My Fear of Meats and America: Ruth L. Ozeki’s
My Year of Meats (1998)
- Author: Kim Soo Yeon
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 20, Issue1, p29~58, 30 Apr 2012
My Year ofMeats was highly successful in calling attention to the seemingly disparate yet related issues: meat, woman’s body, and transnational media. In interweaving two women’s lives in the United States and Japan through a television series on meat, Ozeki’s novel uncovers illegal practices of feedlot and the gruesome outcome of such practices embodied in a sterile woman. The novel’s merging of various themes has invited critical responses from multiple fields. While the variety of critical work is a proof of the novel’s achievements, this essay argues that My Year of Meatsremains problematic at its core. This is because the novel’s endorsement of transpacific alliances of women through motherhood served the then-emerging postwhite nationalist narrative of the United States, shored up by the multicultural/multiethnic family and their American children of varying shades. By investigating the ways the “multi-“ and “trans-,” abounding in the novel, are deterritorialized and reterritorialized within the new American Frontier of the 1990s, my essay argues the need to be wary of such liberatory notions as difference and mobility, which are actively advertised to redefine American global hegemony. I argue that this wariness towards Americanism is the novel’s main lesson, along with the due fear of unhealthy American meat detailed in the novel.
Ruth L. Ozeki , My Year of Meats , American multiculturalism , feminism , motherhood
Ruth L. Ozeki’s debut novel,
My Year of Meats, was highly successful in calling attention to the seemingly disparate yet related issues: meat, woman’s body, and transnational media. In interweaving two women’s lives in the United States and Japan through a mainstream television series on meat, Ozeki’s novel uncovers illegal practices of feedlots and the gruesome outcome of such practices embodied in a sterile woman. Stylistically, My Year of Meatspieces together different forms of communication, including novelistic narratives, faxes and memos, documentary interludes, and excerpts from Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, written around the turn of the 11th century. The novel’s merging of various themes and its crisscrossing of the boundaries of the form has invited critical responses from multiple fields: feminist science studies, environmental justice activism, and cosmopolitanism, to name a few. While the variety of critical work is a proof of the novel’s achievements, this essay argues that My Year of Meatsremains problematic at its core. This is because the novel’s endorsement of transpacific alliances of women through motherhood served the then-emerging postwhite nationalist narrative of the United States, shored up by the multicultural/ethnic family an their American children of varying shades. The reinstatement of Americanism masked in “global” affiliations of women provides a good example of late capitalism’s ability to, borrowing from Gilles Deleuz and Felix Guattari, deterritorialize and reterritorialize.1
This essay hopes to contribute to the
My Year of Meatscriticism by shifting focus to what lies beneath the novel’s celebratory portrayal of the multicultural family and the transnational relationship between a patronizing Japanese American woman and a docile Japanese woman. By investigating the ways the “multi-“ and “trans-,” abounding in the novel, are reterritorialized within the new American Frontier of the 1990s, my essay argues the need to be wary of such liberatory notions as difference and mobility, which are actively advertised in order to redefine American hegemony. I would argue that this wariness towards Americanism, presumably not intended by the author to be learned of the reader, is the novel’s main lesson, along with the due fear of unhealthy American meat richly detailed in the novel: hence the title of this essay, “My Fear of Meats and America.”
Let me begin with a brief synopsis:
My Year of Meatsrevolves around Jane Takagi-Little, a six-foot-tall, green-eyed Japanese American woman. A wannabe documentarian living in Manhattan, Jane is luckily hired to direct a Japanese television series called My American Wife!Sponsored by BEEF-EX, a Texas-based meat industry lobby organization, each episode features an “authentic” and “attractive” American wife, invariably white and middle-class, and shows her cooking an all-American red meat dish for her family. As Jane takes over the directorship, however, she breaks away from the 1950s’ fantasy of flawless American domesticity and shoots multiracial homes, from a Mexican-American household to a Louisiana family with eight foreign adoptees, to a vegetarian biracial lesbian couple with test tube conceived girls. In so doing, Jane aims to inspire her Japanese audience with the “real” America. In the opposite side of the globe, Akiko suffers from infertility and the abuse of her husband, Joichi Ueno (also known as “John Wayno”), the advertising rep for the series. Throughout the novel, Akiko is moved by the liberating stories Jane creates in My American Wife!and finally leaves her husband for the United States, ready to deliver a baby girl impregnated via her husband’s rape. Jane loses her fetus due to her genitalia having been deformed by DES (diethylstilbestrol)—a synthetic estrogen her mother was prescribed to prevent miscarriage during her pregnancy. As Jane pursues research on DES, she discovers illegal practices of the meat industry. Although she is fired for airing what does not fit in the BEEFEX’s protocol of the “wholesome” American family, the novel concludes with a happy ending; Jane produces a hit documentary on estrogen pumping feedlots and ghastly slaughterhouses, which cause the human body, not to mention meat, to be gradually suffer a buildup of the toxic substance.
