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RUTH OZEKI

Mining the Earth’s problems for drama

by Stephen Hesse

‘It starts with the Earth. How can it not?”

So begins Ruth Ozeki’s second award-winning novel, “All Over Creation,” which is a rollicking tale of a Japanese-American woman returning to her family’s potato farm in Idaho to face her past.

“All Over Creation” looks at food and farming, using sex, romance, dysfunctional relationships and uniquely Ozeki-an characters to explore complex issues of biotechnology, environmental activism and New Age corporate spin doctors. If you enjoy the creations of Kurt Vonnegut, Barbara Kingsolver and John Irving, you will slip easily into the bittersweet worlds of Ozeki’s characters.

I have long been an Ozeki fan, intrigued by her artful melding of environmental concerns and captivating characters, and I had always hoped our paths would cross. Three months ago, serendipity blessed me. According to her Web site, she was going to be in Boston when I was, so I sent her an e-mail asking for an interview. The schedule on the Web site turned out to be wrong, but Ozeki wrote back to say that she had another engagement in Boston and would be happy to meet.

Ozeki, 49, is a filmmaker and novelist with two books in print, “My Year of Meats” (1998) and “All Over Creation” (2003), both published by Viking, Penguin. “My Year of Meats” is a funny and disturbing look at America’s meat industry and media through the lives of a Japanese-American documentary filmmaker and a Japanese housewife brought together by a TV cooking show.

In real life, though, Ozeki grew up in New Haven, Conn., with an American father and Japanese mother, then attended prestigious Smith College in Massachusetts and spent her sophomore year at Doshisha University in Kyoto. After graduating from Smith, she received a two-year Japanese Education Ministry fellowship to study classical Japanese literature at Nara Women’s University. Five years later she returned to the United States, and began a career in filmmaking. Today she is a full-time novelist.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I was pleasantly taken aback when I met Ozeki in Cambridge, Mass., where she was scheduled to screen one of her films. I had assumed that, with such colorfully complex characters peopling her novels, she would be inversely introverted, withdrawn into her own private, cerebral world. She immediately proved me wrong, striding across the hotel lobby and greeting me with a big smile and a firm handshake.

From her novels I also presumed Ozeki would call herself an environmentalist, but her passion is writing, and environmental issues make good fiction. “I’m interested in drama, and conflict provides that drama,” she explained. “Where are the biggest conflicts today? They exist in food, environment and religion.” She noted that her interest in the environment reflects her upbringing rather than any conscious decision to educate people about environmental problems. “I consider myself to be a novelist who grew up in the 1970s and fed on that particular cultural bloom that we grew up in. Having an interest in current affairs and politics, in hierarchies and power structures, it’s just part of who I am,” she said.

Ozeki does admit, though, that one book was not enough to cover all the environmental concerns she uncovered researching her first novel. “Once I wrote ‘My Year of Meats,’ I was really interested in food issues. Of course, you are what you eat, and food is identity, so I started to do research on biotech, which I had to do in “All Over Creation” before I launched in a different direction. I really felt like biotech was so interesting and scary as well.”

She might not call herself an activist, but Ozeki leads an environmentally aware life on Cortez Island, off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, where she lives with her husband, Oliver Kellhammer, a Canadian environmental artist. “The way we live on Cortez is as low-impact as possible. We don’t grow anything using chemicals, and I have a car, but I try not to drive it unless I really need to,” she noted.

Asked if she composts, Ozeki burst out laughing. “Oh God yes! We have chickens too, so everything is part of this cyclical process. In fact, I find it very disturbing to be in an urban environment: What do you do with all your organic waste?!” she exclaimed.

Ozeki has global concerns as well, particularly the U.S.-led, worldwide trend toward privatization. “The privatization of seed stocks is something that worries me, as well as the various attempts at proliferating genetically engineered seed, especially in Third World areas. There are aspects of this technology that might be great, but it has to happen outside of a commercialized, corporate-controlled, profit-driven infrastructure,” she explained.

As we were finishing up I asked her, if she could make one law, what would it be?

She paused for a long moment then answered slowly: “I’m tempted to say, that people can only watch one hour of television a day. I think television is insidious in so many ways, and as a former TV filmmaker, I can say this with some authority.

“But I think that if people would spend even an hour a day outdoors, doing something in nature, that would be a better law. Every day we should have to spend one hour outdoors interacting with the natural environment, even if it’s just tending peonies in a window box.”

But perhaps Ozeki’s most poignant comment during our talk was not in response to a question, it was simply an observation.

“I wasn’t so aware of environmental problems until I moved out to the Pacific Northwest. There, your heart is always breaking. You see the trees being cut, and it’s such a delicate web — when one element starts to disappear, you very quickly see the impact of that on the surrounding flora and fauna.

“Writing books like this is a way of processing that heartbreak. You can either respond by being afraid of it and running away, or you can respond by focusing on it and trying to understand it better. At least that gives you something you can do,” she said, with a touch of sadness in her voice.