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Ruth Ozeki, Bearing Witness

Author Arthur Golden attempted to catalog the elements that earned Ruth Ozeki's first novel both literary awards and a wide readership: "Romance, agribusiness, self-discovery, cross-cultural misunderstanding," the list began. Jane Smiley, too, was reduced to a rambling compiler of adjectives in her attempt to convey the complicated recipe that gave My Year of Meats its unique flavor. In the Chicago Tribune Book Review, she called it "a comical-satirical-farcical-epical-tragical-romantical-novel? delicious." Ruth Ozeki

What's odd is that both descriptions fit Ozeki's sophomore effort just as well. And it's harder still to explain because All Over Creation is a very different novel.

"Ozeki's story splices a bit of Edward Abbey into an Anne Tyler plot," Publishers Weekly noted. Perhaps more revealing, the former filmmaker's new creation wears the blessing (in the form of back cover blurbs) of two like-minded contemporaries, Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan. Trace the roots back however you like, with just two novels Ruth Ozeki has cultivated her own unique, hybrid form of American fiction.

Dave: In an article for Shambhala Sun, you talked extensively about naming My Year of Meats. It made me curious about All Over Creation. How did you choose that title?

Ruth Ozeki: The name was there right from the start. I never really wavered. I wanted to bring in this idea of creation because that's so much what the book is about, generations and regenerations. But also it's about this need we have to imitate God and to impose our own creative will on nature, so I wanted something that had a slight Biblical resonance like that. The idea of "all over creation" —there's something wild and out of control about that, a randomness that I really liked.

My Year of Meats is an odd title, so I was a little worried that my credibility as a person capable of choosing titles might have suffered a blow. Some people loved that name, some people didn't.

Dave: You began writing a book almost immediately after completing My Year of Meats, but you put it aside to write All Over Creation. Will you go back to the book you'd started?

Ozeki: I was about two hundred pages into it, so I was moving along at a rapid clip. I'm going to go back to it, I think, but it's been four years since I put it down, so it's going to be hard. You change. I'm a different person than I was four years ago, and the world is clearly a different place. Though actually the book is called Kaboom!, and it's about war, so it seems to me a good time to pick it up again.

What happened was, writing My Year of Meats, I learned a lot about food issues and farming practices, all this agricultural stuff. After I finished, I continued to track those issues. I was particularly interested in GMOs and this whole idea of transgenic modification. I'd been following the Terminator stories when I ran across Michael Pollan's article in the New York Times, "Playing God in the Garden." It was such a galvanizing article. He's a lovely writer. He has such a narrative flair.

Somehow it all came together with my personal life. My dad had died in 1998, the year My Year of Meats came out, so I'd been dealing with end-of-life, dying issues. The idea of control over nature, the erosion of biodiversity, the farm stuff? all of this gelled.

My dad was a linguist, working with endangered languages, so when he died a lot got lost. I watched him go through that, and it broke his heart. The idea of seeds and losing all of this seminal material started to work metaphorically for me. I thought, There's a book here and it needs to be written now. I put everything else aside and started.

Dave: Why are you motivated to write about complicated environmental issues as fiction, as opposed to someone like Pollan, who addresses similar subjects in essay form?

Ozeki: I did documentary film for a long time, and I spent a lot of time behind the camera, fervently wishing that the reality I was filming would conform to my narrative propriety. But you can't control it.

I think I'm a control freak. When I write fiction, I have the illusion of being able to control these fictional worlds and these characters, and to make them say what I want them to say. Of course, the problem is that it is an illusion and by the end of it you realize that you're not in control of it at all; the characters have taken over and they're driving the vehicle. Or at least I think that's probably the way it should feel if you have the characters right. But I think that's why: I like the illusion of control that I have at the beginning of a book. I can really make up the world.

In the research for All Over Creation, I thought it was important that I go visit the scientists who are doing the gene splicing and various kinds of transgenic potato breeding. So I did. I spent time in the labs, talking to them. And I realized that had I not been a literary person, had I been a scientific person, I'd be right there. That's the kind of work I'd probably be doing because of the enormous sense of excitement over creating new things, new species?inventions. I think that's why I write fiction, the same reason: to create something new. But it's good: there's a limit to how much damage I can do, writing fiction.

