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.
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.’