Ruth Ozeki and Mary Loudon gave a deliciously confident talk last night at the Southbank Centre. As part of the Women of the World Festival, Loudon was interviewing Ozeki about her new book, ten years in the awaiting, A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING.
Ozeki is a novelist, film-maker, and novice Zen Buddhist priest. Living in New York and British Columbia, she was raised in Connecticut by a Japanese mother and American father. Loudon led the conversation with a question about being a Zen Buddhist priest, the attraction and purpose of which Ozeki says is (to an extent) ‘being part of a lineage’. As a child, Ozeki witnessed her Japanese grandparents sat on the floor, swaying, meditating and she feels this memory has become an imprint in her psyche, one with draw and power. Meditation is a reflective practice, which feeds into the similar art of writing. She writes without knowing the outcome, writes ‘bits that I hope desperately will belong’, but finding that even when lured along an avenue that proves to be far in the wrong direction ‘there is something at the end of the path that you needed, so you grab that and you go on your way.’ This, her third, novel came into being because she heard the voice of Nao, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, fully-fledged in existence: ‘characters know best, characters hijack…you just have to go along with it.’
Ozeki spoke of the impossibility of being both generally and specifically accurate: ‘There is no way to write the truth. Writing is partial. The very act of trying to tell the truth is doomed.’ For a time, she was concerned that the leading voices of her novel would be overwhelmingly female, particularly if the ‘You’ in Nao’s diary was a female reader. I could hear echoes of the discussion at The So & So Arts Club’s forum on Women in the Arts, where the notion that women like dialogue and to admit complexity (which doesn’t make for swift soundbites or combative interviews) was heavily discussed as a hinderance to public life. I wondered whether Ozeki would have felt the same concerns had she written about a grandson and great-grandfather, instead of Nao and her great-grandmother, but this can only be answered hypothetically. Ozeki began writing the novel in 2006 and material for it can be traced through her notes back to the late 1990s. Nao is a character creating a novelist, writing for and to a ‘you’ she doesn’t know – and it wasn’t until the Japanese tsunami of 2011 that Ozeki knew who the ‘you’ was. The tsunami changed the world, changed the Japan she was writing about – and six months later the book was completed.
For all that she describes writing as ‘studying the self’, Ozeki is deeply concerned with turning this inward-looking outward, investigating the relationship between writer and reader. She is interested in the co-creation of writing – ‘Every single person who reads is co-creating a different work’ – which instantly frees the author to follow the ‘thought-experiment’ they’re most engaged with in the moment, because a reader, the receiver, will make of it that which will be different to another reader. And whenever she wonders why bother to keep telling stories, particularly when the output is more often than brilliant, disappointingly bad, Ozeki goes back to her Zen practice, a practice of return in which you constantly fail, over and again learning to stop grabbing at thoughts, to ‘relax the hand of your mind and let it go.’
I’ve never felt comfortable in gangs. Having spent my childhood yearning for welcome from the Cool Girls, and discovering that every time I was – seemingly – embraced it was only for the pleasure of having another sucker to exile from the tribe, my desire for group socials have been low, except as the Token Girl in any all-male outing. But my late twenties saw me unknowingly grow my sense of sisterhood and, last week, I found myself at the St. James Theatre, surrounded only by women of all ages, chattering with Jean Marsh and Lesley Duff, while eagerly waiting to hear the brilliant panel assembled for The So & So Arts Club’s inaugural Women in the Arts Forum.
Jackie Young spoke of the need for “parity of esteem”, Erica Whyman of “parity of leadership”, and Dr Ann Olivaris of companies so ashamed to have their mistreatment of women in the workplace publicly revealed, that they admit it privately on condition of a gagging-order, paying enormous financial settlements and offering great references from behind the scenes. Companies are willing in this because their noses appear clean; women accept this dispiriting pseudo-apology because they don’t find themselves vilified in the press one day and unemployable the next. On the same day that the forum was held, an interview with director Polly Findlay (by Fiona Mountford, who attended the forum) in the Evening Standard also touched directly on the subject of female agency: “It’s ridiculous that people are still described as ‘female directors’. You would never talk about a ‘female doctor’.”