Dave: Much of All Over Creation focuses on a small group of environmental activists. One of the challenges you set up for yourself as an author is how to approach that subject matter without becoming didactic. Still, some people are going to complain that you've reduced the novel to a platform for your political ideas. Which is a peculiar criticism, given that you can't possibly ignore the subject at the heart of your characters' lives.

Ozeki: It makes me nuts, the idea that if you put a political struggle at the heart of your book then it has to be that the author—me— is trying in some way to push my views onto my readers.

Think about the canon of Western literature. At the heart of the canon are themes like hubris. You can't get a better theme. Well, hubris is playing out in the science and technology fields now —that's the theater for it. It's playing out in the potato fields; that's where this stuff is happening. And that's what I'm drawn toward, that conflict of ideas and beliefs. That's what you write about; it's the stuff of novels.

My characters happen to be a group of environmental activists riding around in a Winnebago, and also a PR flack, but that's the modern world. I guess it baffles me why people are so confused about that.

Maybe it's a slight violation of what we think of as entertainment. Maybe that's the transgression. By putting real information and real conflicts about ideas and about farm ethics, stuff like that, at the heart of a book, it violates our notion of what escapist entertainment should be. Maybe that's what I've done wrong. That's my sin.

Dave: What's fascinating is that your main character couldn't care less about these issues.

Ozeki: And at the end, she remains relatively untouched by it. She has been changed in different kinds of ways, I think, but not around the key issues. She's kind of a slacker.

Dave: Why is Yumi at the center of the book, then?

Ozeki: Because I think she's kind of an everyperson, an everywoman. She's like all of us. She's got her own stuff to deal with, three children who are driving her nuts, parents who are dying, a mother with Alzheimer's. Life is overwhelming to her. She finds herself caught in this maelstrom, and she can't help thinking, How did I get here?

At the same time, I grew up at the tail end of the baby boom generation, so I was political at a really young age. I grew up in New Haven, and New Haven was a hotbed of radicalism. I didn't really understand what being political was all about; I just was—that's how we expressed ourselves. And I was interested to watch the way we all lost that. After the Vietnam War was over, we all got down to the business of making money and leading lives. That's Yumi. Life came in and took over. Eliot, the same way.

Dave: Many people reading you bio would be surprised to learn that you share some things in common with Eliot, the PR flack you mentioned earlier, who's probably the most despicable character in the book. For example, you spent two years producing a show sponsored by Philip Morris in which you were required to include, in every episode, a shot of someone smoking one of their cigarettes.

Ozeki: Eliot is a despicable character. He was the most fun character to write, but he is despicable, absolutely. And a lot of the work that I've done is totally parallel to Eliot's, it's true. But I also feel like I've got a lot in common with Cass, and I've got a lot in common with Yumi; in a way, Lloyd and Momoko, as well.

I think all characters are facets of the writer. In a way, they have to be if you're going to write them convincingly.

Dave: Both of your novels concern the media and how it handles information.

Ozeki: Obfuscation, yes.

Dave: In an interview or an article somewhere—I can't remember exactly where I read it now—you talked about biotechnology, how it's rushing ahead and it's not likely to stop.

Ozeki: By the time we find out about any of this stuff, it's already out there. It is in production, happening.

Dave: And maybe it's fair to say that's why a person like Yumi loses hope. I mean, we can sit here and quickly list any number of current developments that are somewhat devastating to consider: the pending war in Iraq, genetic engineering of staple food sources without much understanding of the consequences, violence in schools, the depletion of the ozone layer? We could go on.

Ozeki: So many of the troubles we have derive from fear: It's too scary. It's too threatening. It's too complicated. It's too much to look at, so therefore I'm just not going to look. We have a real bias in this country toward reductive thinking. The media certainly has created that. That kind of reductionism is a real problem. Yes, it's overwhelming, and maybe we can't do much about it—but I do think we can do something about it.

As citizens in a capitalist culture, we vote with our dollar. The more we know, the more we can vote in the right direction. Consumers have an enormous amount of untapped power that we're just beginning to understand. We can only tap that through information, through really understanding some of the very complex issues that go into our food or our politics or our international policy.

We don't pay enough attention. And we're not getting the full stories from our media sources, which is a huge problem. We don't have a really good, viable, lively public media. We have NPR, which is okay, and we have PBS, which is doing its best, but with funding cuts to public media sources we simply don't have enough. Not in the way that Britain does. Not in the way that Canada does. The kind of information that we're getting is incomplete across the board.

