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An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

[NOVELIST/FILMMAKER]
“WHEN I SPEAK JAPANESE, I’M A DIFFERENT PERSON. I CAN BE FUNNY IN JAPANESE, JUST NOT IN THE SAME WAY.”
Occupations held by Ruth Ozeki that were useful to her in composing her first novel:
Producer of an arts show sponsored by Philip Morris
Producer of a Japanese travel program sponsored by the American beef export lobby
Art director for B horror movies
by Malena Watrous
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

[NOVELIST/FILMMAKER]
“WHEN I SPEAK JAPANESE, I’M A DIFFERENT PERSON. I CAN BE FUNNY IN JAPANESE, JUST NOT IN THE SAME WAY.”
Occupations held by Ruth Ozeki that were useful to her in composing her first novel:
Producer of an arts show sponsored by Philip Morris
Producer of a Japanese travel program sponsored by the American beef export lobby
Art director for B horror movies
by Malena Watrous
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

Malena Watrous
8 Snaps

Ruth Ozeki is an award-winning novelist and documentary filmmaker. The daughter of an American father and a Japanese mother, she lived in Japan for many years, where she studied Noh drama, flower arranging, and mask carving and worked as a bar hostess, an English professor, and a documentary television producer. Some of her experiences working for Japanese television made it into her first novel, My Year of Meats (1999). The book follows the stories of two different women, an unhappy Tokyo housewife named Akiko Ueno, married to a controlling Japanese PR rep for BEEF-EX (a powerful American beef lobby group), and an American named Jane Takagi-Little, hired to produce his new series, My American Wife! Sponsored by the American beef export lobby, each episode is supposed to show a wholesome American wife cooking a wholesome beef dish to inspire Japanese viewers to buy imported meat. But Jane has more subversive ideas for the program, using it to expose Japanese audiences to American women leading unconventional lives, hoping to inspire them by example.

I first read My Year of Meats when I was living in rural Japan, teaching English at a vocational high school where the classes were segregated by gender: boys in a technical track, girls in a secretarial course. The nearest bookstore was two hours away, and the local library carried just one English title, The Bridges of Madison County. At the time, I was attempting to use my English classes at the sex-segregated high school as a kind of Trojan horse for a secret curriculum of gender studies. Reading about Jane’s ambitions and the mistakes she made, I was able to recognize and laugh at my own.

Ozeki has written a second novel, All Over Creation, and the forward for Inside and Other Short Fiction: Japanese Women by Japanese Women, an anthology of translated stories put out by Kodansha last year. She has also made two documentary films, one of which is Halving the Bones, an autobiographical movie about bringing her grandmother’s remains back from Japan. She splits her time between Manhattan’s Lower East Side and an island in the middle of Desolation Sound, three ferries and eight hours from Vancouver, British Columbia.

—Malena Watrous

I. “YOU CAN’T PUT LESBIANS ON TV ON SATURDAY MORNINGS!”

THE BELIEVER: I want to start by asking you a question that is not directly connected to your writing. I read that you and your husband, Oliver, raise exotic Chinese chickens. Are they pets or food?

RUTH OZEKI: I can’t believe you’re asking this question today! Just yesterday, this ratty-ass mink got into our downtown coop and killed every last chicken there. You might not know this, but minks go on killing sprees. They kill just for the pleasure of killing. We had about fifteen chickens, and the mink snapped the necks of every last one and left them there. I’m beginning to think there’s a karmic reason why minks get made into coats. I’m not advocating for the fur industry, but it couldn’t happen to a nastier beast.

BLVR: I’m so sorry to hear about the massacre! Are there none left?

RO: We still have a few in our uptown coop. We’ve had the chickens since we moved here in 1997, so most of them weren’t laying eggs anymore. We were running an old-age home for chickens that had outlasted their usefulness.

BLVR: Usefulness? So you did eat them?

RO: Mostly we ate their eggs, but occasionally we had to kill and eat one of them. If you have two young roosters, you have to off one of the males, because otherwise they’ll fight with each other constantly, and it disrupts the whole arrangement. The hens get upset, and no one can get down to the business of laying.

BLVR: Pardon my ignorance, but what exactly is an exotic Chinese chicken?

RO: Marco Polo was the first to mention Chinese Silkies in his travel log. They’re a wonderful breed, small, covered with down instead of feathers, so they look like these ridiculously fluffy powder puffs. But underneath, their musculature is black. When Oliver has to kill a chicken, which he really hates doing, we will eat it, but it’s weird to eat black meat. But they’re really useful to help get land ready to farm. Since they can’t fly, we’ll move them into an area that we want to plant, and they’ll scratch and dig up the earth and eat all the weeds and stuff like that, and then they’ll shit and fertilize the ground, and then you can plant stuff there.