Although my essay hones in on critiquing Americanism embedded in transnational television and multicultural mothers in
My Year of Meats, it is worth noting the various ways Ozeki’s novel has been received critically. Food studies scholars have examined the degree to which this novel traces the gendered division of food (beef vs. vegetable, for example) and how the cultural connotation of food is used to pursue the benefit of corporate capitalism.2 The novel’s description of the unethical feed technology intersected with Jane’s infertile body has led to enthusiastic essays in ecofeminism, feminist science studies, and environmental justice studies. Representative of these reading frames, Julie Sze argues that Jane is a “racially mixed DES daughter” and Jane embodies “[Donna] Haraway’s notion of a racial and technological hybrid and cyborg” (802).3 Reading My Year of Meatsfrom the perspective of cosmopolitanism constitutes another branch of interpretation. Shameem Black states that Ozeki’s novel “searches for ways that women might develop usable alliances across national, racial, and sexual divides to combat the spread of global problems” (228). Black proposes to call this search “cosmofeminism” ( ibid.). 4 Other than these examples, the supposedly postmodern structure of the novel has been celebrated as performative, one that urges political transformation beyond the limits of a written text.5 While each interpretation adds to a better understanding of the novel, my contention is that previous positive essays do not account for the odd dissatisfaction some feel after reading the novel. That is to say, why does the novel, enriched with thought-provoking issues, comic descriptions, and an “all’s-well-that-ends-well”-type happy ending, strike some readers as inadequate? One good answer is offered by David Palumbo-Liu: he notes that My Year of Meatsis an ambitious novel which vigorously seeks “all sorts of […] positive action— anticorruption, anticorporate, antimisogynistic, antichauvinist, antiracist, antisexist” (54). Ultimately, however, the novel ends up a “failure to deliver on its promises, as all sorts of national, gendered, and racial norms seem to be reinstated” ( ibid.)
Palumbo-Liu’s insight on the reinstatement of norms affirms the need to reassess what has been deemed positive in the novel, such as Jane’s exalting hybridity and her “usable alliances” with Akiko and other housewives. Regarding this question of reinstatement, the Deleuzean reterritorialization as I call it, Palumbo-Liu’s position is preceded by Emily Cheng’s and Monica Chiu’s much more critical articles. Both Cheng and Chiu understand the plot of
My Year of Meatsas upholding the postwhite nationalist fantasy popularized during the 1990s’ America. According to Cheng, against the backdrop of the “fears of Japanese infiltration into the US economy” (192), Ozeki’s novel is symptomatic of new “national narratives of inclusion across axes of race, class, gender, and sexuality” (195). In narrativizing this particular form of millennium discourse, the novel disseminates the nation’s imagined ability to “change and remake itself as still globally hegemonic but now also capable of embracing diversity and difference” (191). Similarly, Chiu argues that the novel reproduces a national narrative imbibed in a multicultural ideology which, in turn, “reconstitutes the very localized, national framework that it initially attempts to subvert” (101). The result, in Chiu’s apt words, is that “globalization is hardly global” (108) in this novel.
What I wish to achieve in this essay by building upon Cheng and Chiu is to destabilize a hegemonic Americanism underpinned by “my homism.” For the contemporary reader who has witnessed the 9/11 attack in 2001 and the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011, it is poignantly telling that the year Jane calls her “year of meats” is 1991. If we have been paying a high price for the failure of economic neoliberalism and utopian multiculturalism since Jane’s year, both of which were relentlessly espoused by the United States,
My Year of Meats’inclusive familial narratives are a felicitous embodiment of such America-oriented globalization. In “Forgetting Family,” Judith Halberstam demonstrates that family has functioned as a “disciplinary matrix and [has] linked its particular forms of social control to colonialism and globalization” (316). Along this line, the alarming issues posed in Ozeki’s novel are not merely environmental or technological but epistemological as well. Breaking free from the American trope of family and motherhood comprises a new epistemological project, inasmuch as it makes room for “other modes of being and relating” (Halberstam 317) than the heteronormative schema of marriage and reproduction.
1It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully explain Deleuz and Guattari’s conceptualization of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. To define it briefly, de- and reterritorialization are unlimited crossing-over and production, and repression and antiproduction, respectively. While late capitalism boosts deterritorialization for the sake of the global flow of capital, it simultaneously reterritorializes such crossing-over by “inject[ing] antiproduction everywhere, into every private sphere such as the family, personal life, free time, and perhaps even fantasy and dreams” (Goodchild 100). I would like to thank one of the commentators of this paper for noting that my use of de- and reterritorialization in the paper is more metaphorical than critical. 2For a general introduction to food studies, see: Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat (2010); Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber, eds. From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies (2005); Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik, eds. Food and Culture (2008); Gregory Pence, The Ethics of Food (2002); and James Watson and Melissa Caldwell, eds. The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating (2005). 3For more studies of these fields, see: Banu Subramaniam, “Moored Metamorphoses: A Retrospective Essay on Feminist Science Studies” (2009); and Ursual Heise, “Ecocriticism and the Transational Turn in American Studies” (2008). Molly Wallace’ Ph.D. dissertation, “Novel Ecologies: Nature, Culture, and Capital in Contemporary U.S. Fiction and Theory” (2006), provides a good outline of each of these fields in relation to My Year of Meats. 4In addition to Black, Emily Johansen analyzes My Year of Meats using what she terms a “territorialized cosmopolitanism.” 5See Nina Cornyetz’ “The Meat Manifesto: Ruth L. Ozeki’s Performative Poetics” (2001). In contrast of Cornyetz’ reading of My Year of Meats in relation to Derridean play of fiction/truth, David Palumbo-Liu calls the novel “a calculated and persistent rebuttal of the postmodern” (63). In the sense that the novel “gathers those heterogeneous forms back into its dominant narrative space,” Palumbo-Liu considers it to be an “eminently modern project” (ibid.).
