Ryan Chartrand

The audience sat captivated by the woman who walked on stage with grace, a relaxed attitude and a trendy headband. As the bright stage light glared upon her, she raised her hand to her eyes and looked into the audience of over 300 people, joking how she could not see.

The welcoming crowd at the sixth annual event Wednesday night listened intently and laughed along with personable author Ruth Ozeki at Harmon Hall in the Performing Arts Center. Students, community members and the volunteers of PREFACE: The Cal Poly Shared Reading Program came to listen and ask questions of the award-winning author.

“My opinions don’t matter. Whether I’m vegetarian or not, believe in genetic engineering or not – I have no particular agenda,” Ozeki told the audience. “I’m a novelist; I ask questions and sow the seeds to provide collaborative discourse.”

The author spoke of how it’s a huge mistake to support or buy into the message the media is sending. Ozeki emphasized that she was not an expert or an authority, but she was quite wrong. This author could not have been more credible.

The daughter of Yale anthropology professors, Ruth Ozeki grew up in New Haven, Conn. At the age of 8 she knew she wanted to be a novelist, but believed in order to be a serious novelist she had to fit the typical stereotype as a “white male writer … or even better if you’re dead.” As an Asian-American, Ozeki has confronted the role of the “typical writer” by ascending to new heights with two successful novels: “My Year of Meats” and “All Over Creation.”

Ozeki, who now lives on “Desolation Sound” in British Columbia, started out in college as a psychology major, then switched to double major in English and Asian Studies. Fluent in Japanese, Ozeki fit in well when she traveled to Japan, involving herself in film and television.

Her jobs varied as she continued working in film back in the United States, where she was involved in filming horror movies before setting off to do independent films.

“My Year of Meats” is about the meat industry and based on the kinds of experiences she faced in Japan while doing television work. Ozeki emphasized how her different kinds of work influenced her to “tell her own stories” through both independent films and novels.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ozeki also spoke to students from creative writing classes at Cal Poly. Ozeki thoughtfully advised students about being a writer and the creative writing processes.

“A sentence will pop into my head and I start to hear something,” Ozeki said.

Ozeki told students she believes all fiction comes from a personal experience or something that is intimately close with the writer. Dealing with her own father’s death created the characters Lloyd (the father) and the protagonist, Yumi, in “All Over Creation.” Yumi not only had to handle a failed relationship with her father but also his death after a long illness.

“Although my relationship was a lot closer than Yumi’s relationship with her father, I felt angry about (my father’s) death. I couldn’t understand why I was so angry and I did not like not being able to control his dying,” Ozeki said.

Yumi has many character flaws, mainly her selfishness. She is caught up in her own narrative and is blind to everyone and everything going on around her.

The audience at the PAC consisted of many fans of the book that read and built connections with its storyline and characters.

“I could relate to the book. I’m semi-fluent in French and know Japanese, so I understand the culture in the book,” horticulture senior Kim Wakasuki said. “I’m also from a small town, so I know how that kind of mindset rules their lives.”

While other universities have chosen “My Year of Meats” for their common book programs, Cal Poly is the first to choose “All Over Creation.”

“I am thrilled to be a part of the PREFACE program. It’s an incredible opportunity for any author, especially with university students and new leaders,” Ozeki said.

On the subject of genetically-engineered organisms (GMOs), the writer does not hold back.

“It’s wild when in the world there is more science fiction going on than a fiction writer could ever write,” Ozeki said.

Ozeki feels discomforted by the rapid commerce of technology due to its destructiveness, but also believes it to be a value-neutral subject. The book involves a company called Cynaco who heads the field in gene splicing and GMOs.

Cynaco is modeled after a real company, but the only insight Ozeki gave was that the company starts with an “M.” She chose to write on this topic because it has such dramatic conflict to drive the story along, providing a great narrative perspective. As a consumer and citizen of the planet she is concerned.

“It seems important for all of us to learn from,” Ozeki said.

Throughout her speech, she gave insight to the world of potatoes and the potato research she has done. She spoke about her travels to Idaho and Wisconsin to both small and large farms. She talked to seed farmers, environmentalists, wild potato collectors (yes, they exist) and University of Wisconsin experts on breeding plants.

Ozeki went as far as gathering information from the United States Potato Genebank (NRSP-6). Her extensive research on the subject says a lot about the background she gives to a fictional story.

A 900-page draft appeared by the time she was done, to which her editor said, “Congratulations; you’ve just written the ‘Moby Dick’ of potatoes.”

It was then that Ozeki realized that that not everyone would want to know the arcane bits of potato trivia as her editor sifted through the informative yet mundane world of potatoes.

Ozeki’s name is actually her pen name; she did not feel right about using her family name on the cover of her novels.

“This way I can use the language I want to use – my father was from a conservative family and it was a way to liberate myself,” Ozeki said.

After speaking Wednesday night, the author opened the floor to questions, answering with both intelligence and personality.

“It was one of the better events I have been to and (it was) nice to hear her explain her own point of view to the audience’s questions,” said Robert Council, 51, who traveled from Hayward, Calif. to see Ozeki.

One audience member asked about the topic of her next book. Ozeki admitted to be done writing about food for now, in fear of being typecast. Her next book will be about the Internet.

She left the audience with a bold statement: “It is a novelist’s responsibility to question the status quo, collaborate and be poetically promiscuous.”

Then she directed her statement to the audience, taking a saying from the ’60s student movement. “Question authority,” she said. “It’s more important now than ever.”

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