BLVR: This seems like a good transition to your novels, both of which criticize the business of mass-scale food production in the United States, and the ways that corporate greed leads people to mess with science, with ugly results. When you began writing My Year of Meats, how much did you know about the meat industry?

RO: Almost nothing. I wasn’t intending to write a book with that title. I wanted to write a book about the television industry, and the peculiar pocket of TV that’s produced in the United States for Japanese consumption. For about ten years, from 1988 to 1997, I worked on a variety of shows produced in the United States, sent to Japan to be broadcast. The Japanese live on a small chain of islands, and they’re very curious about the rest of the world, so there was a huge interest in documentary shows about all things foreign. One of the first shows I produced was called See the World by Train. I’d hop on an Amtrak in New York and take two months getting to L.A. It was like a video blog, a visual diary of the trip, highlighting features of the American landscape, profiling people who live or work on trains, or who have tracks running across their property. I loved the funny and weird ways that the Japanese camera crew viewed America, and also the ways that Americans viewed the crew. That interface inspired My Year of Meats, which started as a picaresque road-tripping story.

As a producer, I had also done an arts show called The New Yorker, sponsored by Philip Morris. The U.S. had outlawed cigarette advertisements on TV, and more Americans were getting health conscious and quitting smoking, and Philip Morris needed to recoup their losses in a new market, so they looked to Japan. The New Yorker ran on Fuji TV. It was an arts and culture show, featuring Japanese celebrities coming to New York and doing something cool with musicians or artists or fashion people. One of the requirements was “the smoking cut,” a shot of a young, hip, beautiful New Yorker smoking a Philip Morris cigarette. It had to be a Philip Morris. Even if someone was smoking in a crowded frame in a dark corner of a club, the sponsor could tell if they were smoking a competitor’s brand.

BLVR: How could they tell?

RO: I don’t know, but they could. The people actually making the programs, we wanted to film the content—that’s what was interesting to us—but all that the sponsor cared about was their smoking cut, which we’d keep forgetting to do. So at the end of the shoot, everyone would be tired, the equipment would be packed up, and we’d have to unpack it again and haul it into the street, where I would hand out Marlboros to beautiful young people and ask them to smoke on film. I felt terrible, because I was trying to quit and I knew how hard it is, but when you’re working in the television business you don’t have time to debate the finer points of ethical decisions. You have to send the product in on time. But it continued to plague me, and that’s what came out in My Year of Meats. I wanted to try to figure out what I’d been doing all those years, making questionable ethical compromises, what that meant to me personally.

BLVR: That’s really fascinating, especially having lived and worked in Japan, where just about everyone—at least the men—smoked almost constantly. At the school where I worked, one of the teachers kept cigarettes tucked behind his ear during class, so that he could light up at the break between periods. So why did you target the beef export lobby instead of big tobacco?

RO: Well, I did produce another program that was sponsored by the beef export group and structured more or less like My American Wife!, which wasn’t at all how we’d envisioned the show when we pitched it. I was working in Japan at a television studio, together with this great group of feminist women, and we were all frustrated by our experiences as women working in a Japanese office. Back then things were still pretty compromised for working women there.

BLVR: I’m not sure it’s changed all that much, at least in rural Japan. I must have worked at a dozen schools there, and the women had to serve tea, and all of the principals and vice-principals were male.

RO: Exactly, I know. That’s why we had this idea to make a travel program about the kinds of American women not usually seen on Japanese TV. We wanted to make a show about rural women in particular, living in nontraditional families, being activists in their communities, doing important work. That was the idea that we pitched. We called it Mrs. America. We didn’t really expect it to get made. We’d pitch long lists of different ideas for TV shows, and our office would try to match one or two with sponsors who would pay for the shows that interested them. So months later, when our boss told us that he’d found a sponsor for Mrs. America, I was really happy until he said, “But we’re going to have to make a couple of changes to your proposal.” It turned out that the sponsor was the American beef export lobby group, and the program would have to feature a “cooking corner.”

BLVR: You mean “cooking ko-na”?

RO: Right, everything in Japan gets its ko-na. And in this particular ko-na, each of the American wives would have to cook a meat dish. I thought, “Fine, if that’ll get it made, then I can make this compromise.” So we went into production, still with the idea that this was going to be a show about interesting women, still believing that this was a good thing to do, and if it had to be under the umbrella of meat, then so be it.

