Author: Ruth Ozeki.
Although published almost 20 years ago, Ruth Ozeki’s debut novel is still relevant in today’s society, if not more relevant. My Year of Meats (1998) begins with Jane Tagaki-Little, a mixed race Japanese-American, who gets a job as part of a documentary series My American Wife! that showcases the best of American meat-based recipes for the Japanese audience. As part of the job, the team must travel around USA to meet families that reflect typical American domestic life and who each cook a meal to showcase a particular meat in each episode. The narrative switches back and forth between Jane and Akiko, a Japanese woman living in Japan who watches the show and who is in an abusive relationship.
As Jane works more on the series, she begins to investigate the corrupt nature of meat production and pharmaceuticals from hormone injections in chicken to the use of DES in cattle ranches. She also discovers the effects it has on humans like infertility, cancer, miscarriage, and adverse hormone levels. The investigative aspects of the novel are intriguing as Jane herself unknowing stumbles into the world of corrupt meat processing and starts a one-woman mission to shed a light on the industry. We are brought with her and we, the readers, are just as gob-smacked by each discovery she makes, including her own personal connections to some of the chemicals used in meat production.
The diverse families interviewed for the show are wonderful as Ozeki posits that there is no typical American family and that the multiplicity of race, class and gender all add to the American identity. Personally, I loved Jane’s mixed race identity because mixed protagonists are so rare to find. The discussions that Ozeki raises about the experiences of mixed individuals such as feeling like an outsider in both cultures was amazing to read, and necessary to portray. From that point of view, I really connected with Jane’s experiences.
The writing is powerful, from the vile depictions of the slaughterhouse that Jane visits to the violent attacks on Akiko in her abusive relationship. Ozeki fluidly interweaves the different aspects of the novel like race, pregnancy, meat production, chemical affects, and food consumption, to create a cohesive novel where everything is linked together and where variables affect one another.