A Tale for the Time Being Summary

Ruth L. Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being

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A Tale for the Time Being Summary

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth L. Ozeki is a unique and graceful take on what appears to be a “fish out of water” story, told in the eyes of a foreigner who feels like an outsider in her native home. The story is divided with two protagonists. The first being the author Ruth herself, as the narrator, who lives in Canada, and finds a diary floating along the shore, and wonders where it might have come from, and posits that it must have been part of the debris that washed up from Japan after the devastating tsunami of 2011. The second protagonist is the subject of the diary, Nao, a young teenage girl who has been the recipient of ridicule and bullying, and who feels out of place in whatever country she lives in.

Being part of a Japanese immigrant family, Nao felt at home in Sunnyvale, California, and even though she was a foreigner there, she felt more connected to that place in Silicon Valley, than her own culture and background. To her disappointment, her father lost his prestigious job in America when the dot-com bubble burst, and he was forced to pack up and move his family back to Tokyo where they first immigrated from. She writes how deeply she misses her home and how uncomfortable she feels in her new environment, “a jillion miles away” from her real home – she feels like an American adopted by a Japanese family, and the fact that she speaks very little Japanese, and knows little about the culture causes her to be seen as a foreigner in her new schoolmates’ eyes. They bully her by cutting her hair, and teasing her so much that she begins to contemplate suicide.

Along with Nao’s unhappiness in Japan, Nao’s father also finds himself unemployed and unable to find work, causing him to feel great shame, especially since his wife, Nao’s mother, is forced to take a job at a publishing firm, and work through all hours of the night to be able to pay for what her husband can’t. Nao’s father also finds himself in a deep depression, and unsuccessfully attempts suicide twice.

Nao’s great grandmother, Jiko Yasutani is a Buddhist nun who is more than 100 years old. She is also a feminist, a revolutionary, a poet, “a new woman of the Taisho era,” and a subject of great interest for her great granddaughter. Nao takes it upon herself to write about her life in her diary as she is unable to find hope in her own life, but becomes distracted writing about her, and in doing so, she documents fascinating areas of her life that would be of great interest to any readers of the diary, which Nao takes into consideration, writing it with notes to the audience, and emotive interruptions between each section.

With all the time spent observing and talking to her great grandmother, Nao’s life starts to look up, as she learns from her about the life of being Zen, and begins to find serenity and comfort by accessing her spiritual side, giving her the ability to live through and get over the tribulations of her daily life. Slowly Nao’s great grandmother teaches Nao about the family, their history and their culture, and tells her about her great-uncle who was a Kamikaze pilot in the WWII. And with time, Nao begins to learn about what it means to be Japanese, and be part of the Japanese culture.

Ruth, the initial protagonist begins to connect deeply with Nao, and reads it intently as a vacation from her own troubles, and her inability to finish the memoir that she herself is writing. She grows concerned about Nao, and wonders if there is anything that she can do to help – she wonders if there is any way she can look up and find Nao and her family – so caught up in the story that it takes her a while to realize that she is reading events in the past, and that at that point it is likely that the tsunami had taken them.

The story plays with the concept of time a lot, as it slips between Nao’s story and Ruth reading about it, and Ruth learns a lot from the diary, and uses it to find solace in her own life, and how to deal with her own family, as both ladies find the strength to take control of their lives. Ruth is also Japanese American, and is one of many similarities between both protagonists, making the slips in time very beautiful and applicable to most of the situations as they both suffer from similar misfortunes. Other motifs in the novel include suicide, known as honorable in the Japanese culture, and both Nao and her father deal with it on very personal levels.

Finally, one of the most powerful themes in A Tale for the Time Being is identity. Whether it is discovering it, dealing with its fluidity or trying to lose it and adopt another one, Ruth L. Ozeki does a wonderfully adept job of making us all question and consider our own.