BLVR: So was it a popular show?

RO: Quite popular. After a year as Mrs. America, it morphed into a program called Shimizu Michiko no O-uchi Haiken, which translates to “Shimizu Michiko”—she was a big Japanese celebrity at the time— “looks into other women’s houses.” We would stage these home invasions, filming American women in their lives, while the actress Shimizu Michiko sat back at the studio in Tokyo with her guests, examining and laughing at the clips. This gang of us from New York, artists and feminists, we were always trying to push the envelope, to get really interesting people and women on the program.

BLVR: Like the interracial, vegetarian lesbian couple that gets featured in My Year of Meats? Please tell me that you actually filmed a program on vegetarians that got sponsored by the beef lobby.

RO: Obviously My Year of Meats is a satire, a highly exaggerated version of the kind of thing that we did. But actually, not that exaggerated, because yes, we did put a family of vegetarian lesbians on the show.

BLVR: Did you get in as much trouble as your character?

RO: Well, the producer called me after he saw the tape. He was really pissed and he said,“This show is in a Saturday morning time slot! You can’t put lesbians on TV on Saturday mornings! Lesbians can only be on TV after 11 p.m.!” But something really sweet happened as a result. A Japanese director was hesitating over whether or not to air the program, and one of our Japanese cameramen actually argued for the show. He was certainly not what you’d call a progressive or gay-friendly dude, but he really thought the family on the show was strong, he loved their story and thought it was a good program. He said, “We can’t be afraid.” He talked the director into airing the show, and it got one of the highest ratings ever.

BLVR: That’s amazing. I can see why some of these cultural conflicts made their way into your novel.

RO: I knew I wanted to write about juggling corporate sponsorship versus personal or artistic integrity, because that whole Philip Morris thing had been bugging me for years. But I also knew I wanted the book to be a satire, and there’s nothing funny about big tobacco. Meat has better comedic potential, and I loved the etymological play around the word cattle.

BLVR: Cattle as in chattel?

RO: Chattel, cattle, capitalism, they all stem from the word caput, which is Latin for head. Originally, chattel were slaves, women and livestock, owned by a man, counted by heads. A man’s wealth was determined by the number of heads he owned. The word “stock” (as in what’s traded on a “stock” market) shares its derivation with the word “livestock,” and I’ve heard somewhere that there used to be an abattoir on Wall Street. There was a metaphorical cluster, an etymological cluster that I wanted to explore.

II. “VEGETABLES ARE FILLED WITH DRAMA. EVEN THE PEA.”

BLVR: After My Year of Meats, you shifted your fictional focus from meat to potatoes. In All Over Creation, you write about a group of eco-activists seeking to expose and confront big agribusiness. One of their targets is genetically modified potatoes, in which pesticide is programmed into the actual DNA of the plant. While this notion is scary, there is no way a potato—even a mutated one—can have the visceral fear factor of that skinned cow’s head that slams into Jane Takagi-Little at the slaughterhouse. Were you sorry to have to leave meat behind?

RO: Well, but when you start looking at the potato’s history, there is just so much there: famine, intrigue, conquistadors. Vegetables are filled with drama. Even the pea. What makes a novel come to life is conflict, and food is rife with conflict. Inside every pea or potato is an enormous amount of narrative. People get quite emotional about this stuff. I do have a background working in horror films, so images of Jane rewinding the slaughtered cow and watching the blood spurt out of its throat and get sucked back in, all of that comes from somewhere. But I had enough of the gore. I was ready to step away from it in All Over Creation.

BLVR: I heard that you used to make props for B horror movies. How on earth did you get into that?

RO: Well, I had just gotten back from Japan, where I’d been doing Masters work in classical Japanese literature, specializing in Noh drama. I came back to New York and, oddly enough, nobody cared. I needed a job and was hanging out with some friends involved in the film industry, which seemed like fun. This was in 1986, before I did any Japanese television work. At that point, you broke into the business not by going to film school but by getting an entry-level job on a film set, usually in porn. Right around that time, the low-budget horror industry started kicking in, driven by a lively home video market, and a lot of people who’d been working in porn were switching over to horror.

BLVR: Did you start with porn before you made the switch?

