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.
Last month, 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 Creation?
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 potatoes?
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!
That’s the 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 identity.
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.
Then you 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 thickens…
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
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
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 Creation?
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.
To learn 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 patient species.
Can we switch gears? What are your views on the war in Iraq
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
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 wonderful?
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 www.ruthozeki.com.