Published in 16.2
I AM SETTING UP MY TAPE RECORDER at Melriches, a chic Yaletown café, when a tall, striking woman walks through the door and introduces herself. With her gleaming dark hair, red lipstick, and tailored suit, she could be one of the models strolling down the sidewalk outside. Ruth Ozeki shakes my hand and tells me she’s just come from a week-long silent Zen meditation retreat. “Forgive me if I don’t know how to talk,” she says, smiling serenely.
Either Ruth Ozeki is congenitally unable to be inarticulate, or the rest of us ought to learn from her example and take up silent meditation. Let there be no doubt: Ruth Ozeki knows how to talk. In the next two hours we discuss everything from vibrators that stimulate potato plants to Takarazuka, women who play men in Japanese musicals.
Ozeki has long had ties to British Columbia, though for many years, as a non-Canadian, she traveled outside the literary radar. This finally changed, however, when Ozeki’s My Year of Meats was chosen as Vancouver Public Library’s One Book Vancouver for 2007. When she first visited, knowing nothing about Vancouver, Ozeki ended up staying at the Princess Hotel on Hastings Street. On her first night in town, she wandered over to the Balmoral Bar. “It was a wild scene,” she recalls. “So many different types of people involved in so many different types of inebriation.” I laugh as she continues, “I got into this great conversation with a Native logger. He and I became pen pals, actually.”
Where can I sign up? I want to be Ruth Ozeki’s pen pal, too.
In 1997, Ozeki lived next to the Union Gospel Mission on East Cordova in Vancouver’s Chinatown, right down the street from a chicken slaughtering and processing plant. “It was a surreal environment. Trucks would barrel down the street, and the air was filled with feathers, and there was that smell.”
The rich smells of Chinatown must have been an inspiration for Ozeki when she wrote My Year of Meats (1999), the novel that nobody knows how to describe. It’s told from the perspective of Jane Tagaki-Little, a Japanese American documentary filmmaker, hired to make a Japanese T.V. show, My American Wife! to promote American beef exports to Japan. As she tapes each episode, she learns more than she ever wanted to know about the mass production of U.S. meat, her own infertility, and a public vulnerable to the ravenous forces of globalization. But the novel is not “about” any of these issues. It is instead a wonderful mishmash of love, infertility, food, and sly insights into the endearing foibles of Japanese and American culture. The Japanese writer Sei Shonagon, who wrote her whimsical poem-lists a thousand years ago, makes frequent appearances. So do recipes for such appetizing meat dishes as “Coca-Cola Rump Roast” and “Beef Fudge.” But the novel succeeds because Jane is a compelling character, and readers care about whether she’ll be fired for what she learns and whether she’ll trust her lover Sloan enough to open her heart to him.
Jane Smiley, in the Chicago Tribune, called My Year of Meats a “comical-satirical-farcicalepical-tragical-romantical novel…delicious.” The Village Voice called it “canny, cunning, muckraking and lusty, weaving hormones and corporate threats, fertility and independence.” It is precisely because the novel is such a slippery fish, defying so many categories, that the work resonates long after it is read. It becomes far more than the sum of its disparate parts. Ignore my summary. Ignore all descriptions of the book. Just go eat your last blissfully ignorant hamburger, and then go buy My Year of Meats.
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that you have to be brave or crazy to eat mass-produced beef in 2011. It turns out that those environmentalists who were telling us to pay attention knew what they were talking about. Factory-farmed cattle is fed such delectable things as chicken manure, beef blood, and recycled plastic, with a generous dose of antibiotics and hormones thrown in for seasoning. Who would have thought we’d end up feeding calves blood instead of milk, and splicing salmon DNA into tomatoes? I knew all this—and more likely than not, you do too—but we go on eating at restaurants due to that unique human ability to compartmentalize. You can know all kinds of facts about an issue, but when you read about Jane watching a particular panicked cow getting a bolt shot through her skull and being turned into meat in a factory slaughterhouse, it gets personal. At the very least, it will take a willful suspension of belief to bite into your next hamburger after reading My Year of Meats.
All Over Creation, Ozeki’s second novel, is more traditional in form. It’s the story of Yumi Fuller, a Japanese American returning home with her three children to nurse her ailing parents. It’s also the story of the genetic modification of potatoes, and a gang of rebels, “The Seeds,” who take aim at globalization, GMOs, and corporate greed. If All Over Creation lacks some of her first novel’s whimsy, it more than redeems itself with its multi-dimensional, beautifully drawn characters. Yumi’s three children, each by a different father, are particularly resonant. The issues are no less compelling, though slightly less gruesome. But again, the novel works not because readers are desperate to be educated about potato gene research, but because we care about Yumi and her kids; we want to know if she’ll grow up enough to start acting like a mother to them and whether or not she’ll make peace with her father before he dies.
There are several parallels between Ozeki and her characters, the most obvious of which is the way they straddle two cultures. Ozeki calls herself a “hybrid,” and this aesthetic informs her work as well as her politics. She resists binary views of the world.
Like Jane in My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki is also a documentary filmmaker. She has made two documentary films: Halving the Bones and Body of Correspondence. I ask her how her readers can get their hands on her films without having to shell out several hundred U.S. dollars, and she says that most university libraries are willing to order them if they don’t have them; I was able to watch both her films at the UBC library.