The character of Jane superbly represents a US-centered deterritorialization in close conjunction with corporate capitalism. On the surface, Jane’s emphasis on her hybridity and mobility turns her into a citizen of the world, unconstrained by conventional gender roles and racialized biases. Capitalizing on her difference, Jane chooses to be a figure of “androgyny” (153) in the workplace, and gets married for a short time to Emil, an African American she has met in Kyoto whose “voice was like chocolate” (151). Jane’s girlhood dream to create an “embodied United Nations” (
ibid.) by having a mixed-raced baby looks forward to her nonchalant, pseudocosmopolitan adulthood as a “go-between” and “cultural pimp” (9) of the transnational media industry. In actuality, the half-and-half status emphasized by Jane, “Halved, I am neither here nor there” (31), is something that may well leave the children of immigrated parents unmoored and laed them astray. To my curiosity, however, the heroine of Ozeki’s novel rarely considers such “dated” questions as identity or ethnic roots. As opposed to her implausibly harsh and bottled up Japanese mother and her thinly sketched Minnesotan father, Jane takes full advantage of her “Asian cards” and never turns away from the fact that she is an American national. For example, while speaking to her soon-to-be-lover for the first time on the phone in a seedy rural motel, Jane describes herself as a boyish exotic with “boy short hair [in] an old army-green sleeveless undershirt and brand-new boxer shorts from Wal-Mart.” (52). Jane humorously adds that the scene resembles a “post-Vietnam nostalgia-porn thing” or “a quick little R and R fantasy in Tokyo or Seoul” ( ibid.). But later in the novel, Jane notes how her “honest, earnest face” works well with the “Asian-American Woman thing”: “we’re reliable, loyal, smart but nonthreatening” (157). These examples show that Jane conveniently moves across, but never beyond, the superficial Asian American binary of an exotic and a model minority citizen. Notwithstanding, when asked “ whatare you?” by an Arkansan veteran, Jane answers, “ I … am... a … fuckingAMERICAN” (original italics and ellipsis 11). This dialogue, primarily intended to ridicule an aged white rustic, reveals the ironic way Jane’s hybridity and mobility is predicated upon her nationality.
Less a border-free cosmopolitan desire than a neo-liberalist multicultural cliché, hybridity and mobility are essential to other privileged American characters of the novel, too. Kenji, the New York office producer of
My American Wife!, was educated in England and wears “his British accent like his Armani suit, casually draped, with a sense of perfect global entitlement” (26). But for all his global education and career path, Kenji has no interest in understanding Akiko’s predicament and simply ignores her as a “deranged” Japanese woman (227). Jane’s lover, Sloan Rankin, is the epitome of global mobility. A “postmodern jazz” musician based in Chicago, Sloan gratifies an ultimate female fantasy for a “tall dark stranger in cowboy boots” (56). Producing records in New York, scoring films in Los Angeles, and being in the Suntory Dry Beer commercial in Japan playing his saxophone, this world-famous indie musician makes Jane willingly succumb to him and the “titanic sex” (159) with two condoms. In a novel in which the heroine believes herself to be “the most competent person” and all the male characters are “physically and emotionally unattractive” (Chiu 114), Jane’s “long-limbed, languid” (166) lover is given a special position almost too good to be true. Emily Johansen rightly condemns Sloan as embodying a “superficial and hyper-individualized cosmo-multiculturalism.” Johansen also argues that Jane’s initial attraction to Sloan wanes and that she separates herself from this “mega-urban figure” as she develops cosmopolitan affiliations with other women. Johansen’s latter view, however, neglects to consider the novel’s conclusion, where Jane and Sloan make up and envision a conjugal future together: again, probably too idealistic a prospect for these world travelers.