I also think that we have to develop a greater tolerance toward being uncomfortable. These are really uncomfortable times we're living in right now. If taking in information makes you uncomfortable, then you have to take in a little bit and sit with it until you're okay with being uncomfortable. And you take in more and you take in more, and finally you get to a point where it's just interesting. It's neither good nor bad; it's just interesting. It's the way things are.

There's this wonderful expression: pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. That's kind of been my guiding mantra for the last bunch of years, certainly since I've been writing. All of this stuff, yes, you read about it and you get really pessimistic—but in this day and age, that kind of pessimism is a real dead end. It really is a moral imperative to act as though you're optimistic, even if it's really hard to find that little spark of optimism.

And there's a lot going on that gives us cause for optimism. Certainly, looking at the enormous numbers of people who are opposed to this war and have been vocal about it and have put their bodies out there visibly? It's unprecedented. A war that hasn't even started yet, and all this protest has risen up.

Dave: On Oregon's ballot last November, a question asked whether the state should require a label on genetically modified foods. It was rejected.

The most forceful argument against labeling was that our farmers wouldn't be able to compete because several large markets, on which those farmers depend, would no longer buy the food they produce. I'm sure there's truth to that, but it's an argument that tends to cut off meaningful dialogue before it happens. A real solution should protect farmers and consumers.

Regardless, the real problem is that voters rarely have an opportunity to study these issues deeply enough to develop a real understanding. We wind up voting according to arguments as they've been whittled down to sound bites by TV and newspaper capsules.

Ozeki: Another great expression, I can't remember who coined it: constant partial attention. That's really what we're suffering from here. And it's true: when you think about the enormity of the machine behind the transgenic crop movement, the numbers of people involved, from the scientists who are doing the gene splicing in the labs to the agribusiness corporations and the PR guys and the farmers and the processors, it's absolutely huge. Once that machine is up and running, it's just like a war machine. The pieces of the war machine have been assembling now for over a year. War was not not going to happen. Of course it's going to happen. When the machine has been carefully assembled and primed, it's going to move forward. There's too much momentum.

It's the same thing, I think, with GMOs, but that doesn't mean you should throw your hands in the air and ignore it. In our short lives here on earth, at the very least, we can bear witness. They can't take that away from you. At the very least, you can do that.

Dave: You're a filmmaker and a novelist. Walking down the street, living your daily life, do you tend to see the world as film or as text?

Ozeki: Depends. It depends whether I have a camera in my pocket, for one thing.

Dave: Just having access to a camera changes your perception?

Ozeki: It does. As long as I remember that I have the camera, everything becomes visual. And if I have a little digital film camera, everything becomes a movie; it's about movement. But since I don't have a camera right now as I'm traveling around the country, if I start thinking visually I'll just get frustrated because there's no way of capturing it.

The reason that I write and the reason that I made films, the reason that I've done all of this kind of stuff is that I love to collect things. I'm a collector. When you write, that's what you do: you walk around and collect stories, impressions, scenes. Everything becomes potential material, and it really changes the way that you interact with your life. In that sense, it's really quite an acquisitive relationship with the stuff that I pass through. Whether I'm acquiring that visually or as text bites, it's pretty much the same kind of process.

I'd love to be able to do more with visual stuff on the web. That's another thing that's exciting: to be able to put up short QuickTime movie clips and stuff like that. I just launched a web site, and I'm really excited about it.

Dave: So the site is up now?

Ozeki: I started it about a week ago. I never thought I'd get into this, but it's fun. I'm doing a weblog, as well. It's a different voice. I can't really describe it. It's strange...it's not public, it's not private, it's somewhere in between. It's really transparent. I love it.

Dave: Had you previously published anything expressly for the web?

Ozeki: I did an article on a friend of mine for Bitch magazine. Otherwise, no. I don't think so.

Dave: I'm curious to see how you find the feedback. We get a lot of emails from very passionate readers. Sometimes they like what we do, other times they don't.

Ozeki: Probably because it's so solitary, the Internet breeds a really obsessive passion. In Japanese, there's a great word: otaku. It means, oh, people who are obsessed with something, be it the Internet, Scottish folk dancing, or budgie breeding. The Internet breeds those small niche societies of enthusiasts.

