My Year of Meats
Ruth Ozeki, 1998
Penguin Group (USA)
My Year of Meats. It changed my life. You know when that happens—when something rocks your world, and nothing is ever the same after?
When Jane Takagi-Little, an unemployed Japanese-American documentary filmmaker, answers the phone at two in the morning, her life is forever altered. She accepts a job working on My American Wife!, a Japanese television show sponsored by an American national lobby organization that represents American meats of all kinds—beef, pork, lamb, goat, and horse, just to name a few.
In the early-morning hours, wrapped in a blanket and huddled over her computer keyboard, Jane writes a pitch for the new program: “Meat is the Message. . . .It’s the meat (not the Mrs.) who’s the star of our show! She must be attractive, appetizing, and all-American. She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest.” And so Jane, a self-described polyracial prototype, embarks on her year of meats, zigzagging across the country in search of healthy American wives.
Akiko Ueno, the bulimic Japanese wife of the executive who hatched the My American Wife! concept, lives an ocean away. She is thin, so thin that her bones hurt, so thin that her periods have stopped. If only she would eat more meat, her husband thinks, surely she would become “ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest,” much like the Texas women that he is so fond of. And so Akiko Ueno tunes in to My American Wife! every week, trying desperately to cook and consume delicious dishes, like Coca Cola Roast and Beef Fudge, that she learns from watching the American wives.
Although Jane and Akiko are brilliant counterpoints—Jane’s first-person narrative lends the novel its funny and candid tone while Akiko’s eventual triumph is a poignant reminder that a frail body can house the fiercest of spirits—Jane encounters a host of other extraordinary characters as she scours our nation’s freezer sections and Wal-Marts in search of subjects for her programs. She learns to two-step from Alberto and Catalina Martinez, who emigrated to Texas so that their son could be born an American citizen.
She joins Vern and Grace Beaudroux at the annual pig festival in Askew, Louisiana, and meets their family of twelve—ten of whom are adopted Asian children. Miss Helen Dawes invites her to a rousing prayer service in Harmony, Mississippi, where she learns that chicken can be a dangerous delicacy. In Quarry, Indiana, the male members of Jane’s video crew are enchanted by an ethereal and radiantly beautiful teenager named Christina Bukowsky, whose legs were crushed by a container truck. While in Massachusetts, Lara and Dyann, a lesbian vegetarian couple living with their children—perhaps the unlikeliest candidates for My American Wife!—create the most honest installment of Jane’s program.
All of these characters are embedded in the terrain of America—and the text of the novel—like unique jewels. Each is different, yet none is less captivating than another. And as Jane, much to the chagrin of the Japanese production company, detonates stereotypes by incorporating these quirky, unforgettable characters into My American Wife!, a central theme of the novel begins to crystallize—that of authenticity.
Are “authentic” American wives really the “ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest” middle-class white Americans that Beef-Ex wants to offer up to the Japanese TV audience? Ruth Ozeki paints a world where wives are “meat made manifest,” where, according to the Beef-Ex hierarchy of meats, “pork is possible but beef is best,” and with this type of metaphorical play, she deftly yet relentlessly teases out our own preconceptions and misconceptions about culture, gender, and race.
With the roving, probing eye of a filmmaker, Ozeki brings into sharp focus a myriad of other issues that have defined this decade: spousal abuse, eating disorders, and safe sex, to name just a few. Jane’s affair with the enigmatic saxophonist Sloan provides a lens through which to explore the often ambiguous, confounding nature of modern-day relationships. When Jane realizes that she wants Sloan at the center of her life, rather than “orbiting its periphery like a spare moon,” even the stealthiest emotional navigating cannot prevent her from allowing fear of intimacy and a series of misunderstandings to railroad—if only temporarily—their relationship.
Of course, no discussion of My Year of Meats would be complete without a word about food safety and the use of hormones in the meat industry. We learn that ninety-five percent of American cattle are routinely fed “growth-enhancing” drugs, and that trace residues of these drugs, as well as herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides, end up in the beef that we eat. This information is as integral to the plot as it is to Jane’s well-being, and here the story unfolds like an industrial thriller as these larger social issues start to dovetail and resonate with the most intimate parts of the women’s lives.
Jane discovers that in her mother’s womb she was exposed to DES, a hormone mistakenly prescribed to prevent miscarriages, and now she suffers reproductive disorders as a result. She subsequently realizes that she is pregnant, and ironically, as her fetus grows, she craves more beef.
Determined to learn more, Jane visits Dunn & Son, Custom Cattle Feeders, where she meets the family: Bunny, a former stripper and rodeo queen; her elderly husband, John, who proposed to Bunny during a lap dance; Gale, his “pale, flaccid” son from a previous marriage; and John and Bunny’s five-year-old daughter, Rose.
The tour that Jane takes of a neighboring slaughterhouse, and the subsequent revelation that Rose—so poisoned by growth hormones that at five years old her body has matured into that of a grown woman—represent the darkest regions of the novel. Perhaps the secret poisoning of our food supply is one of the true evils of the world, but even more frightening is this: How can citizens of America, and of the world, address evils of which they may not be aware?
In My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki does not presume to have the answer to this question, nor does she attempt to shepherd readers through the rough terrain of love and happiness at the cusp of the millennium. Rather, she invites them to revel in the fumbling, imperfect—yet endearing—qualities of human nature.
