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

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

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THE BELIEVER: 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.

RUTH OZEKI: 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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Malena Watrous is a writer living in San Francisco, where she is revising her first novel. She also teaches creative writing at Stanford University.

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