house and then at school, where he’s bullied by classmates.

When his mother develops a hoarding problem and the voices he hears become louder, Benny seeks quiet and calm in the city library. There he also meets some odd characters who try to show him what really matters in life.

In the end, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” becomes a meditation on a range of ideas, from the power of books to the threat of climate change to the interconnectedness of many things.

Ozeki’s previous novels have also explored different themes, and in an interview with the Gazette last year, she said that broad approach is essentially a function of her writing process, one that allows reality “to seep into my fictional world. The walls between the two are fairly porous … and that can allow the story to move in different directions and embrace different ideas.”

She also recalled how another experience, some two decades earlier, just after her father died, had also informed “The Book of Form and Emptiness.”

“I would be folding laundry or doing some other chore around the house, and I would hear his voice,” she said. “I’d hear him clear his throat and call my name, and I’d turn around — but he wasn’t there. It was so quick, and I’d wonder if I actually heard him speak, or if it was in my head.”

Ozeki, who teaches creative writing and English at Smith College — she’s a 1980 Smith alumna as well — has won some previous awards for her books, including a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for her 2013 novel “A Tale for the Time Being.” That book was also shortlisted for both a Booker Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Sieghart, the chair of judges for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Literature, called Ozeki’s most recent novel “a celebration of the power of books and reading” that “tackles big issues of life and death … Ruth Ozeki is a truly original and masterful storyteller.”

Ozeki, in a short speech at the awards ceremony, at first took things in stride, saying with a laugh, “This is absurd — you know, I don’t win things. And it all feels so incredibly random because these [fellow award nominees] are some of the most amazing women writers I’ve ever met in my life.”

But she added, “I would not be here without the support of women and women’s institutions, and this is why this prize is so important to me.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.
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