Dave: On that note, have you used the Internet to contact anyone about exotic chicken breeding?

Ozeki: Our first chicks hatched out, so I just wrote a blog about them. We had three chicks, a small clutch because it's early still. They're Silky chickens, a Chinese chicken breed. What was nice about the blog was to be able to add links in the text. I linked to a Silky breeder so people can check out what Silkies look like.

I was writing about how amazing it is that an egg that you scramble for breakfast can organize itself into a living, self-propelling animal with a will to live in just twenty-one days. Twenty-one days! That's incredible. So I found a 4-H site that had all the days of a chicken embryo's development, and I also linked to that. You can pull these beautiful illustrations from the ether into your text. It's such a cool thing.

Dave: "In Japan," you write in All Over Creation, "bodies are ritually cremated, and afterward the relatives use chopsticks to pick through the bones, identifying this bit and that." That image really made an impression on me. Tell me more about that.

Ozeki: I use the same image in Halving the Bones. When they cremate a body in Japan, they don't cremate it at high enough temperatures to turn the body completely into ash; they stop at a point where small bone fragments remain, so what comes out of the oven is ash mixed with bone fragments. They're dried and bleached and put into an urn the same way that we do that here, but the bone fragments are gathered with chopsticks, and there's this thing about how you pass them, a whole kind of ceremony around collecting up the remains of a loved one and packaging it up in a way that's appropriate.

When you're eating, if I have a piece of sushi or something, and I pass it to you using my chopsticks, you don't take it with your chopsticks directly from mine. There's a taboo against that because it's how these bones are passed. So you would never pass food that way. And if you do, the Japanese will be very, very shocked.

Dave: You write quite a bit about Luther Burbank, the inventor of the Russet Burbank potato, in All Over Creation. What were some of the interesting things you learned about him in your research?

Ozeki: Luther is a complex and interesting guy. I'd like to do a whole book on him at some point, but I had to cut back a little bit just because I was becoming quite otaku about him.

First, you have to realize that Burbank was incredibly popular. He was a household name, an American folk hero. The Shasta daisy, the spineless cactus?all of his plants were being propagated. He was the darling of the ladies gardening club set. Then, at the very end of his life, he basically said that he didn't believe in a God almighty. He said, "I am an infidel," and he was attacked for this.

He delivered a sermon at San Francisco's First Congregational Church where he talked about how much he loved everything and everybody. He talked about how he could not believe in a God that punished the way that the Christian God is often portrayed; he couldn't believe in a vengeful God. He believed in Christ's teachings, but he believed in Christ as a man, not the son of God. It initiated a huge controversy. That he would say such a thing at the end of his life was really interesting to me.

Also, he was a eugenicist, as were a lot of scientists at the turn of the century. They were very involved in the eugenics movement, the same movement that later morphed into Nazism. This idea that we can breed better humans with desirable traits was something that these guys were really into. It's the same thing: that we can improve nature by controlling its processes. Luther said, "I was determined to find the vulnerable spot in nature and make her my coworker." The way that human beings describe nature as being something apart from us is fascinating to me.

Dave: Have you read anything really good lately?

Ozeki: A Fine Balance comes to mind. I love that book. And this is good because it ties back to what we were talking about before: the idea of optimism and redemption in the middle of unthinkable bleakness. That book is phenomenal! You've got this cast of characters who are so loveable and interesting and wonderful; they've got these great lives and they kind of intersect and spread out again. Things get worse and worse and worse and worse until you almost can't bear it anymore. And just when you think it can't get any worse, it gets even worse than that. Until at the end, you're reading—tearing through, even though you can't believe what you're reading—and he manages to give you a redemptive ending. And it all boils down to a smile. A smile, at the end of a book that long. And you're so happy. But really bad stuff happens in that book.

In The Times review of All Over Creation, the reviewer [Claire Dederer] had this really nice line—and I was pleased that she got this—this idea about the book being a balance of hope and dread. Rohinton Mistry's book was certainly that, too. It was absolutely incredible.

Prior to her reading, the author surprised us with gifts: seeds, appropriately enough, which she'd packaged in small, homemade envelopes. Steven and I got sunflower seeds. Michal got lettuce. Ruth Ozeki visited Powell's City of Books on March 18, 2003.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post



Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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