Produced by Kenji and directed by Jane,
My American Wife!turns out to be exactly like them: a “global” television program subject to Americanism and commercialism. A neocolonialist ideology is apparent in Jane’s note on “all-American values: “ My American Wife!of the ’90s must be a modern role model, just as her mother was a model to Japanese wives after World War II” (13). Jane goes on to say that the series should promote to Japanese housewives an “old fashioned consumerism with contemporary wholesome values, represented […] by good, nourishing food for her entire family [which] means meat” ( ibid.). Despite its farcical effect, Jane’s note, in the guise of conveying “wholesome values,” puts My American Wife!in the forefront of neocolonialism. As Jennifer Ladino observes, “the American romance with the frontier” has proceeded from “territorial expansion to technological and commercial expansion” (124). This is to say, “multiculturalism, information technology, and even environmental problems [have become] the realms within which this ‘new frontier’ is being reconstructed” ( ibid.). When this is the case, seemingly innocuous entertainment such as My American Wife!makes a perfect vehicle through which to reorganize an American frontier in foreign countries by pushing forward the nation’s “wholesome values.” Jane does criticize the frontier culture of America. Mentioning the murder of a Japanese student by a white Louisiana butcher, she says: “In America we fancy that ours is still a frontier culture, where our homes must be defended by deadly force from people who look different” (89). Jane’s solution to this violent frontier culture, however, is not to relinquish it but expand on it so as to include the “people who look different.” Jane justifies her mainstream television work by saying that she “use[s] wives to sell meat in the service of a Larger Truth” (27). But when Jane announces, “I’d show them some real Americans” (57), and casts multiracial families, it becomes evident that her “Larger Truth” means to enlarge the boundaries of America, rather than reexamining them critically.
Another reason why
My American Wife!stands for neocolonialism, or cultural imperialism, is because it joins meat and womanhood in the context of American witticism and commercialism. In Jane’s own words, the American wife ideal for the show is the “Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest” (8). Jane’s boss tells her that her job is to “catch up healthy American wives with most delicious meats” (10). Funny yet cruel examples like these abound in My Year of Meats, as in the Texas stripper’s “round rump” (43) inspected by Joichi and the description of Bunny Dunn as “amplitude personified, replete with meats” (252). The all-American recipes marketed in the show, such as “Beef Fudge,” “Hallelujah Lamb Chops,” and “Pigs-in-a-Blanket,” are at once entertaining and disturbing. In discussing “the seemingly innocuous trash culture” of America, Sheryl Fish clarifies that “none of [this humor] proves harmless, for it exhibits a lack of respect for women, minorities, and animals” (52).6 On the one hand, I fully acknowledge the novel’s astute way of using meat for “a metaphor for womanhood, the locus of anticapitalist politics, an object through which the violence of capital upon the body is played out, and a subject of public health and environmental concern” (Cheng 192). On the other hand, the mindless jokes casually uttered by Jane run a risk of reinforcing the detrimental association between meat and women. Tolerated in the name of amusing commercialism, this association displays the extent to which “both women and meat become commodities on the global market whose bodies are shaped, deformed, and violated for commercial profit” (Black 231).
When Jane receives Joichi’s fax reprimanding her lamb chop episode, she is enraged: “Beef is Best. Hah, he was base. His wanton capitalist mandate had nothing to do with my vocation” (167). But there is no happy medium between “half documentarian, half fabulist” (36), which Jane aspires to. Despite Jane’s indignation, her remark on Christina Bukowsky, heroine of the lamb chop episode, who is paralyzed below her waist, exhibits Jane’s complete subjugation to commercialism. Calling the Bukowsky’s tragedyturned- into-a-profitable-business “truly an American story,” Jane reports to her boss: “the daughter’s very beautiful, and we just won’t film her legs” (132). Just as Jane’s “heart-wrenching documentary” (173) erasing discomforting truth is no documentary, watching
My American Wife!“for one’s weekly fill of culture” (Chiu 104) is far from a genuine understanding of American culture. With little interest in the Japanese diet or the health of Japanese consumers, all My American Wife!fulfills is to increase America’s wealth by selling tainted meat and inculcate clichéd media images of multiculturalism in the Japanese household. Jane’s neo-liberalist take on the show deterritorializes the realm of the white, middle-class American Wife, but the same realm is soon reterritorialized with the racially mixed, middle-class American Wife; hence, the centrality of the American Wife remains unchallenged. In the neocolonialist cycle of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, a “reliable and loyal” Asian American woman undertakes the role of the millennial pioneer who rebuilds the new American frontier in her mother’s homeland, Japan.
6For another example, Fish discusses the scene in which Jane divertingly introduces Suzuki, the cameraman, and Oh, the soundman, and their love of Jack Daniel’s, Wal-Mart, and American pornography: they would “get drunk on Jack Daniel’s and tape pictures of blondes from Hustler all over the Sheetrock walls of motels across America, then use the girls for target practice, shooting out their tits and crotches with air guns they’d bought at Wal-Mart” (34). Fish argues that this scene shows “the twisted cruelty of American mall culture combin[ing] kitsch with the grotesque” (52).
Owing to their lack of hybridity and mobility, the Asian and the rural characters of
My Year of Meatsare diametrically opposed to the lot of Jane, Sloan, and Kenji. Neatly polarized along the binary of good/bad, open/closed, and mixed/pure, these characters on the periphery of globalization become objects to be acculturated to multiculturalism, or simply an outdated species to be bantered about. Critics have duly indicated the “orientalist images” and the “national and gendered stereotypes” (Fish 53) amply and unscrupulously painted in this novel.7 What I hope to stress in this section is less an identification of such images and stereotypes than a rethinking of the formulaic binaries which, I will argue, victimize a majority of the characters in the novel.
