Writing as an Act of Courage
I’m delighted to welcome Leah Kaminsky into the attic today. Leah is incredibly accomplished, being both doctor and author, and a multi-award-winning one at that. She writes with intelligence and compassion on enormous and haunting topics, such as the Holocaust and Death.
Leah’s début novel, The Waiting Room, won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the Helen Asher Award. Her second novel, The Hollow Bones, was winner of the 2019 International Book Awards in both Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction. The Fish Council will be published in 2020. She has also written We’re all Going to Die, Writer MD and co-authored Cracking the Code. Her poetry collection, Stitching Things Together, was a finalist in the Anne Elder Award. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
You can follow Leah via her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
If We Could Talk to the Animals: Writing as an Act of Courage
I once sent a children’s picture book manuscript I had written to my former literary agent. It was a tale of a shoemaker’s son who had lost his slippers and, while searching for them, asked all the animals he encountered whether they had seen them. In turn, each creature felt so sad that the boy was walking around barefoot that they offered their own ‘shoes’ as replacements. Within twenty-four hours, I received a reply email from this well-respected agent: ‘I’m sick of talking animals in books.’
In one sentence she not only dashed my hopes of becoming a children’s book author, she also nullified thousands of years of narratives about humans interacting with the animal world. The annals of children’s literature are rampant with voluble critters – from Aslan the talking lion of Narnia, a spider’s barnyard friends in Charlotte’s Web, the Cheshire Cat and his menagerie in Alice in Wonderland, and pretty much every fairy-tale ever told.
Animals who speak have also played a crucial role in adult literature throughout the ages, starting with the wily Serpent in the Garden of Eden. The list goes on – Behemoth, the shape-shifting black cat in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margherita, the courageous Bottom with his ass’s head in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Kafka’s cockroach in Metamorphosis. Then there are the brave bunnies in Watership Down, Murakami’s ubiquitous felines, the entire cast of Orwell’s Animal Farm,and the insistent crow in Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers. The appeal of animals in literature lies mainly in the reactions they provoke in human characters, and the strengths and foibles they reveal. Whether giving voice to the oppressed and the silent or asserting moral authority in fiction, animals always have something to say.
Descartes claimed it is our right as humans to exert dominion over the beasts. By contrast Montaigne, in his 1576 essay Apology, cried out against the arrogance of humans who believed that animals, by nature, were devoid of consciousness. His was the lone voice of that era, asking: ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if she is making more of a pastime of me than I of her?’
While researching my novel, The Hollow Bones, which is based on a true story, I followed the tracks of Ernst Schäfer, a young German zoologist and crack hunter, to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where he had worked in the early 1930s. In several expeditions, my protagonist had cut a swathe through the fauna of Tibet, bringing back thousands of specimens to the museum. In 1931, Schäfer was one of the first Westerners to shoot a panda in the wild, second only to Theodore Roosevelt, and the pelt of this four-month-old panda cub was highly-prized. When I visited the small panda, who has been on display at the Academy for the past eight decades, I stood in front of the diorama and wept.
Several months later, when I sat down to work on my novel, Panda’s voice appeared out of the blue and refused to go away. It was a writer’s gambit to include this insistent cry from the wild, but I chose to honour the voice of Panda, an innocent victim of zoology’s bloody history. I felt nervous, because even though I felt that Panda was the beating heart of the book, I knew he would divide readers. I was reassured recently when someone in the audience of a talk I gave was on Team Panda, reminding me that a writer’s job is to test the reader, not please them.
Throughout the ages, literature’s imaginative response to animals has seen them as beasts of burden, as kin, as poetic voices, or simply as friendly companions. Plato imagined an idyllic time of the Golden Age under Saturn, when ‘man counts among his chief advantages…the communication he had with beasts. Inquiring of them and learning from them.’ When we stare into the animal mirror, we are able to glimpse a reflection of ourselves. Perhaps the last lines of The Hollow Bones best distil the message I hope to convey to my readers, imploring humanity to mend our tattered relationship with nature: ‘The most powerful language belongs to them. It’s the animals that make us human.’
Hello Louise and Leah, and thank you for your fascinating little essay on animals in literature and philosophy. I love all those animal children’s books, and I’m very interested in adult literature that takes an animal perspective or talks to/through/with animals. I’m intrigued by the Panda in The Hollow Bones, which I’m reading at present. He took me by surprise, and reminded me of the Crone in my memoirs, who just popped up when I was lost for words. When a subject is too close to the bone to find words for, these creatures of nature can speak for us. And I absolutely love the concept of becoming animal. I’m a huge fan of Deleuze and Guattari, whom I used in my thesis. I also loved how becoming animal was the metaphor that threaded through the narrative of The Natural Way of Things.
I love reading anything that reminds us we’re animals, really, and how close to nature we are.
Yes, The Natural Way of Things does remind us of our animal instincts. I thought, too, of Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’, which shows how closely related we are to primates. The City Park in Launceston, where I grew up, has a monkey enclosure, and whenever I visit, I feel like I’m looking in a mirror. Studying medicine taught me, too, of how much of our behaviour, particularly the more instinctive and, strangely enough, emotional aspects, is evolutionary.
Hi Christina, and thanks! I’d love to know what your thesis was about?
Its title is The Origami of Desire: Unfolding and Refolding the Desiring Self (f). It’s a study of how desire is constructed, using memoir, theory (feminist + D and G) and medieval Heian women’s literature. I interpret desire, as D and G do, as the desire for life itself, which infuses all of creation. Traditionally women have lived secondary lives, shaped and repressed by hierarchical and patriarchal codes of behaviour and though; many still live like this. for Deleuze and Guattari, desire is a primary connective force t hat flows through all life. Desire is an immanent creative energy that produces folds of time, memory, material forms and subjectivity that, like origami, can be unfolded and refolded into different shapes. So we refold ourselves and the way we react to circumstances. we can, as Deleuze puts it, have one more birth.
I felt like weeping over the Panda and over the thoughtless agent. There was another voice in 1220 Francis of Assisi said that nature itself was the mirror of the Divine. He preached to the birds apparently. I have a beautiful horse who I no longer ride but we are the best of friends. He speaks to my soul every day. I was only thinking fondly of the talking animals in Narnia yesterday. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Me, too—killing for purely research purposes like that is immoral.
St Francis—what a beautiful soul! I’ve been to Assissi, and the whole town feels touched by his peaceful spirit.
I can understand you relating to your beautiful horse. Watching animals, it never ceases to amaze me of how similar we are—the same, really. When my father was dying of dementia, we had a beautiful old dog with the same condition. Seeing the two of them doing the same things—aimless wandering, getting lost, difficulty seeing—I was reminded of how we and animals are one and the same.
I’m hoping to visit Assisi in September.
Oh, I hope you get there. It’s a beautiful place! 🙂
Tickets are books and we are staying in Tuscany with a car. I can’t wait!
Wonderful to hear there are so many people who care so deeply about other sentient beings on this poor planet of ours. Thank you!
Thank you! 🐼
Lovely article, and I’m in compete agreement with you and Montaigne. And let’s not forget that after all – far from being some separate and superior form of creation, as we tend to assume – we too are animals!
We absolutely are animals and we have so much in common with our evolutionary ancestors—other mammals and primates. Yes, we do like to think we’re at the top of the evolutionary tree when, really, we’re just the same as other animals.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Rosemary.
Hi Sweet Lady! You’ve known that your whole life, and so have your family of gorgeous furry creatures. Sending love!