And as for coping with the evils lurking not only within the human heart, but also beneath the cellophane packing of beef in the freezer section, one might best look to Jane Takagi-Little for guidance: “I don’t think I can change my future simply by writing a happy ending,” she says. “That’s too easy and not so interesting. I will certainly do my best to imagine one.” (From the publisher.)
• Birth—March 12, 1956
• Where—New Haven, Connecticut, USA
• Education—Smith College; Hara University
• Awards—Kiriyama Prize; American Book Award
• Currently—lives in New York City, New York, and British Columbia
Ruth Ozeki is a Canadian-American novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest. She worked in commercial television and media production for over a decade and made several independent films before turning to writing fiction.
She was born in New Haven, Connecticut of American father and a Japanese mother. She studied English and Asian Studies at Smith College and traveled extensively in Asia. She received a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara University. During her years in Japan, she worked in Kyoto’s entertainment or “water” district as a bar hostess, studied flower arrangement as well as Noh drama and mask carving, founded a language school, and taught in the English Department at Kyoto Sangyo University.
Film and novels
Ozeki returned to New York in 1985 and began a film career as an art director, designing sets and props for low budget horror movies. She switched to television production, and after several years directing documentary-style programs for a Japanese company, she started making her own films. Body of Correspondence (1994) won the New Visions Award at the San Francisco Film Festival and was aired on PBS. Halving the Bones (1995), an award-winning autobiographical film, tells the story of Ozeki’s journey as she brings her grandmother’s remains home from Japan. It has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Montreal World Film Festival, and the Margaret Mead Film Festival, among others. Ozeki’s films, now in educational distribution, are shown at universities, museums and arts venues around the world.
Ozeki’s two earlier novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), were both recognized as Notable Books by The New York Times.
Ozeki currently divides her time between New York City and British Columbia, where she writes, knits socks, and raises ducks with her husband, artist Oliver Kellhammer. She practices Zen Buddhism with Zoketsu Norman Fischer, and is the editor of the Everyday Zen website. She was ordained as a priest in June, 2010. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)
Ozeki skillfully tackles hard-pressing issues such as the use and effects of hormones in the beef industry and topics such as cultural differences, gender roles, and sexual exploitation. Her work is unique in presentation yet moving and entertaining. —Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Stanton, CA
[A] tale both heartwarming and horrific of two women, one American, one Japanese, curiously allied in a struggle against the determination of the meat industry to make the world safe for hormone-laced American beef.... Character gems and exquisite plotting make this a treasure to read, but the real sizzle is in the take on beef...every burger now deserves a long, hard look.
1. Each chapter of My Year of Meats opens with an excerpt from Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book. Consider the interplay between these quotes and the narrative’s trajectory. How does this interjection from the past enrich the novel? How does the Shonagon voice shape your relationship to the characters?
2. On the surface, Jane and Akiko appear to be opposites. Jane is physically strong while Akiko is frail. Jane is fiercely independent while Akiko is submissive to her husband. Are there any similarities between the two? How do they complement each other?
3. In the beginning of chapter 3, Jane makes this comment: “One requisite for a good documentarian: you must shamelessly take what is available.” What does this assertion tell you about Jane? At the end of Jane’s year of meats, do you think that she still believes it? If not, at what point in the novel do you think she changed her mind? Do you think that “shamelessly taking what is available” is a necessary part of being a documentarian or a journalist?
4. Our exposure to the media has reached a fever pitch. Increasingly, we are bombarded by instant information via television, print, radio, and the Internet. Is this a positive development? What is your own “screen” for judging information received in the media? Has your reading of My Year of Meats suggested any new possibilities for your own relationship with media sources?
5. How does this novel treat the question of cultural, ethnic, and gender stereotypes? Did it challenge any of your own perceptions or biases? Consider, too, how the media perpetuates and/or dismantles stereotypes.
6. Chapter 2 begins with this quote from The Pillow Book: “When I make myself imagine what it is like to be one of those women who live at home, faithfully serving their husbands, women who have not a single exciting prospect in life yet who believe they are happy, I am filled with scorn.” Akiko and Jane, as well as the women featured on My American Wife!, reflect the different roles women play both in Japan and within America. Of all of the women featured in the novel, with whom did you most identify? Were there any that you upheld as models for what women should aspire to be?
7. Think about some of the male characters in My Year of Meats. There is Suzuki, who has a “passion for Jack Daniel’s, Wal-Mart, and American hard-core pornography”; Oh, who is Suzuki’s drinking companion; and Joichi Ueno, Akiko’s violent husband with a fondness for Texas strippers. Do these characters’ affinity for pornography reflect the way that they relate to women?
8. Early in the novel, Jane says, “All over the world, native species are migrating, if not disappearing, and in the next millennium the idea of an indigenous person or plant or culture will just seem quaint.” Do you believe that this is true? If so, do you perceive it as a step toward a more peaceful, accepting world, or as a step away from a diverse, well-textured world? Is it possible to maintain cultural diversity without prejudice?
9. Consider Jane and Sloan’s relationship. It seems that the same qualities that make Jane successful in her career—strength and control—become obstacles in developing an intimate relationship with Sloan. Have you encountered this problem in your own relationships? At any point did you find yourself impatient with Jane or Sloan? Were you surprised to see them together in the end? Do you think that the novel is optimistic about intimacy? Are you?
10. “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.” Consider the way the novel plays with the notions of “truth” and “authenticity.” What do these words mean to Jane? To Akiko? To John Ueno? To the Wives? To the author? What forms of denial of truth do the various characters practice, and how do they “peel back”? What does the novel imply about denial in our world today?
(Questions provided by the publisher.)
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