RO: No, but I got my first job working for a director who was making the switch from gay male porn. He wanted to go mainstream, to make a bid for legitimacy in horror, starting with a movie called Mutant Hunt. I was hired as a storyboard artist because I used to draw and I’d published illustrations over in Japan. But it turned out that we didn’t have time to do a single storyboard. A week before production started, the producer realized that we didn’t have an art director, so she looked around the table and pointed at me and said, “You be the art director.” I’d never even been on a film set before. Luckily, they hired me an intern, this fabulous artist and film editor who had just graduated from SVA [School of Visual Arts] and who had worked on film sets before. It soon became clear that she knew everything and I knew nothing, so we worked as a team and eventually started our own props-design company. We made breakaway walls, exploding heads and severed hands, and something called the “orgasmatron.”

BLVR: The horror genre is huge right now. It seems like 90 percent of the movies coming out of Japan and Korea are horror movies, and many recent American horror movies are remakes of Japanese hits. I’m kind of a sucker for them, but I also wonder why there’s this growing, almost insatiable appetite for extreme gore, both in Asia and here in the U.S.

RO: In Japan, the stomach-turning violence has always been present and prevalent, in the manga, comic books, and tabloids. I like the campy stuff, but I’m not hugely fond of the images of extreme violence against women.

BLVR: It seems strange to me that Japan produces so much of this hyperviolent graphic entertainment, and so many people enjoy reading it, when their crime rates are much lower than here.

RO: Japan is a country without as much violent crime, but there’s a tremendous amount of social constriction, pressure to conform. Maybe the bristling id is showing its angry little face.

III. “THE COLLISION OF CULTURES AND GENES AND ECOSYSTEMS, THESE ARE THE THINGS THAT INTEREST ME.”

BLVR: I wonder how people in Japan responded to My Year of Meats after it was translated into Japanese. Did the comedy of cross-cultural errors work over there?

RO: Well, that’s actually a funny story. When the book sold in Japan, it was an incredibly busy time for me. They put a translator on it, and from time to time I would get queries from her about slang, which I’d dutifully answer, fret for a while about my responses, and then forget about. I didn’t talk to her until I went to Japan in 2000 for the launch of the book. We met for lunch in some fancy hotel restaurant. It was just like a scene from Lost in Translation. I said something like,“It’s so wonderful to meet you finally. Thank you so much for all the hard work you put into the translation of my terrible book!” And she said,“Oh no, it was a wonderful book!” And I said, “How difficult translating the slang must have been.” And she said, “Oh no, I have a very good slang dictionary.” And I said, “But the humor must have been so hard to translate.” And then she said, in all seriousness, “What humor?” And that’s when I realized that the book being published in Japan had truly been lost in translation.

BLVR: I can’t imagine that novel without humor. I mean, it’s a satire.Though I wonder how she would have translated it. I mean, I wonder if humor has to be culturally or linguistically specific.

RO: Japanese humor is usually based on punning, slapstick, broader physical comedy. My Year of Meats is not thigh-slappingly funny. It’s ironic, and it relies on an ironic tone. Irony depends on an unspoken, shared sense of cultural assumptions. Half of what makes something that’s ironic funny is what’s not said, but understood. Without that shared cultural consensus, irony doesn’t translate.

BLVR: I remember one of my supervisors in Japan who was quite funny. His humor definitely came from what he left unsaid. If he wanted to insult someone—say he wanted to suggest that a colleague was shirking his duty—he’d say something like, “He is so busy. He has so many hobbies. He is a real family man.” But what he really meant was that the guy was never at work. But I only started picking up on this after I’d lived there for a while. Without understanding a little about Japanese culture and the workplace, I would have taken his remarks at face value.

RO: I was writing the book for a Western readership. If I were writing it for a Japanese readership, there would be a different inflection on the tone. When I speak Japanese, I’m a different person. I can be funny in Japanese, just not in the same way.

BLVR: So if Japanese readers didn’t find the book funny, what did they make of it? In the novel, the Japanese producer Ueno, self-nicknamed “John Wayno,” abuses his wife and tyrannizes his producer, Jane, trying to stop her from filming “undesirable” wives. He’s a hilarious character, but pretty unsympathetic, and his wife is extremely repressed. Were you worried about how Japanese readers would respond to the characterization of the Uenos?

RO: I sent the book to several Japanese friends before it was published to get a sense of what their reactions might be. I was concerned about their take on John Ueno. I worried that they’d say he was a stereotype. But instead these friends of mine—individuals with whom I’d worked in TV—were more like, “Oh my god—is that so and so?” The novel wasn’t a popular hit in Japan, but it was critically well received. At that time, there was a scandal after the NHK channel was exposed for making yarase mondai, fake documentaries, where subjects were asked to behave in a certain way. This scandal hit the media right as My Year of Meats came out, so a lot of reporting focused on that aspect of my book.

