My Year of Meats
A Conversation with Ruth Ozeki
What inspired you to write a novel about the meat industry?
Actually, it never occurred to me to write a novel about the meat industry. I started out writing a novel about a woman who makes television, specifically Japanese TV documentaries about American life. I’d worked in this small niche of the media industry for eight or nine years, and during that time it always struck me that the funniest, most interesting, most tragic and most culturally profound interactions always happened either behind the camera or when the camera was turned off. I hate wasting good narrative and am an archivist at heart, so I decided to record some of the anecdotes. I started with the scene of Suzuki and Oh in the motel room, shooting out the “Hustler” magazine pin-ups with a Wal Mart airgun, and before I knew it, I’d stumbled upon a first-person narrative voice that was strong enough, and had enough to say, to sustain a novel.
So my initial impulse was purely anecdotal. The novel’s primary theme, that we live in a world where culture is commerce and where global miscommunication is mediated by commercial television, grew from the very specific escapades of the narrator, Jane. The meat was metaphorical, a gag, if you will. As Jane and her crew embarked on a road trip to make a cooking show featuring rural American housewives (I’d done a similar kind of show myself and found it rich in narrative episode), meat took on a variety of metaphorical resonances: I was thinking of women as cows; wives as chattel (a word related to cattle); and the body as meat, fleshy, sexual, the irreducible element of human identity. I was thinking, too, of television as a meat market, and Jane as a cultural pimp, pandering the physical image of American housewives to satisfy the appetites of the Japanese TV consumers. And thus Beef-Ex was born as the sponsor of Jane’s TV show.
The issue of commercial sponsorship had always been a concern of mine. Like Jane, I had made programs sponsored by industries I didn’t quite approve of, in particular, Phillip Morris, the tobacco corporation. At the time, I was very aware of the way that the content of our programs was being impacted by our sponsor’s commercial message: for example, in every show we were required to include one shot of a person enjoying the sponsor’s product. At a time when I was desperately trying to quit smoking myself, I’d walk around the streets of New York with my video crew, pockets stuffed with Marlboros and lighters, plying people on the street with cigarettes and begging them to smoke for us so we could film our “smoking cut.” I was aware of a certain hypocrisy in this. So when I chose the meat industry as the sponsor in the novel, it only made sense to investigate how meat could impact the physical body of my character. You are what you eat, right?
Still, I was several hundred pages into the novel when I realized I needed to take the meat issue more seriously. I started doing research on the industry, and I was pretty appalled at what I found out. I fed this information to Jane, who acted upon it, and this is how the plot of the novel developed. With each bit of research, the plot took another twist or turn, building in speed and intensity until the story found its end, and as I was writing, I was carried along by this momentum. It was the most exciting sensation of uncovering, of exploration and discovery, and this is what makes the novel a bit of a page-turner: Jane’s process of discovery mirrors mine, the reader’s process mirrors Jane’s. I have an entry in my journal that reads, “Oh my god, I’m writing a thriller!”
Of course, the climax occurred when I came across the information that the synthetic hormone D.E.S. had a history of misuse, not only as a pregnancy drug for women, but as a growth stimulant for cattle. Suddenly the metaphor was no longer simply a literary conceit. It was frighteningly real: women weren’t just like cows; women and cattle were being given the identical drug, with equal disregard for safety. I realized then that Jane was a D.E.S. daughter, and it was a moment of exquisite and horrifying resonance.
“My Year of Meats” dips into a wide variety of serious issues: the role of women in America and Japan, stereotypes, racism, relationships, artistic freedom, and, of course, the meat industry. Were you concerned that it would become a “novel of causes,” or that the evils being exposed would overpower the characters?
I was not fully aware of the “issues” or “causes” until the first marketing meeting for the book, so no, I was not concerned that it would become a “novel of causes.” My characters live in their world, a universe, parallel to ours, where serious “issues” may constitute the meat and the gristle of their lives, but they do not identify their problems as “causes,” and neither did I.
