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May 2003
Creating Novel Life Forms—Literally

The Satya Interview with Ruth Ozeki



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 processes.

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 “tubers.”

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 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 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 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 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


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