BLVR: At the end of both of your novels, a character exposes the wrongdoings of a corporate giant by disseminating a message through the media. In movies where people take on big business, the media is often used as a plot device and a tool to get the truth out. On the one hand, it’s always satisfying to see the bad guys get outed on the news. On the other hand, it seems to me that when this happens in real life—as it has so often lately— people are outraged, but little really changes. As someone who has made documentary films, worked in television, and whose fiction has a documentary angle, do you feel that revealing the truth to the public has any effect?

RO: I think there is a consequence; it just tends not to be dramatic. As a consequence of Seymour Hersh doing the kind of reporting he doggedly does, little by little, the cumulative effect of these does have an effect. It happens slowly, infuriatingly slowly, which is where our frustration comes in. You read some brilliant piece of exposé and you think, “Surely, now…” and then it seems like nothing is happening. But it is happening, just at a level that’s less apparent. Whether we’re going to be able to save ourselves as a result, I don’t know, but it may be the most important tool that we have, at this point. My books are about representation and the media. They happen to be about food issues, but that’s a secondary issue. Representation in PR or the television industry is the only thing I have authority to write about.

BLVR: Both of your novels also feature female characters who are half Japanese; your documentary film Halving the Bones is about things divided in two, and you have a story in Norton’s new anthology Mixed.

RO: In All Over Creation, hybridity is the central thematic metaphor. It was important to have a character that was a racial hybrid, since it’s about genetic engineering. In My Year of Meats, there were also thematic and plot reasons to have the character be a racial hybrid, since she was creating a media hybrid. My American Wife!, after the Japanese were finished with her, was a cultural mash-up, and so was she, culturally and racially. I choose to write about these things because I am also of mixed heritage, and the collision of cultures and genes and ecosystems, these are the things that interest me.

BLVR: I was really moved when I read the transcript of the talk that you gave at the Buddhist center,“The Art of Letting Go,” which connected your mother’s death, your Zen practice, and your writing, the act of writing, as a way of letting go. It struck me as true, yet I’ve thought about writing as a way of holding on.

RO: I think both are true. I’m a packrat, like most writers. I started by thinking of writing as a repository, a museum or archive to put things that are otherwise ephemeral and will disappear. We look for things and collect things, memories and observations, and put them in these homes made of words. At the same time, the reason it’s satisfying is that once collected, once you’ve provided a context, then you can let it all go. I discovered that when I was making films. I am the only child of two only children, and I don’t have kids,so I ended up with all of this stuff,including my grandmother’s bones,and I needed some way to deal with it, so I filmed it. It’s a technique that professional organizers use a lot. Take a picture and throw the thing away. I continue to find that same principle to hold true in writing. I don’t need to hold on to memories and thoughts about Japanese television, because I’ve dealt with it. You’re drawn to write a story for whatever reason. My Year of Meats stemmed from this niggling sense of having made some dubious ethical choices. I wanted to probe that remorse and then move on.

BLVR: That’s so interesting, because your fiction is political, documentary even, and readers will often take issue with a story if a didactic message is tucked into the prose. But although your books don’t hide your politics, I never feel preached to when I read them. Maybe this is because you investigate moral quandaries deeper than whether the meat industry is corrupt, for example.

RO: All Over Creation was really a story about parents growing old and dying. At the time, my dad had just died, and I was beginning to take care of my mom, who had Alzheimer’s, which is something I was able to think about and work through in that novel. My dad was a linguist, and one of his fields was endangered languages.When he died, he died with knowledge that he hadn’t been able to finish collecting and put into the world, and there was a sense that some information was dying with him. In the book, that translated to the metaphor of seeds, Lloyd’s seeds, and his concern about how they’d be cataloged and disseminated. Every book begins from a personal question, not from any desire to lecture the reader.

BLVR: So did probing your ethical choices through fiction help you let go?

RO: Absolutely. I also got to learn a lot about subjects that interested me but that I knew very little about before I started these books. Something else I learned as a filmmaker—there’s nothing like having the excuse of a project to get you to make phone calls or do research that otherwise you’d be too lazy to do. I was interested in the conflicts around genetically modified produce, but the science is very complicated and I’m a rank amateur when it comes to understanding what goes on there. I learned what I needed to know to write the book, but the most important parts I discovered through writing.

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