Mirroring the journey of her novel’s heroine, Ruth Ozeki explored meat and media and discovered that writing is always political and denial always a choice.
What’s in a Name?
Last year my first novel was published. It’s called My Year of Meats. It’s a good title, I think. A funny title. A little proud, a little awkward, a little perverse. The My, right up front like that, claims it and makes it personal. And although the Year is tinged with nostalgia, the comic bluntness of Meats saves it from sentimentality. Finally, the “s‚” hanging on to the tail makes the whole thing sound foreign. All this is intentional. It describes exactly what the book is about.
Some people liked the title. Some were dismayed. My editor, bless her, caught between a rock (me) and a hard place (the fickle tastes of the American book consumer), sort of rolled her eyes at my textual analysis of the title’s workings, then asked me to change it.
“Meat,” she explained, patiently, “is a tough sell.”
“Why?” I asked, always eager for new lessons.
“It does not sound delicious.”
Of course she is absolutely right. We are all squeamish about meat. All of us. Even the most voraciously carnivorous. So I tried to be less rock-like, to be like water, to change the title. We all tried. But even in the interest of sales, the name refused to budge.
Some names are like that. Others not. My name is Ruth. It seems a solid, biblical name, derived from the Hebrew word meaning “companion‚” but it is tinged as well with shadows of Old English—an archaic sense of compassion, of sorrow or grief. In modern usage, this “ruth” has all but vanished. “Ruthless” is all that remains.
My mother is Japanese and my father, American. This makes me half. Neither here nor there. Racial duality, this friction, has defined me, starting with my name. Ruth is a fine name in English, but since Japanese people cannot pronounce either “r‚” or “th‚” it quickly loses its phonetic integrity. My Japanese relatives pronounce my name Rusu, which in Japanese means not at home. The sentence Rusu wa rusu desu translates as Ruth is ruth, but also Ruth is absent. Not at home.
I mention all this by way of self-introduction, a time-honored tradition in Japan, whereby the simple act of launching one’s name into the world breaks down a barrier between self and other, making the private self public. I also mention it because the self is the obvious place to start just about anything, be it a writing practice, a political practice, a spiritual practice, or a first novel.
When we talk about names—slippery and unreliable, or seemingly rock-solid, best-selling brands or corporate logos—we are really talking about representation. So, if my first object in this meditation is meat, the notion of representation leads me to a second: media. I want to review my relationship with meat and media, and the chain of events leading up to and including the writing of My Year of Meats. I want to talk about the dreamworld of media, and about my heavily guarded pocket of denial, which enabled me to live and work there. I want to talk about writing and how that process, by its rigor and its nature, forced me to pick these pockets open, leading to what seemed like a flash of enlightenment, only it was not so much spiritual as it was political—a sudden moment of brisance, when the mind catches sight of the vast interconnectedness of what we label political, and social, and economic, and personal spheres. And finally, I want to ask, what happens when illusion and denial become insufficient? When we have had enough?
My Year of Meats is a story about meat and media. It follows a parallel year in the lives of two women, Akiko and Jane, who live on opposite sides of the planet and are connected by a TV cooking show. The show, called “My American Wife!” features wholesome American housewives cooking wholesome American meat dishes. It is sponsored by Beef-Ex, a meat industry lobby group, whose mandate is to increase sales of American meat in Japan. Jane, an impoverished but aspiring filmmaker, is hired to help produce the shows. Akiko, a bulimic Japanese housewife, watches them, diligently cooks the meat dishes, serves these to her husband, then runs to the bathroom to throw up.
Here is Jane’s somewhat zealous salespitch for the program:
My American Wife!
Meat is the message. Each weekly half-hour episode of My American Wife! must culminate in the celebration of a featured meat, climaxing in its glorious consumption. It’s the meat (not the Mrs.) who’s the star of our show! Of course, the “Wife of the Week” is important, too. She must be attractive, appetizing and all-American. She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust yet never tough nor hard to digest. Through her, Japanese housewives will feel the hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home—the traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America.
Meat is the metaphor, the gag, if you will, that drives the story along. It is funny in a reductionist sort of way, and I chose it because it is so All-American, because it exemplifies our culture’s influence on Japan, and because, as it happened, I’d had some experience with the stuff. But more than that, its enormous range of resonance appealed to me. Start, for example, with the body—that fleshy, sexual, divine, irrepressible container that houses our humanity—and you can see how, once commodified, it transmogrifies so easily from temple into meat, whereby women become cows, and wives become chattel. Interestingly, that word shares its origin with “cattle” and “capital,” thereby exposing the very root of our capitalist etymology. The stock market is named for the livestock traded there. Wall Street was an abattoir. Selling meat was what it was all about. But more on that, later.