If Jane’s character stays positive, albeit inconsistent, throughout the novel, the character of Akiko Ueno develops dramatically from a helpless and battered wife to an independent mother-to-be, leaving her husband and homeland for the sake of her unborn daughter. As Ozeki observes in an interview, Jane represents the author’s “extroverted self,” whereas Akiko is her “little introvert” (10) who resembles the young Ozeki. When considering Ozeki’s words and the maturity/immaturity dichotomy implied in Jane/Akiko, the novel’s main plot can be summarized as follows: it traces the inspirational steps whereby a mature and worldly Japanese American woman “educate[s]” (27) an immature Japanese woman, in order to pull her out of “that small string of pacific islands” (9) and transform her into an American mom. Admittedly, no reader would want Akiko to stay in her suffocating life with Joichi. And Joichi’s rage towards Akiko and all sorts of unspeakable violence are not to be excused under any circumstances.8 What remains a question to me, however, is how “autonomous” and “authentic” (in contrast of her pretended life with Joichi) Akiko’s new life can be, gained by severing all her previous ties and grafting herself onto a barely known group of American fairy godmothers. That is, are Akiko’s new-found feminist virtues— autonomy and authenticity—entirely her own? Rather, doesn’t Akiko’s new global mobility amount to nothing better than “the triumphant export of American liberal feminism” (Black 249)?
Jane’s “education” of Akiko on liberal feminism and multiculturalism is flimsy and misleading, because her education occurs through the cartoon-like cooking shows on mainstream television. To put it differently, the inspiration and “wisdom” Akiko picks up from
My American Wife!is in large part adolescent. Akiko’s impression of the first episode is that she “like[s] the size of things American” and she is jealous of Suzie Flowers’ “beautiful name” and her easy laughing (19). After the Beaudroux episode, Akiko likes the background blues music and buys a CD of Bobby Joe Creely. When Joichi tells her about the canceled casting of a black household, Akiko regrets it because “it sounds … different” (129). She then asks him if they sang “authentic gospel music” because she would “like it very much” ( ibid.). These examples illustrate that Akiko’s notion of “different” and “authentic” is shallowly grounded in skin color and stock ethnic image (gospel music in a black church). As Akiko is forced by Joichi to watch the series again and again, she is imprinted with the American wives’ “brimming, child-filled lives” (190) and decides to have a baby by enticing Joichi. A question persists as to why Akiko must have a baby with the brutally abusive Joichi, but she continues trying to “get sexy” through mimicking “OL” (office ladies) in a pornographic magazine and masturbating. Scarred for life by anal rape and misinformed by My American Wife!, Akiko, finally pregnant, makes a life-changing decision and tells her nursefriend Tomoko: “That’s why I’m going to America. It doesn’t matter so much for a son, but since she’s a girl, I want her to be an American citizen. So she can grow up to become an American wife.” (318). The moment in which Akiko says this and kisses Tomoko’s lips, copying the lesbian couple in My American Wife!, represents a victory on the part of Jane. Meanwhile, Akiko’s grand feeling that “[f]inally she’s done something […] worthy of the women in Bobby Joe’s songs” (321) is rendered trivial when the six-foot-tall Jane first sees Akiko in New York City and thinks of her matter-of-factly: “exactly what I’d imagined Ueno’s wife to be. Petite and shaking” (328).
Until the very end of the novel, Akiko is uniformly described as needy and childish. The years of humiliating sex Akiko has had to suffer and the sad letters she writes to Jane in broken English are graphically depicted and are instrumental to reducing Akiko to an object of redemption.9 Even after the “rescue” and her arrival in the United States, Akiko remains naïve: she calls the Amtrak train operating across the nation a “magic train” (335) that “pump[s] spurts of happy life into her fetus” (339). The same chapter of the novel ends with Akiko’s amazement at the “Southern hospitality” of the poor black people singing inside the train: “
This is America! […] She clapped her hands and then hugged herself with delight” (original italics 339). This blissful moment presages Akiko’s trouble-free motherhood in the life-pumping America. If some readers cannot help sensing bitterness in this feminist triumph, it is because such “triumph” is founded upon a disparaging assumption that the “Japanese women [are unable] to separate fact from fiction” (Chiu 106).
