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Book Review: Only the Animals

A Russian tortoise launched into space during the Cold War. A Lebanese parrot abandoned on the doorknob of a pet store during Israel’s 2006 bombing of Beirut. A US Navy-trained dolphin called to serve in the Second Gulf War. These are some of the protagonists in Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey’s captivating collection of short stories that explores the many expressions of the human-animal relationship.ResizedImage600906-onlytheanimals2

The narrators in Dovey’s fictional tales are animals—not their live selves, but their souls—and it’s this convention that sets up the tension in each story, along with the settings—human conflicts dating back to the late nineteenth century where the animals, directly or indirectly, meet their end.

In addition to the tortoise, the parrot, and the dolphin, readers hear from a blue mussel whose life begins in New York City and ends attached to the hull of a battleship docked at Pearl Harbor; a Germanic wolf-dog exiled to a Polish forest by his master, Heinrich Himmler; a black bear starving in a Serbian zoo during the siege of Sarajevo. Still other storytellers include a camel in colonial Australia, a female elephant in Mozambique, an ape in Germany, and a Parisian cat on the front line during World War I.dolphins-pixabay

This premise—animals’ life-stories divulged in their afterlife—might seem gimmicky, but Dovey succeeds in both craft and content. In so doing, she gifts her readers stories that are at times amusing and quirky, at times sad and haunting, but always richly imagined and thoroughly researched.

Indeed, the research Dovey has done, allowing her to authentically build the scenes in which she lets loose her imagination, is expansive. Beyond studying wars of the past hundred-plus years, Dovey, a Harvard-trained social anthropologist, also delved into the literary works of writers who have populated their stories and poems with animals. Many of these writers—some well-known, some less so (Google may come in handy)—have cameos in the stories. Thus, the Navy-trained dolphin writes letters to Sylvia Plath and disdains the animal poetry of her husband, Ted Hughes. The nomadic mussel speaks with the voice of Jack Kerouac. And the Russian tortoise endears himself first to Tolstoy’s daughter, then to George Orwell, and finally to Virginia Woolf, who, Dovey tells us, believed that throughout history, great writers have turned to animals to speak for them when they “could at one stage find no way to say what they wanted to say.”

At its heart, Dovey’s collection of stories probes how humans and animals encounter one another in a fraught world, and how humans encounter each other. “Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals?” the dolphin asks. “And why do you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as human?” Dovey provides no answers to these questions or to questions about the human capacity for empathy and the futility of war. What she’s done in Only the Animals is focus her anthropologist’s eye on the interactions and interconnectedness of all beings as a means of illuminating human nature.

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Writing for animals: Advice for writers of animal rights fiction

In mainstream fiction today, “normal” characters tend to be carnivores, or at least omnivores, and “fringe” characters tend to be vegetarian or vegan.

Naturally, I disagree with this distinction. But I also understand that most writers are simply following convention, simply writing about the world as they see it today.

But the world is changing. And fiction has a critical role in not only reflecting these changes but also in imagining the world as it can be.

Which is one reason I wrote The Tourist Trail and co-founded Ashland Creek Press — to help publish these works when we find them.

Writing a story that advances animal rights isn’t easy, particularly if you want to change hearts and minds.

And not every novel needs to have a theme that directly addresses animal suffering. It could simply feature vegan characters who are portrayed as normal human beings (as opposed to hemp-clad anarchists). J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is one such character.

If you’re a writer with goals of changing the world, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

Tips for Writing Stories that Change Minds

1. Know your audience

If you’re writing for an already converted audience, then what you write will be vastly different than writing for minds you hope to change. At Ashland Creek Press, we aim to publish for a mainstream audience—this is where we see possibilities for positive change on a large scale. But it also means selecting works that both vegans and non-vegans will find realistic and compelling, and these can be the most challenging works of all. To create a work that accomplishes this goal, writers should include characters along a wide spectrum so that readers will have someone to identify with. Having characters with diverse lives and opinions offers something for every reader and also leads to great conflict, which brings me to the next tip.