I never wanted to know a lot about meat. Never thought much about it. Of course, when I was in high school I went through a period of vegetarianism—a mandatory rite of passage for any adolescent in the late sixties, trying to secure an identity by pissing off one’s rib-grilling, unenlightened parents. But having passed safely through that reactionary little phase, I entered into a long, undisturbed period of meat eating.
I was a very happy little carnivore. Of course, by this time, it was the decadent eighties. I was living in Japan, in Kyoto, studying classical literature of the Heian period. The culture had been vegetarian then, but in the intervening one thousand years, it had sure converted with a vengeance. After teaching English classes, my students, who were mostly sararimen, Japanese businessmen, would take me out to eat. Milk-fed Kobe beef, massaged in beer. Spicy Szechuan beef tendon. Korean heart and tripe. Pigs feet and turtle soup. Horsemeat sashimi. Even a Big Mac or two. I ate it all, ruthlessly.
Following this exotic, or extreme, meats phase, I returned to the States, to New York, where I got a job that was certainly all about meat, but also about media and representation. I worked as an art director for low-budget horror films, and spent a lot of time set-dressing body parts for films with names like Mutant Hunt, Breeders, and Necropolis. In these films, meat abounds: dismembered body parts, fully membered body parts, succulent flesh of all kinds. Here I learned how to wrangle meat, how to mix blood, to model muscle, to build strong bones—all to recreate carnage. Most of these mortifications were enacted upon the flesh of women, I remember. (Women. Sex. Meat. Horror. The metaphor builds.) I didn’t balk when it came time to step into the alien breeding pit with my little plastic bucket, to ladle alien slime onto the naked breasts of beautiful New York abductees who’d been brought there for breeding purposes. The director gave the girls numbers. He had a great directing style: “Number 1, more tits! Number 2, more tongue!”
It was dirty, unreal work. I wanted something cleaner, more reality-based, so I traded blood and prosthetics for the more subtle horrors of commercial television.
Since I could speak the language, I got a job at a Japanese TV production company based in New York, coordinating and producing news spots, travelogues and other “cultural” programming. As the decade whimpered to a close in the U.S., Japan’s economy was still thriving, and stories of Japan- bashing were the top of the news in Tokyo. Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American living in Detroit, had been mistaken for a Japanese and beaten to death by an angry auto worker who blamed Japanese cars (and by extension all Japanese people, all Asians, in fact) for his unemployment. The Mitsubishi Real Estate Company had just bought Rockefeller Center for $1.4 billion. Somehow these two events were linked in the minds of the Japanese media as proof of their country’s awesome economic muscle, and they were fascinated and smugly horrified by what they saw as America’s reaction. A colleague in my office got a phone call from a Japanese news producer who was doing a spot on Japan-bashing. He asked us to take a crew out on Fifth Avenue and film man-on-the-street interviews of angry New Yorkers ranting about the appropriation of their Big Apple landmark.
“I can’t do that,” my colleague told the producer. “New Yorkers are much too polite.”
“Well there must be something New Yorkers get visibly upset about. How about baseball? Ask about the Yankees.”
“The Yankees didn’t even make it to the playoffs this year,” my colleague said. “No one cares.”
“Well, use your imagination, then,” the producer barked. “I don’t care what you ask. We just need images of angry New Yorkers. We’ll dub in the bashing comments later.”
This was reality, or what can pass for reality in television. News, twisted into entertainment. Fictions, gussied up as fact. An endless succession of (air)waves in an ocean of samsara, and I was swimming in it. Two years later, I was asked to help produce the program that would serve as the model for My Year of Meats.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the word “media” as “any means, agency, or instrumentality; specif., a means of communication that reaches the general public and carries advertising.”
With that in mind, here is some background information I did not have at the time, but subsequently discovered:
In 1989, the European Union banned the import of American meat, citing the potential health hazards associated with the growth hormones widely used in meat production in the United States.
In 1990, after intensive lobbying by the meat industry, the U.S. government pressured the Japanese into signing the New Beef Agreement, easing trade barriers, increasing import quotas, and increasing the American share of Japan’s red meat market.
In 1991, “Mrs. America,” a new program sponsored by an American meat industry lobby group, was launched on the Fuji Television Network, and I was hired to help produce it. According to the meat lobby group’s literature, the “Mrs. America” show would promote American meat by taking “Japanese housewives out of their living rooms and into the heartland of America.”
