> AR Interviews
Creating Novel Life
The Satya Interview with
Ruth Ozeki made a big splash in 1998 with
her first novel, My Year of Meats, a humorous exploration of the
meat industry and the great American obsession—and growing Japanese
fascination with—beef [see review in Satya, September 1998]. Four
years later, Ozeki presents us with All Over Creation (Viking
Press), a playful romp through such heavy issues as the diminishing of
American family farms and their conflicts with genetically engineered
crops; and the clashes between the biotech industry’s PR machines and the
activist subculture trying to counter their slick promotional campaigns.
All this is cleverly done through the prism of a dysfunctional
inter-racial family on a potato farm in Idaho.
Ozeki took time out from her book tour to tell
Catherine Clyne about All Over Creation and the ideas
that spawned it.
How would you describe All Over
It centers around a potato farming
community/family in Idaho. It’s the story of a prodigal daughter, Yumi
Fuller, a teenager who gets in trouble and runs away from home; and comes
back 25 years later to take care of her parents who are dying. So it’s a
story about differences and reconciliation in a family. It’s also a story
about the changes that have occurred on the family farm during the
intervening 25 years. It blends this idea of the agriculture of Idaho with
the conflicts within the family. If there’s one theme that links those two
spheres, it’s the idea of control: the ways we try to impose our will on
our children, on unborn children, on our parents at the end of their
lives, but also, of course, on our plants in the form of genetic
modifications. So it’s a story about a struggle for control over life’s
Why did you choose to write about
Because potatoes are a lot cuter than wheat or
grains, soybeans or corn. I mean, not to disparage those crops, I
certainly wouldn’t want to do that, but there’s just something awfully
cute about the potato. Plus, there’s all of these nice names, like “spuds”
And “freedom” fries!
other thing, of course, the symbolic value of potatoes, because meat and
potatoes, hamburgers and french fries—these are the staples of the
American diet. We are a nation of meat and potatoes. When you’re writing a
novel, you want to write about issues of identity—in this case, national
But also there’s a sense of continuity in potatoes that
is quite profound. We’ve been growing them for thousands of years, and the
way that potatoes are propagated is really interesting, they are cloned
rather than grown from seed. So literally, the potatoes we are eating
right now are of the same genetic material as those that were being
planted hundreds of years ago.
In All Over
Creation, one of the voices of dissent is the activist group “Seeds
of Resistance.” Can you tell us about them?
They’re a group of
environmental activists who are traveling around the country in a
Winnebago that they’ve retro-fitted to run off biodiesel—french fry
oil—called the “Spudnik.” They’re traveling around doing
consciousness-raising actions and teach-ins, things like that, in various
places to educate consumers about transgenic foods in supermarkets and in
the food chain. They end up getting hold of a seed catalog that’s
published by Lloyd Fuller, the old potato farmer. Because of a series of
heart attacks, Fuller ended up leasing most of his operation to the
next-door neighbor. Meanwhile, he joined his wife and started a small seed
company. He’s a very Christian man who believes that the idea of patenting
or creating novel life forms—transgenic organisms—is trespassing on God’s
territory. He writes about this at length in his seed catalog, which the
Seeds of Resistance get hold of, and they proclaim him their guru and
drive to Idaho and set up camp in his driveway.
have Elliot Rhodes, who makes the shift from PC draft dodger and
progressive history teacher to PR flack for the biotech industry. How does
he fit in?
He’s one of my favorite characters in the book.
What I love about Elliot is that he’s not good or bad. He’s just amoral,
in a very simple, but very layered way; and he will always do what’s
convenient for him. He started out dodging the draft for what appeared to
be ideological reasons. In order to do so, he stayed in school and got his
teaching certificate, and ended up teaching in a high school in Idaho. He
has an affair with one of the students, Yumi Fuller, which results in a
pregnancy which he insists she terminate. This becomes known and Yumi runs
away and Elliot is basically run out of town. He goes to Washington to
become a journalist, but gets involved in public relations and ends up
working for a large PR firm. When one of their clients, a large
agribusiness firm, starts to push the genetically engineered “NuLife”
potato, Elliot ends up being sent back to Idaho, which is probably the
last place on earth he wants to see. [laughs] And, of course, he’s
directly in opposition to the Seeds of Resistance. And the plot
What sort of connections do you see between
genetically engineered (GE) seeds and farmers?
The issue of
genetic engineering is very complex and very difficult to sum up in either
a sound byte or an entire book (or probably an entire library). One of the
things that’s important to realize is that farmers are really caught
between a rock and a hard place—so many are losing their farms because the
margins are so tight. They have to increase the amount of produce in order
to make it through another year.
You can sort of understand why GE
crops would be attractive to farmers because of the way they’re marketed.
They promise to increase yields and to decrease the amount of chemical and
biological input. From what I can tell, the actual yields are not as high
as promised, and there are various other kinds of problems as well, but I
understand the appeal. The problem is if you labeled transgenic foods as
such, people might not want to eat them, which is why there’s such an
opposition to labeling. ‘What the consumer doesn’t know won’t hurt them’
is the rationale behind that. That’s the heart of the issue.