Adjectives like “young”, “upcoming”, “emerging”, and, indeed, “female”, are set to destabilise, designed to destroy confidence. The pernicious element is the suggestion that people labelled as such are not established, are not part of the rooted centre – perhaps that a person cannot be (will not be allowed to be) part of the establishment when those words are applied to a woman in her 40s who’s been the Artistic Director (sometimes, also, the Executive Director) of critically and financially successful theatres for 20 years. Most of these descriptions are applied to both genders (and, oddly, people of all ages regardless of experience) but the insidious, apparently unconscious way in which they appear as part of the de rigueur vocabulary in writing and discussions about women in the arts is dismissive and demeaning. And when Equity, our own trade union, cannot be bothered to respond to an invitation to attend this forum; when the Secretary of State for Culture will not even send a representative or offer an excuse as to why she, Maria Miller MP, is not attending, it confirms that women’s voices are the last to be heard.
It’s a happy place to be, sat around a table, chewing the metaphorical fat with a playwright, archivist, teacher, classical pianist, and professional storyteller. I know, because that’s where I spent my lunchtime.
Since the beginning of the year, Greenwich Theatre’s foyer has been home to Health Tips for the Year Ahead, a poetry installation to hearten and inspire, to buck-up and encourage, to… You get it, right? Gathered in apothecary bottles, pinned to the walls, stored in filing-cabinets were poems of health-advice spanning the centuries. Cures for grief, heartache, backache, ‘Love – Miscellaneous’, even deflowering, could be found amongst this joyful collection, curated by Helen Eastman, artistic director of Live Canon. Today (Saturday) was the last chance to catch this unusual and playful interactive poetry installation, which is receiving interest from theatres around the country, all keen to welcome such imaginative use of an often dead-space-for-loitering pre- and (not if anyone can possibly help it) post-show.
To celebrate the success of this new venture (Live Canon ordinarily perform one-off – two if you’re lucky – shows of learnt-by-heart poetry and occasional song), a pop-up lunch was organized. With food by local up-and-coming chef, Joe Grollman (the jeweled couscous was superb), supporters and newcomers celebrated an extraordinary six weeks of workshops, performances, and the creation of new work – with hundreds of poems being added to the installation by the public, there to rest among work bequeathed to the event by luminary poets such as Glyn Maxwell, N.J. Hynes, and R.S. Thomas.
There’s an atmosphere of listening that can’t be found except in a church; perhaps a place of worship, though my experience is limited to chapels devoted to strands of Christianity. And not any old church. Not carpeted, tapestried, colour-felted playschool ambience. Not wooden-floored, folding-chaired, plaster-boarded, embracing rooms of praise.
Stone walls. Vaulted ceiling. Floors polished by years of shoes dragging their way to a stiff-backed pew. Brass candlesticks, stained-glass windows, perhaps purportedly-idolatrous statues. Hints at misplaced luxury.
It may be, the echo makes us afraid of our own voices. We speak and are amplified to others and to our own ears. Hushed tones seem sacrilegious in their volume. For me, this is the Quiet Tim Minchin knows: “like silence but not really silent, just that still sort of quiet, like the sound of a page being turned in a book, or a pause in the walk in the woods. … just the sound of your heart in your head. … like I’ve sailed into the eye of the storm.” I don’t fear these buildings. As a child, I much preferred being dragged to a foreign church, as if it was a museum, than a museum itself. The cool air, its calmness comforting. I never found the devotion of those around me intimidating; but did find the respect their focus inspired stilling.
And so, an audience without food, without booze (except for the drink they’d managed to imbibe in the pub beforehand), waited, seated, their anticipation palpable in the electrifying static of St Giles-in-the-Field’s atmosphere. John C. Reilly will be known to most, of those who know him, for being a personable, brilliant, funny, heartwarming actor. He is also, John Reilly, personable, brilliant, funny, heartwarming, guitar-playing, singer-on-a-passionate-mission to keep old songs alive. With two friends from his band – Tom Brosseau, North Dakotan, handsome gentleman, and charm-incarnate Becky Stark of Lavender Diamonds – he entertained us into the night with quips of discomfort about (some of) the music’s religious conservatism, quick-fire observations in the moment, and the most beautiful close harmonies I’ve heard live in a long time. This music – bluegrass, country, folk – needs to be heard in person. The performers enjoyment was palpable, the gig had all the class of a performance and intimacy of a living-room sing-song. I longed to join in, and we all did, humming along with our feet tapping and hands clapping at every opportunity. Reilly said, “Thank you for coming. It would have been a rehearsal without you,” which speaks to the heart of music: no recording will ever have the charm to effect in this way; no performer will ever have the power to communicate to a microphone more heartbreakingly than to people in their presence. And few concert halls can focus the listener, like these rooms of devotion to the unknown.