The literature also described our programs as “documentaries,” which would depict happy, rural American families enjoying delicious meals, and would “continually propose menus and dining styles to increase the demand for meat.”
At the same time, we produced commercials for American meat that ran during the “documentaries.” The ad agency that designed the television campaign promised the lobby group that the programs would have a “powerful synergy” with the commercials, “to stimulate consumers’ purchase motivation.” In addition, the lobby group would “develop closer ties with TV stations, the most powerful media.” And, since the safety and wholesomeness of American meat was known to be of great concern in Japan, the campaign would foster the “proper understanding of the high quality of U.S. meat in the minds of consumers and trade.”
After the programs aired, the production company commended us for our efforts: The show was a success and export sales of meat to Japan had increased. But I, ruefully, found myself right back at my old meat- wrangling tricks, applying glycerin to a T-bone to make it glisten, tucking sanitary napkins under a tenderloin to keep the blood from spoiling the nice clean platter. It was not where I wanted to be. About halfway through the novel, Jane sums up my feelings at the time:
I wanted to make programs with documentary integrity, and at first I believed in a truth that existed—singular, empirical, absolute. But slowly, as my skills improved and I learned about editing and camera angles and the effect that music can have on meaning, I realized that truth was like race, and could only be measured in ever diminishing approximations. Still, as a documentarian, you must strive for the truth and believe in it, wholeheartedly.
Halved as I am, I was born doubled. By the time I wrote the pitch for My American Wife! my talent for speaking out of both sides of my mouth was already honed. On one hand I really did believe that you could use wives to sell meat in the service of a greater Truth. On the other hand, I was broke after my divorce and desperate for a job.
The fact is, my co-workers and I had been happy to work on the show because, despite all the meat sales hype, we thought we might be able to subvert the corporate agenda and make some interesting programs about women in America for women in Japan. I suspect I was trying to make karmic amends for the pre-feminist hijinks in the alien slime pit.
But I was growing increasingly uncomfortable making programs sponsored by an industry about which I knew little, but suspected a lot. Even on the face of it, the meat industry does not have the best reputation. And I’d had this feeling before, this feeling of working under ethically compromised conditions. After the tobacco companies were prohibited from advertising on American television and they’d turned their sights to Asia, I’d spent two years producing a show sponsored by Philip Morris.
This was at a time when I was desperately trying to give up a smoking habit (the one I’d developed in high school, just after I gave up vegetarianism). We were required to include, in every show, a shot of someone enjoying a Philip Morris product, so I’d walk around the streets of New York with my crew, pockets filled with cigarettes and lighters, plying passers-by with Marlboros so we could film our “smoking cut.” I was acutely aware of, shall we say, a certain hypocrisy in my situation. Still, I did nothing to change it. And maybe the compromise was not so extreme, or my ethical sensibilities were underdeveloped, or maybe I was simply having fun with my buddies and paying the rent. In any case, other than failing in my attempt to quit smoking—one way of resolving the hypocrisy problem—I did nothing, continuing to work on the program until it died a natural death. Nor did I act directly on my qualms about the meat show. At least not until five years later, when I wrote My Year of Meats.
Truth lies in layers, each one thin and barely opaque, like skin, resisting the tug to be told. As a documentarian I think about this a lot. In the edit, timing is everything. There is a time to peel back.
Jane makes this comment when she is in the editing room, confronting her own deeply buried misgivings about the work she is doing. I mentioned earlier that I had chosen to write about the meat show for its metaphorical resonance, cultural significance, and comedic ring, and that is all true—the novel started out as a series of anecdotes, funny stories about cross-cultural miscommunication between Japan and America as it is mediated by television.
However, since I’d chosen meat as the butt of my satire, it was clear I had a narrative responsibility to understand my topic and also to figure out how meat, itself, might impact the physical bodies of my characters. But I didn’t want to. As simple as that. I dreaded the knowledge, just as I had when I was producing the show itself, resisting it and putting it off, until the niggling feeling became a constant irritation and finally deepened into an abscess that couldn’t be ignored. My reluctance to confront the issues meant that I was already several hundred pages into the novel before realizing it was time to peel back, to start taking meat very seriously. This was the heart of my denial, and it paralleled Jane’s:
I know what denial looks like, and what it feels like, too. It’s a mercurial flicker of recognition in the eye, quickly blanketed with a vagueness that infuses the body like sluggish blood. It is opaque. Murky. Like wading through a swampy dream that drags at your limbs, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t move forward. I know this feeling because I make television and try to walk through it on a daily basis. It feeds on convention, cowers behind etiquette, and the only way to deal with it is with a blunt, frontal attack.