Having said that, the problem, in terms of your original question,
is that all of the transgenic crops are patented; and that deprives the
farmer of a very essential, fundamental right—to save seeds and replant
them—a right that is conferred upon human beings, agricultural beings, by
nature herself. When that right becomes violated, then certainly farmers
get a little upset. That’s the basis for the resistance to transgenic
crops in the Third World—in India, for example. Poor farmers don’t have
the money and resources or the desire to go to American corporations and
buy seed every year.
Does the globalization of the food
supply affect your food choices?
Well, I myself eat local. We
grow most—I should be more accurate about this: my husband grows most of
our own vegetables. He’s the gardener of the family and I’m the cook. I
live in British Columbia most of the time, so the fish we buy from local
fishermen, and meat we get from friends who raise cattle and slaughter and
butcher them. So we eat real close to the source.
I’m in an
unusual position because it’s hard to do that in the city. When I’m in the
city, I try as hard as I can to eat organic food because I feel it’s
healthier, but primarily because I really believe in supporting organic
farmers. As citizens in a capitalist culture, we vote with our dollar, so
I try to vote for people whose farming practices I believe in. That’s
personally how I conduct my culinary life.
Why do you
write so much about food?
I love to eat. I love to cook. I
can’t think of anything more fundamental and essential than food. My
concerns about it really come from that. But there’s more to it. I think
that if you take this idea of “you are what you eat” seriously, then food
is our fundamental identity.
The act of eating has changed,
radically, in the last 100 years. Eating is now primarily a commercial,
economic act. As a result, the significance has changed. If you grow what
you eat, your relationship to food is very different. However, if you buy
what you eat, the implications are quite profound. When you trace the
chain of production of something as simple as a potato, you start to
realize that in every bite, every mouthful you chew and swallow, you are
taking into your body a series of decisions that you really have no idea
about. You think you’re simply eating a french fry, but in fact, that fry
is the result of a series of decisions that have been made by the Food and
Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, by
corporations and scientists, by marketing agencies and PR firms, and it’s
hugely complicated. So this idea that the political is the personal, and
the personal is political becomes very real.
What are some
of the most shocking things you learned while researching All Over
To me, one of the most shocking things is the
idea of patenting life forms and the grounds on which those decisions are
made. The patent and trademark laws were written before Xerox machines
were invented. [laughs] These laws really need to be revisited. We can
clone now, we can splice DNA, we’ve moved into whole different realms of
creation that these laws really can’t address.
specifically the chemistry and to uncover the many different very toxic
substances that go into our food is always shocking and surprising. So is
the Terminator technology—the idea of engineering a plant to kill its own
embryo. I suppose more than anything else, it’s the inexact nature of our
ability to control, say, where a piece of genetic material ends up in gene
splicing experiments. The research is still very much in its infancy, and
yet it’s being commercialized.
The idea of creating novel life
forms is very exciting; it’s what I do—I literally create novel life forms
[laughs] in novels. I really understand the passion of research
scientists. I honestly think that had my talents laid in the sciences
instead of in literature, I would probably be in a lab doing this kind of
research. But the difference is, clearly, there’s a limit to the damage I
can do in my chosen field. And when a lot of research is funded by the
private sector in order to commercialize rapidly, the danger presented by
that is significant. Stephen Hawking said that to be a physicist is to try
to understand the mind of God—it’s on that level. So, while I understand a
scientist’s excitement, it’s the applications that are problematic. That’s
an area where we need to move very very slowly. But we’re not a very
Can we switch gears? What are your views
on the war in Iraq right now?
I’m a Buddhist and I’m a
pacifist. I find that I really don’t even have the words to describe my
feelings about this. I believe it’s wrong for so many different reasons,
both for our security as Americans and also because I think it was an
unprovoked act of aggression. I think one of the simplest lessons that we
should have learned by now is that violence provokes violence, and as an
American in America, I am now scared in a way that I was not before. The
other thing is the way that war creates facts: every member of our
military forces who comes back, dead or wounded, becomes another fact that
justifies more war.
I try to keep in mind that if nothing else, we
have to keep our eyes open. We have to bear witness to this. That’s the
one thing that they can’t take away from us. No matter how wrong and how
painful it is, we have to keep trying to educate ourselves and understand
the other points of view.
As someone who is a media
watchdog, are you seeing any negative cultural stereotypes emerging or
reemerging; specifically of people of Japan and the Koreas?
Stereotyping is rampant as it always is in situations like
this. Our propaganda machine is very powerful. [sighs] You know, so much
of this comes out of fear. And we should be scared—really scared. But that
doesn’t necessarily mean we should meet our fears with a reductive racist
ranting. If we can learn to tolerate our fear, maybe we can use it as an
excuse to open up instead of close down, to act in a counter-intuitive
way—become more curious instead of less curious; become more generous
instead of less generous. When we get scared, we decide: “Okay, I’m
scared; I’m going to learn more.” Wouldn’t that be
That’s what happened after 9/11. People were
starving for information.
I think that is the best possible
outcome of a very tragic thing; that people can learn to be more
understanding as a result of being scared. If we learned to behave like
that, to become more compassionate instead of less, wouldn’t that mark an
enormous milepost in our evolution as a species?
To learn more
about Ruth Ozeki and her work, visit