But your question is interesting so I’ll turn it around: What is it that frightens us about a “novel of causes,” and conversely, does fiction have to exist in some suspended, apolitical landscape in order to be literary? Can it not be politically and temporally specific and still be in good literary taste? We are leery of literature that smacks of the polemic, instructional, or prescriptive, and rightly so – it’s a drag to be lectured to – but what does that imply about our attitudes towards intellectual inquiry? While I enjoy reading kitchen-table novels in which characters are distilled to their emotional essence and their lives stripped of politics and commerce, it simply is not reflective of my experience. I see our lives as being a part of an enormous web of interconnected spheres, where the workings of the larger social, political and corporate engines impact something as private and intimate as the descent of an egg through a woman’s fallopian tube. This is the resonance I want to conjure in my books.
I want to write novels that engage the emotions and the intellect, and that means going head to head with the chaos of evils and issues that threaten to overpower us all. And if they threaten to overpower the characters, then I have to make the characters stronger
Jane Smiley described “My Year of Meats” as a “comical-satirical-farcical-epical tragical- romantical” novel. Beginning with quotations from Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book,” peppered with faxes and memos, and ending with a documentary-like description of a slaughterhouse, your novel does indeed seamlessly combine several different genres. Is this how you originally envisioned the narrative, or, as you began writing, did the story and characters simply begin to outgrow a straight, linear structure?
Maybe it’s because I’m like Jane, racially halved and “neither here nor there,” but I’ve always been suspicious of binary oppositions – comedy and tragedy, documentary and drama, fact and fiction – so I guess it makes sense that I’d write a transgressive, genre-bending novel. It’s an outgrowth of my independent film work, too. I’ve made two movies, “Body of Correspondence” and “Halving the Bones.” The first is a drama with documentary aspirations, and the second is a documentary with fictional lapses. Both rely heavily on montage in their construction, something you can see in “My Year of Meats,” in the use of faxes, memos, and quotations from newspapers and from eleventh-century Japanese court diaries.
The juxtaposition of first-person and third-person narrative voices is another transgression of sorts. As a former documentary filmmaker, this question of voice and point of view is interesting on several levels, not the least of which is the effect of extreme subjectivity on notions of absolute or objective truth. Of course, this is a topic that Jane discusses quite overtly in the novel and that forms its thematic underpinnings.
It sounds coherent now but it wasn’t. It’s certainly not something I planned to do in advance. I’d describe the process as organic, with one part growing willy-nilly out of another.
“On the whole I concentrated on things and people…and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects. I was sure that when people saw my book they would say, ‘It’s even worse than I expected. Now one can really tell what she is like.’ After all, it is written entirely for my own amusement, and I put things down exactly as they came to me…” This is a quote from Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” that appears on the first page of the novel.
This was a tongue-in-cheek reference, a way of alerting the reader to the potential unreliability of author/narrators. The quote continues at the end of the book, when Sei Shonagon asserts, “I wrote these notes at home, when I had a good deal of time to myself and thought no one would notice what I was doing. Everything that I have ever seen and felt is included . . . Whatever people may think of my book, I still regret that it ever came to light.” Jane then attacks Sei Shonagon’s stance, calling it falsely modest, and goes on to proclaim her own determination to bring her stories to light, unflinchingly. Of course, that is Jane. Who is different than me. I flinch. And yes, I was stunned at the acclaim, both national and international. Honestly, you write something, you inhabit your world for a year or ten or however long it takes, and then it’s over and you simply cannot imagine why anyone else would be interested. And then, miraculously, they are.
There are two very distinct parallels between yourself and Jane – you’re both filmmakers and you’re both of mixed heritage. Do the similarities stop there? How about Akiko? What part of her character did you relate to the most?
Jane is my extroverted self, and our exterior identities and experiences of the world have much in common. But Akiko is my little introvert. I suspect I was more like her when I was younger and less able to recognize or harness my strength, and often turned it against myself as a result.
How would you respond to a reader that says that Joichi Ueno’s character is one-dimensional?