Akiko is not the only victim of Jane’s manipulation of fact and fiction in
My American Wife!Jane’s supposedly inclusive yet strictly judgmental multicultural ideology is made palatable in the meat recipes of the show and victimizes unsuspecting housewives by branding their lives as “unauthentic.” The set of white housewives featured in the series, Suzie Flowers from Iowa, Mrs. Klinck from Oklahoma, Becky Thayer from Tennessee, and Mrs. Payne from Montana, are “nice” women whom Jane “inveigle[s] […] with [their] civic duty to promote American meat abroad and thereby help rectify the trade imbalance with Japan” (35). Taken in by Jane’s appeal to patriotism, all of them try their best to make their homes look spotless and cook delicious meat dishes for the Japanese crew. But their efforts are all together punished for no better reason than they are common and white: they are “entirely predictable” (108) in Jane’s words, and are “so … perfect” (129) in Akiko’s mumbling words. The results are: Suzie’s life is shattered when she discovers her husband’s affair with a cocktail waitress during the show’s survey time; Mrs. Klinck’s German veal dish drives a Japanese crew member into an anaphylactic shock; Becky’s pleasant bed and breakfast house in a tourist area receives only a 2 for Authenticity from Akiko; and Mrs. Payne’s “Beef Fudge” recipe includes a sickening amount of sugar and fat and is mocked by Jane as “wholesome” and “normal” (183) for white Americans. Although it is no fault of theirs to follow the protocol of the show and refashion themselves according to the 1950s’ fantasy of white domesticity, Jane labels them boring and unenlightened in terms of her pure/hybrid bifurcation. These wives’ simplified television images are consumed by Akiko without criticism and give her the illusion that she can “separate fact from fiction”: on watching the Thayer episode, she opines that “[i]t seemed like they were making things up. Like it was artificial, just something they were doing for the program” (128). Inasmuch as the global medium connecting Akiko and the American wife is uninterested in individual particularities, their alliance is based on false stereotypes of each other and victimizes both of them.
What Jane suggests as the new face of America is exemplified by the Martinez, the Beaudroux, and the Lara and Dyann couple, each of which represents an ideal minority household in a contrived way. Squarely falling into an immigrant narrative, Alberto “Bert” and Catalina “Cathy” Martinez emigrate from Mexico “just in timefor Bobby [their son] to be born an American citizen” (58). Although Bert has lost his left hand to a hay baler and cannot play his guitar any more, they still dance and dream to become “a real American success story” (
ibid.). Jane notes that Cathy’s Texas-style Beefy Burritos are “the symbol of their hard-earned American lifestyle, something to remind them of their roots but also of their new fortune” (61). But Jane’s mediation between Mexican roots and American dream via burritos appears too facile to convey any real problems of contemporary American Hispanic society: it would only work for a Mexican American fast food franchise. The Beaudroux episode promotes the same type of multiculturalist propaganda. In an opening shot with the “classical Southern perspective [of] Gone With the Wind” and “sliding Cajun blues riff,” Asian children “in varying shades, descending in size and age,” greet the audience in a plantation house (65). Vern and Grace Beaudroux are a white Louisiana couple who feel for “all the little Oriental babies from Korea and Vietnam” (69) and adopt eight children—seven Koreans, one Brazilian—for helping control world population. A discussion for these adoptees some of whom “have accents still” (66) will continue in the next section of the paper. But essential to notice here is the troubling analogy between Vern and Grace’s old plantation teeming with the “colored” adoptees, and similar plantations of the town which had been filled with “negro manservant[s]” (68) until a hundred years ago. Fish celebrates the Beaudroux family as “combin[ing] hybridity and jouissance” (47), yet the hybridity imposed on the foreign kids does not automatically evoke jouissance. Such hybridity, the result of transnational American philanthropy on the surface, is often entangled with painful histories of invasion and uprootedness.
Lastly but not least, Lara and Dyann ’s episode advocates an “alternative” sexuality and completes the tripod of American multiculturalism circumscribing all fronts: racial, national, and sexual. Hailed from Massachusetts, Lara is an upright district attorney and white, and Dyann is a well-published author and joyful black. They shop for sperm together that matches their respective skin color and intellect, and conceive two “unusually smart and cute” (173) daughters, one for each. Better yet, they are vegetarians for political reasons. As unconvincing as this exuberantly idealistic formula appears, it also includes the couple’s social reputation: they are the “pillars of their community” and “exemplary mothers” (
ibid.). Ironically, their social status, not their progressive sexual orientation, is that which finalizes the decision to feature them in the show. The episode of two mothers is a great success anyhow and helps Akiko understand that “[s]he wanted a child; she never wanted John; once she became pregnant, she wouldn’t need him ever again” (181). Lara and Dyann’s marriage appears to be endearing, pacifying, and liberating, compared to Akiko’s loveless and abusive marriage. I would argue, however, that the novel’s uplifting portrayal of the couple turns out to be as pernicious as Akiko’s married life. This is because the conflict-free coexistence and the democratized variety highlighted in the Lara and Dyann couple does little but propagate a utopian ideology which obliterates the very real power struggles between heterogeneous people(s). In envisioning a world where everybody shares ethnic food and lives harmoniously despite his or her differences, My Year of Meatsboosts an ideological optimism for multicultural society. Although Joichi’s belief in “positive thinking” (37) and admiration of Jane’s “hybrid vigor” (43) are derided as crass and sham, Jane’s romanticization of the diverse yet fraternal American family is no less sentimental and spurious. Chiu is entirely correct when she states that Jane’s “flattening and homogenizing of difference veers little from Joichi’s approach” (108).
