My Year of Meats, by Ruth L. Ozeki
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. . . 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.
AN INTERVIEW WITH RUTH OZEKI – What inspired you to write a novel about the meat industry?
My initial impulse was purely anecdotal; the novel’s primary theme, that we live in a world where culture is commerce and where global miscommunication is mediated by commercial television, grew from the very specific escapades of the narrator, Jane. The meat was metaphorical, a gag, if you will. As Jane and her crew embarked on a road trip to make a cooking show featuring rural American housewives (I’d done a similar kind of show myself and found it rich in narrative episode), meat took on a variety of metaphorical resonance: I was thinking of women as cows; wives as chattel (a word related to cattle); and the body as meat, fleshy, sexual, the irreducible element of human identity. I was thinking, too, of television as a meat market, and Jane as a cultural pimp, pandering the physical image of American housewives to satisfy the appetites of the Japanese TV consumers. And thus Beef-Ex was born as the sponsor of Jane’s TV show.
The issue of commercial sponsorship had always been a concern of mine. Like Jane, I had made programs sponsored by industries I didn’t quite approve of, in particular, Philip Morris, the tobacco corporation. At the time, I was very aware of the way that the content of our programs was being impacted by our sponsor’s commercial message: for example, in every show we were required to include one shot of a person enjoying the sponsor’s product. At a time when I was desperately trying to quit smoking myself, I’d walk around the streets of New York with my video crew, pockets stuffed with Marlboros and lighters, plying people on the street with cigarettes and begging them to smoke for us so we could film our "smoking cut." I was aware of a certain hypocrisy in this. So when I chose the meat industry as the sponsor in the novel, it only made sense to investigate how meat could impact the physical body of my character. You are what you eat, right? I was already several hundred pages into the novel when I realized I needed to take the meat issue more seriously. I started doing research on the industry, and I was pretty appalled at what I found out. I fed this information to Jane, who acted upon it, and this is how the plot of the novel developed.
. . . Of course, the climax occurred when I came across the information that the synthetic hormone D.E.S. had a history of misuse, as not only as a pregnancy drug for women, but as a growth stimulant for cattle. Suddenly the metaphor was no longer simply 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.