Ozeki has always straddled two cultures, and now, with her move to Canada and her marriage to a Canadian, she has embraced a third. She likes it here. She is planning on becoming Canadian, and she likes the more global perspective she has, living outside the U.S. She says, “I feel my home is here in Canada, on Cortes Island, but I am a recent transplant. I write about the States because I feel more responsibility and more shame, being involved in U.S. politics.”
“Were your parents political?” I ask.
“No, my family wasn’t, but the times were very political.” She tells me that she was raised in New Haven, that her father taught linguistic anthropology at Yale, and that her mother had a PhD, also from Yale, though that was before women were allowed to teach there. “I remember going to political rallies at 11, 12 years old,” she tells me. “One of my school friend’s father was the Reverend Sloan Coffin, and he was very active in the anti-Vietnam War movement.”
It’s only later that I wonder about the choice of Jane’s lover’s name in My Year of Meats: Sloan. I “Google” Reverend Sloan Coffin, and find that he’s still active in the Civil Rights movement, and still pushing the Catholic Church to change its anti-gay policies; perhaps the name is a simple gesture of homage to an admired activist.
“Have your politics changed much?” I ask her.
She considers. “I know a lot more, or I think I do. But no. I’m still anti-war. I’m still a strong proponent of diversity. It’s in my code, being a hybrid. That’s the way we experience the world. Fundamentally, I haven’t changed since I was 13. And that begs the question, does one ever? At the very least, there’s a strong continuum.”
Ruth Ozeki obviously has a personal interest in the issues her characters confront and embody. Her website, www.ruthozeki.com, has links to organic seed companies, small farmers who are being sued by corporations, and Buddhist poets. She has written moving essays on Buddhism and her mother’s death. It is only because she actually believes in the causes her novels explore that Ozeki is vulnerable to being dismissed as merely a political writer. This baffles her. “I fail to understand why politics—which is just human activity, after all—is out of bounds! When writing fiction, you look for conflict, right? It’s a no-brainer to me.”
“What do you think makes people dismiss this particular kind of conflict?” I ask.
“People are threatened. People are scared. But I’m drawn to issues that scare me. I want to know more about them, precisely because of that, to deconstruct them.”
Reading a novel that addresses political issues forces us to confront the purpose of literature itself. Is it purely to entertain? To disturb? To teach? What are we to make of a novel that is resolutely divorced from history or political opinions, if such a novel even exists? I don’t think there is a recipe for the perfect story or poem. But the stories I like best teach me new ways of looking at or thinking about the world as they simultaneously transport and entertain me. Measured by this gauge, Ozeki is an exceptional talent.
Of course I had to ask Ozeki what she actually eats.
“I still eat meat,” she tells me carefully. “I don’t eat a lot of it, and I spend more money and buy organic meat, and eat it less often, but I still do eat it.” She and her husband, Oliver, have a garden on Cortes Island, where they grow much of what they eat.
Luckily for Ozeki, she lived in Chinatown only at the beginning of her writing and researching My Year of Meats. She was able to cook and eat anything back then. “It was just before I was too aware. Now I know too much to be able to eat that freely.”
So just what did that research entail?
“Well,” she muses, “For All Over Creation I took a really nice trip to Wisconsin to the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] Potato Introduction Center where they keep potato germ plasma. Wild potato stock is collected from all over the world and stored here. Before any new potatoes are released, they have to go through the Potato Introduction Center.
“Kind of like an Ellis Island for potatoes,” I say. She nods.
“Potatoes are pollinated by bumblebees. But because the potatoes at the Introduction Center are cultivated in greenhouses, there are no bumblebees. So I went around with the head gardener, Chiko, who had this device made from a doorbell buzzer that simulates the vibrations bumblebees make. Basically, it’s a vibrator for male potatoes that stimulates them to release their pollen. So for Chiko it’s just a job, but what I’m seeing is all these unbelievably poetic metaphors. It brings tears to your eyes.”
She tells me about the scientists who are at work with potato gene splicing. “By the time you hear about these issues, they are already happening,” she says, chillingly. “And I met these agricultural scientists who were smart, passionate people, who honestly believe that theirs is the way to a better life. And down the hill from the Potato Introduction Center was a Starbucks that was being boycotted by the Organic Consumers’ Association.”
What a perfect Ruth Ozeki day. The bright frightening, and well-funded scientists in their agricultural tower and the anarchists at the bottom of the hill. And then Ozeki tells me about Chiko, the man who doesn’t see the poetic possibilities
of his job as a bee vibrator until she points them out to him.
She says, “The issues are interestingly fuzzy, which I like. Why should life be easy? We should be really grateful for all the complexity.”
She thinks a bit more, and a moment of silence falls on our table. “I do see the beauty in simplicity,” she adds. “But even in simplicity, there is complexity. A haiku doesn’t become poetry until it resonates with complexity.”
Ozeki refuses the easy way out. If we are forced to confront, along with some of her characters, some of what we habitually put in our mouths and swallow, these confrontations usually emerge, seamlessly from the story itself. Ozeki doesn’t preach; she creates characters who engage and explore issues of critical importance to all of us. Neither the issues nor the heroes are clean, and the villains are all too human. The main characters stumble awkwardly into possession of knowledge, and don’t always know how to respond or to readjust…kind of like most of us.
I will be watching to see what Ruth Ozeki writes next, and will devour it faster than you can say “Beef Fudge.”