7Suzuki’s looks demonstrate these stereotypes in a most flaunting manner. He is described to have an “enormous face, big round moon, that sweat like a Gouda when he got drunk,” and for eyes he has “mere slits, as though someone had taken a razor blade and drawn bloodless incision into the swollen skin” (37). Jane narrates that his eyes are too small and slanted “you could never tell if they were open or shut, or if he was watching you” (ibid.). 8Joichi is unanimously viewed by critics as “the most unabashedly evil character in the novel” (Fish 54). The only commentator even slightly sympathetic to him is no other than Ozeki herself. In a conversation appended to the 1998 edition of the novel, Ozeki expresses her surprise that “some readers feel so little empathy for him” (11). Caught between “two highly subversive women [and] his American bosses and Japanese corporate culture,” Joichi’s position is meant by the author to be “interesting, compromised, and one I can relate to” (ibid.). 9Broken English spoken by the Japanese characters in the novel is significant because it alludes to their status inferior to native English speakers. For instance, when greeted by Sloan’s slick speech, “the [Japanese] crew [of My American Wife!] stood quietly, heads bowed, and withstood this onslaught of English like schoolboys” (53). The crew’s insufficient command of English locates them in an unequal master-student relationship as shown in this hurtful episode.
A number of critics underscore the significance of motherhood in
My Year of Meats. Calling “the desire for children” the novel’s central theme, Black argues that many female characters of Ozeki’s novel explore new possibilities of family formation “within adoptive, multiracial, lesbian, extended, or nonbiological family units” (233). In so doing, motherhood—“childbearing and childrearing” in Black’s words—becomes “imaginative sites where transcultural feminist communities begin to cohere” ( ibid.) While I agree with Black’s argument on the new possibilities and imaginative sites opened up by the novel, I want to focus on the frustrating way that such possibilities and imaginative sites perpetuate the normative perimeter of marriage and reproduction. In a process of reterritorialization, the validity of the familial and conjugal norm remains undisputed. It is true that some of the most affecting scenes of the novel illustrate Jane and Akiko’s yearning for babies and their ultimate or tentative inability to bring those yearnings to fruition. When Jane confesses that she “had wanted a child so badly […] and that much desire is hard to erase” (190), no reader would feel an absence of sorrow over her caved-in fallopian tubes caused by DES. The novel’s coalescing of thwarted motherhood and unethical feed practice is compelling enough to anger the reader and invite feminist activism. This invitation to anger and activism, however, presumes a confined contour of feminist liberation. That is to say, in assuming that all women must long for family and motherhood, the novel does not leave room for those who cannot afford motherhood or live outside kinship relations, intended or not. For Ozeki’s women characters, liberation simply means to “achiev[e] equality and freedom in conjugal relations within an imagined bourgeois domesticity” (Cheng 205).10 This type of domestic, middle-class female liberation loses the sight of many other communities not structured by husband-wife, or parent-child relations. In this sense, the novel’s intimation that all women are motherly by nature implies what Gayatri Spivak calls “epistemic violence” (280), exerted by wives and mothers upon those untied to marriage or motherhood.
Another reason why the novel’s elevation of family and motherhood entails “epistemic violence” is because mothers and their children stand for the current and continuing American hegemony across the globe. A convenient trope through which to unite the increasingly diversified and divided nation, the American Mother generously takes “oriental babies” under her wing and makes sure they grow up to be American. The new millennial ideology intertwining mothers and their children reveals itself in the odd absence of the positive farther-husband figure in this novel. Admitting there are few positive male characters—few concretely portrayed male characters for that matter—in Ozeki’s novel, the father-husband characters seem worse as most of them are morally inept or physically ill. For example: Fred, Suzie’s pipe-fitter husband, cheats on her; Bert Martinez lacks a hand; Purcell Dawes “sound[s] serpraner” (117) after years of eating poisoned chicken necks; John Dunn, Bunny’s husband, is a boorish Texan rancher who is old enough to be her grandfather and keeps pinching her bottom in public; above all, Joichi is a patriarch who takes out all his resentment upon his wife and represents the worst husband-father imaginable. I am far from arguing that patriarch is acceptable or every family requires a father and a husband, but the novel’s exclusive glorification of the Mother and her Child at the expense of the father designates an ideological agenda, rather than a realistic exploration of “the many faces of motherhood” (177) Jane hopes to accentuate in her show.
Just as the fathers are sketchily and unfavorably painted, the child characters of
My Year of Meatsare devoid of individualities and become the collective figure of the American Child whose difference, disability, and challenge all melt away in a big pot called America. Deprived of their voice and auxiliary to their Mother, these symbolic children are often delineated as pets: they are “clambering over each other like puppies” (78) and are “squirming children” (40). Their poverty is nothing real or socioeconomic, but is playfully dismissed as seen in the case of the nine black Dawes children who play baseball together in Harmony, Mississippi, and of Bobby Martinez who merrily chases a pig in his hand-me-down Sunday suit. Like Bobby, Akiko’s unborn daughter and Jane herself demonstrate their mothers’ obsession with the American baby. Cathy Martinez’ dream is to “have an American son” (58), and Akiko wants her girl “to be an American citizen” and “American wife” (318). Even Jane’s stifling mom says, “I am so lucky to get my big tough American baby like you” (310). Enhancing the sensationalism of the novel, the American Child also functions as a repository of the horrifying results of corporate capitalism. The angelic Christina Bukowsky is run over by a Wal-Mart truck and is doomed in a wheelchair for life. Rosie Dunn, five-year-old daughter of John and Bunny, suffers from premature thelarche triggered by chemicals for cattle and develops “two shockingly full and beautiful breasts, each tipped with a perfect pink nipple” (275).