I’d agree that he is perhaps more simply depicted than Jane and Akiko, but then maintain that he is not a point-of-view character and the book isn’t really about him. One thing that has surprised me is that some readers feel so little empathy for him. Sure, he is the villain of the book, but he is a sad man, too. He is caught between a rock and a hard place, between his American bosses and Japanese corporate culture on one hand, and two highly subversive women on the other. He feels extreme rage and he has a substance abuse problem; he handles himself very badly. I think his position is interesting, compromised, and one I can relate to.
Is this your first endeavor into fiction?
No. As I mentioned, I’ve made two films, both of which have tread into fictional realms before, and all through school and college I wrote short stories. In fact, as a child, the first thing I remember ever wanting to be was a novelist. The filmmaking was a bit of a detour.
How has your experience as a filmmaker influenced your work as a writer? Do you prefer one medium over the other? If so, why?
I’ve talked about montage as a technique I started using in film. I should mention that I used montage because it can be done cheaply, my aesthetic vision being largely determined by economic constraints. This is what I find most liberating about writing, the fact that I can produce an entire novel on a ream of paper for under five dollars, and if the paper is recycled, I don’t even have to feel bad about wasting the trees. You’d be hard-pressed to produce even a minute of film on a budget like that. I love the lightness and freedom of the written word, the absence of physical constraints. You can travel to the moon or circle the planet, write a scene in a suburb of Tokyo, then flip back to Bald Knob Arkansas. And if you forget to write a scene, or think up another, you can blink your eye and just do it. When I started the novel, I felt like I’d stepped off a skyscraper and realized I could fly. In comparison, filmmaking feels like taking a walk in a swamp with shackled ankles. Writing is portable and doesn’t require a large amount of heavy equipment. You don’t have to feed a crew, or find bathrooms for them. You don’t have to make compromises with collaborators. You can have complete artistic control.
Still, I learned an awful lot from making films. Readers say “My Year of Meats” is cinematic, which makes sense to me. When I write, I feel like a virtual camera, moving into a location, panning around, choosing a frame, then starting to record. When I used to write, back in school, I never was very good at moving a story quickly and efficiently through time. Chronology defeated me. But after learning how to edit visuals in a time-based medium, suddenly I understood how to make the segues and transitions work, how to cut from a wide establishing shot to a close-up, for example, or how to move inside a character’s head. Additionally, I think filmmaking is the best training in discipline and stamina one can receive. All in all, I don’t think I could have written a novel had I not been a filmmaker first.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on another novel. I used to talk about new projects but I’ve stopped doing that because until you choose to make them public, they are very private things.
At the end of the novel, Jane says, “I don’t think I can change my future simply by writing a happy ending. That’s too easy and not so interesting. I will certainly do my best to imagine one, but in reality I will just have to wait and see.” For the most part, the characters in “My Year of Meats” do, in the end, get what they want, what they need, or in the case of John Ueno, what they deserve. Will you elaborate on why you decided to write a happy ending?
Jane needs hope. As a D.E.S. daughter there is still a chance that she might develop cancer, and she acknowledges this. What’s important here is her awareness that although writing a happy ending might not change the future, it is still important to imagine one. She says, just prior to the section you quote, “In the Year of Meats, truth wasn’t stranger than fiction; it was fiction . . . Maybe sometimes you have to make things up, to tell truths that alter outcomes.” Without the power of the imagination, we lack the power to alter outcomes, and if we can’t imagine better outcomes in a better world, we cannot act to achieve these. You can’t make something you can’t imagine first.
As the author, I wrote a happy ending, although, like Jane, I am suspicious of the efficacy of doing so. But happy endings satisfy the emotions, and I wanted to provide that type of satisfying narrative closure in the hope that it would free the intellect to continue its trajectory beyond the story line, pondering the issues the book raises.
At the same time, by having Jane discuss the shortcomings of happy endings right smack in the middle of one, I was hoping to invite the reader into a more complex relationship with that ending. In essence, I point an authorial finger at the very thing that I am writing, and poke a hole in the seamlessness of the happy ending by making it self-referential and reflexive. Ironic.
n the end, though, it is a tribute to the power of the imagination. You cannot make a better world unless you can imagine it so, and the first step towards change depends on the imagination’s ability to perform this radical act of faith. I guess I see writing as a similar endeavor.