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My Year of Meats
by Ruth L. Ozeki

-Book review
Japanese culture, American culture, race, love, sex,
fertility, and its destroyers

by Nora Cody
Oakland, California

This article is part of a series of commentaries by Nora Cody, First Do No Harm: A Consumer Health Advocate's Cautionary Tales, which examines issues in health and medical research, with a special focus on women's health topics.

My Year of Meats, by Ruth L. Ozeki
Viking, $23.95, publication date June 1998

My Year of Meats is a wonderful, strong, disturbing, funny novel. It is at times hilarious and absurd, at times shocking and heart wrenching.

Set in the early 1990's, the novel tells the story of two women, Jane and Akiko. Jane is a young Japanese-American independent filmmaker who is hired to produce a series of documentaries for Japanese television. Funded entirely by the American meat export industry and designed to sell meat to the Japanese market, the series is called "My American Wife." Each show presents a "wholesome, normal" American family at home, with the centerpiece being the preparation of a recipe featuring meat, preferably beef. Or as the producer reminds Jane: "Pork and other meats is second class meats, so please remember this easy motto: "Pork is possible, but Beef is best!"

In the beginning Jane complies and produces shows with such recipes as "Coca-Cola Roast" and other delicacies. On the other side of the globe, Akiko, the wife of the Japanese producer, watches and prepares the recipes for her abusive husband. He encourages her to eat large amounts of meat in the hope that it will add weight to her thin body and improve her fertility.

As she travels around the United States, scouting families for the program, Jane begins to stretch the boundaries of what her producers consider "normal, wholesome" wives and families. Her attempt to film a poor African-American family proves unsuccessful, but she manages to slip in a show about a large inter-racial family with many adopted children. Eventually her subversive impulses take over and she presents a show featuring a lesbian, inter-racial, vegetarian couple. This is not well-received by her producer.

Watching in Japan, Akiko becomes inspired by the shows and increasingly radicalized as she quietly plots her escape from the life-threatening abuse she endures. There is irony and brilliance in the bond between Akiko and Jane that is forged through the unlikely medium of "My American Wife."

Jane begins to research American beef and learns about the use of DES to fatten cattle and chickens. After years of coping with gynecological problems, she stumbles upon the knowledge that she is a DES daughter. The health effects of DES, through prenatal exposure, via meat consumption, and through exposure to cattle feed, become interwoven into the story. Descriptions of a livestock feedlot and slaughterhouse are truly harrowing. Ozeki has clearly done her research and manages to make the complex subject of hormone exposure both clear and compelling.

There is so much to this novel. Japanese culture, American culture, race, love, sex, fertility and its destroyers. All DES daughters will relate to her fears and anger about DES, and many will recognize themselves in Jane's struggles with fertility. Beyond that, this is a very good read and one I highly recommend.

Note: Ozeki has included information on how to contact DES Action at the back of her book. This must be a first -- a novel with resources listed. We are grateful for the listing.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 24, 1998.