Eight Beaudroux adoptees make an even more touching package of the American Child. The eldest of all, Joy was “Min Jung,” an “Ameriasian daughter of a GI and a Korean prostitute” (70). Slow of learning in the beginning, this “broad-faced” girl grows up into a “cool” American teenager with an eyebrow ring and bangs and is about to audition for the Julliard School. A big fan of “exotic” and “extreme,” Joy looks up to Jane as her “good role model” (75). Joy’s successful Americanization is rendered all the more moving against the depressingly illustrative backstory of each adoptee. Jane dedicates multiple pages to scripting each child’s infancy as is cheerfully advertised in a Christian adoption magazine. According to the ads, “Ha Young [Cici] is a baby who shows good response to light and sound, holds her head up well,” and “Young Bum [Elvis] is a loving, healthy, happy baby with a good strong cry” (72). Found in a brothel, missing a finger from police brutality, and having a cleft palate and polio, these adoptees go through major metamorphosis from the victim of the uncaring third-world country to the newly christened American whose hidden talent blossoms through their new parents’ unconditional love. The Beaudroux adoptees and all the other multicultural/multiethnic children in the novel thus pave the way to America’s auspicious future. Embodying the diverse yet cohesive nation, these children are expected to stay “loyal and reliable” to their benevolent homeland and extend its global hegemony.
Jane’s own words evince the novel’s use of the child as the symbol of hegemonic American futurity. Jane observes that the inability to have a baby “kills your sense of a future,” which leads you to “equate the loss of posterity with the loss of hope” (160). As heartrending as Jane’s infertility is, her identification of children with futurity should alert the reader insofar as it projects the nationalist fantasy for ongoing American empire onto the figure of children. In a groundbreaking monograph,
No Future, Lee Edelman examines how heteronormative society exploits the vulnerable and innocent image of the Child and turns it into “the emblem of futurity’s unquestioned value” (4). Having nothing to do with “the lived experience of any historical children,” the figure of the Child is concocted for the fetishistic satisfaction of heteronormative adult desire and for the political regulation of the status quo by deferring current criticism to the “fantasy of the future” (11). Edelman calls this intertwining of the Child and the better future “reproductive futurism” (4). The child characters of My Year of Meats, almost all of whom do not say a single word yet are praised as precious throughout the novel, are a good example of reproductive futurism. Just as Jane’s effort to expand on the notion of motherhood is reterritorialized within American multicultural motherhood, the strikingly varied group of children in the novel is reterritorialized within the oddly congruent figure of the multicultural American Child.
10In spite of the novel’s enthusiasm toward racial, national, and sexual diversity, the issue of class is curiously eliminated in Ozeki’s novel, except a passing example of a poor black household in Mississippi. Indicating the “middlebrow tone of the novel,” Black examines how My Year of Meats narrativizes a “growing Western fascination with the increasingly public interconnections among physical well-being, […] corporate violence, and class exploitation” (239).
The best part of the novel may well be the long passage on the “
faux-dumb aesthetic” (original italics 334) narrated by Jane at the end. When Jane finishes editing her lurid exposé of Dunn’s chemical-saturated feedlot and slaughterhouse, she comments on the contemporary denial of “bad knowledge”: “We are paralyzed by bad knowledge, from which the only escape is playing dumb. […] Stupidity becomes proactive, a political statement. Our collective norm” ( ibid.). According to Jane, this is why the “ faux-dumb aesthetic” rules television and Hollywood today. It is hard to believe that this perceptive remark comes from the director of My American Wife!who, until recently, has firmly believed that a food series on mainstream television can show the world the “real” America. But no matter who says it, this passage appears peculiarly self-reflective because it makes us wonder if Ozeki’s novel itself has been playing “faux-dumb.” The implausible happy-ending of the novel in which Suzie Flower’s cheating husband returns with flowers and asks her for a second chance (one of many happy incidents occurring at the end) leads the reader to rethink the role of “stupidity” in the novel. On the one hand, ignorance on which people tacitly agree in order to avoid painful reality is escapism and cowardice. On the other, Jane’s earnest attempt to connect people and broaden the boundary of America, especially of the American Mother, increases the number of options but never tackles the boundary per se. If the interminable rotation of deterritorialization and reterritorialization is the requisite of America-oriented global capitalism, My Year of Meatsfluently testifies that such global capitalism allows for options within, but does not approve of a radical rebellion against it. In this tragicomic world, what Ozeki’s novel insists on obstinately and “stupidly” is the importance of trying to connect, although Jane’s effort to portray the “real” America and liberate Akiko proves incomplete as it restores the norm in this “ever-shrinking world” (15) under Americanism. Similarly, My Year of Meatsremains a meaningfully imperfect novel insofar as the legacy of Jane’s fulfilling year of meats devoted to My American Wife!is the reader’s fear of meats and America.