I started to research the industry. What I found out sickened me. The mechanized cruelty of our factory farm operations, practiced on such a massive scale here in this country, defies comprehension. It made all the gore and horror I’d dabbled in over the years look like crude, vile pornography. This is not Old Macdonald’s farm. This is the foul reality behind the illusion of wholesome meat-fed Americans that I’d been conjuring for the Japanese and hanging onto for consolation myself. This is the dirty secret, so brutal and wrong, that the industry keeps strictly concealed, knowing that this volume and extremity of carnage is guaranteed to ruin appetites.
Yet at the back of my mind, I’d always known. About the treatment suffered by these animals. The devastation that meat-based food economies wreak on the environment. The toxic conditions in the feedlots. And the pharmaceutical abuse that is practiced to fatten the animals rapidly and to keep them alive long enough to bring them to slaughter.
It brought tears to my eyes. I think it opened my heart.
I fed this information to Jane, who began to act upon it. The slow process of her political awakening replicates mine, and this is how the plot of the novel developed. With each bit of research, each small fact, the plot took another twist or turn, building in speed and intensity toward its end.
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. I realized in a flash that Jane’s mother had taken the drug, and that Jane, unable to become pregnant because of a deformed uterus and at a high risk for cancer, was a D.E.S. daughter. Suddenly my little metaphor was no longer just 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.
It was a moment of horrifying resonance. I saw Jane’s life (my life, all lives) as being a part of a vast web of interconnected spheres, where the workings of the larger social, public, political and corporate machinery impact on something as private and intimate as the tortuous descent of an egg through one hopeful woman’s fallopian tube.
The practice of writing is often compared to meditation, and I think that is valid. Facing the blank page, alone, unknowing, suspended in the gap between void and becoming, you fight off dread, daily, until one day you realize that dread is precisely where you need to be. So you take a deep breath and step into the heart of it, the dreadful heart, and you start to write from there. And the path of dread leads directly to your pockets of denial, throbbing beneath the surface of the skin. I thought if I ignored them they would go away, but they didn’t. It was only through the practice of writing that I was able to probe and identify them, lance them and let them heal.
This meditative process requires both solitude and time, two things that are not readily available in the world of corporate media, or for that matter, in modern American life. But the years I spent working in that industry were not without merit. I learned a lot about what truly is a plastic dream world. It is a media that exists (and I am talking here about commercial media, not our desiccated system of Public Broadcasting) for the sole purpose of carrying advertising designed to exacerbate an insufficiency of self. A media that keeps viewers insecure and in a state of perpetual want. A media, fueled by—yes—capitalism, that reinforces mechanisms of denial and disempowerment in both makers and viewers.
Here is how Jane puts it:
Information about toxicity in food is widely available but people don’t want to hear it. Once in a while a story is spectacular enough to break through and attract media attention, but the swell quickly subsides into the general glut of bad news over which we, as citizens, have so little control.
Coming at us like this—in waves, massed and unbreachable—knowledge becomes symbolic of our disempowerment… so we deny it, riding its crest until it subsides from consciousness. I have heard myself protesting, “I didn’t know!” but this is not true…. Not a lot, perhaps, but I knew a little. I knew enough. But I needed a job. So when My American Wife! was offered to me, I chose to ignore what I knew.
In this root sense, ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms, and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence.
The antidote to ignorance and impotence also requires an act of will, a choice one must make over and over again, and that is simply to look, and hopefully to see. What I’ve realized is that writing, while at once highly personal, is also a political act, and a book is a tool that can be used to look at the world, in all its vast, overlapping complexity. The characters, who are avatars—me and yet not me, far better, or worse—take up my challenges and lead me, often kicking and screaming, into areas I am blind to. Still, a book is merely a representation and the trick with representation, with making illusions, is to realize that on one hand, truth is relative and approximate, and yet, on the other, one must believe in it, absolutely and wholeheartedly. So the first requirement is an act of will, the second, an act of faith. And for me, halved as I am, there is a further challenge implicit in my name: to resolve the dualities the name imposes by applying a type of ruthless compassion, or compassionate ruthlessness, to all these explorations.
As for meat, well, I’m still working on that. I don’t eat factory raised or factory slaughtered animals, and I abstain when I can. What I’m trying for is a high ratio of mindfulness to consumption, the same diet I’d recommend to television viewers. This is my hope.