My Year of Meats
My Year of Meats
By: Ruth Ozeki
“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.”
ABOUT RUTH OZEKI
Ruth Ozeki was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, by an American father and a Japanese mother, both of whom taught at Yale University. She graduated summa cum laude from Smith College with degrees in English Literature and Asian Studies, received a Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship, and emigrated to Japan to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara Women’s University. She worked at Kyoto Sangyo University, and in 1985, she returned to the States and gave up teaching for a short, but distinguished career as production designer for low-budget horror movies. By 1987, she switched genres to Japanese television.
Ozeki has directed and produced a large number of documentary-format programs for network television. Her first independent narrative film, Body of Correspondence, was the winner in the New Visions category at the 1995 San Francisco Film and Video Festival, was screened at the Sundance Festival and on PBS. Her second independent and first feature-length film, Halving the Bones, traced her mother’s Japanese roots and offered an exotic portrait, partly factual and partly speculative, of her maternal grandparents and their lives in Hawaii. The film aired at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the 1996 Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco, the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, and many other venues, as well as being shown on PBS.
Currently Ruth is working on a second novel, and divides her time between New York City and an island off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Publisher: Penguin Books