2. Use relationships to get messages across

A good story avoids simply telling readers about the issues. Instead, let your characters work through the issues through conflict. Put a vegan into a relationship with a non-vegan, a Republican with a Democrat, a Prius driver with an SUV driver. And always keep in mind that some of the most interesting and enlightening animal rights discussions take place over dining room tables among family members. Elizabeth Costello, for example, is in conflict with her daughter-in-law who doesn’t want Elizabeth “infecting” the children with her ideas about animals. Your characters don’t have to be on the front lines of a protest to be “activists.” Sometimes it takes just as much bravery to confront a loved one over the dining room table.

3. Don’t lead with the issues

Get readers involved with the story first, so that they’re engrossed in the characters long before they realize there’s a certain issue at stake. Create mystery, conspiracy, and don’t be obvious with where you’re headed. For example, a novel about ag-gag laws can begin as a corporate conspiracy novel—a mainstream issue that could pull in a wide audience. Focus first on capturing the reader’s attention with complex characters and plots, then work in the animal rights themes in a way that fits the story.

4. Anthropomorphism can be a powerful device, used carefully

Taking readers inside the minds of animals can be a very effective way to elicit sympathy for animals. And it’s a literary device that many people were raised with—from The Rats of NIMH to Charlotte’s Web to Black Beauty. Cormac McCarthy used this device sparingly in his novel, The Crossing. Here’s an excerpt:

She carried a scabbedover wound on her hip where her mate had bitten her two weeks before somewhere in the mountains of Sonora. He’d bitten her because she would not leave him. Standing with one forefoot in the jaws of a steeltrap and snarling at her to drive her off where she lay just beyond the reach of the chain. She’d flattened her ears and whined and she would not leave. In the morning they came on horses. She watched from a slope a hundred yards away as he stood up to meet them.

This is a wolf’s point of view, but it reads as vividly as any human point of view, if not more so. And I think this is a key lesson. I always cringe when I read works from an animal’s point of view in which the animal has been “dumbed down.”

5. Empathy cuts both ways

Some vegans’ criticism of carnivores is that meat eaters have little or no empathy for animal suffering. But on the other hand, some vegans have little or no sympathy for the struggles that carnivores face as they consider giving up meat—or they may have forgotten their own struggle to become vegan. Diet is cultural, personal, and often carries with it family expectations and emotional baggage. To change one’s diet can, for some people, lead to strained or broken relationships. While going vegan may be an easy decision for one person, it could be an enormously difficult decision for another. Keep this in mind as you write, and have sympathy for all your characters.

6. Nobody is perfect

Everyone has a different view on what needs to be done to save the planet, to save the animals. And everybody works in different ways to make a difference. Just because someone doesn’t do all the things you do doesn’t mean they’re not making an impact in their own ways. To expect perfection from characters is no different than expecting perfection from your friends and family or yourself. It’s just not going to happen. In fact, I would argue that imperfection is far more important in creating authentic characters. The flaws are just as important as the features.

7. The journey is the thing

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most commonly dispensed bits of writerly advice, and it is particularly relevant with eco-fiction. When trying to open the reader’s eyes to animal atrocities, one may feel the urge to dispense statistics and other important facts. But readers generally recoil if they feel they are being lectured to. It is far better to take the reader on a journey so he or she can see the atrocities firsthand. Don’t tell a reader how many factory farmed animals suffer; take them into a slaughterhouse. Also consider the value of including a character who begins the novel as a carnivore but becomes a vegan during the course of the book. What type of a journey will this character follow in order to make such a transformation? If you can create a character who can believably undergo such a transformation, enduring all the public and personal struggles along the way, you’ll be well on your way to developing a must-read novel.

What’s Next?

These are just a handful of suggestions, and I’d love to hear from other writers. Send me your questions and comments, and let me know what eco-lit books have made an impact on you.

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Book Review: How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King

how animals grieve cover

Let me begin by saying I recommend this book to anyone who doubts that animals grieve. The evidence presented is overwhelming.

Dolphins who try to keep their dead calves afloat. Elephants who seek out the remains of their dead years after their passing. A cat who wails inconsolably after losing a sibling. A turtle who comes ashore and stares for hours at the photo of its dead loved one.

Or the story of two ducks, Kohl and Harper, who had been rescued from horrible lives in a foie gras factory. Author Barbara King writes:

That Kohl and Harper lived for four years at the sanctuary was, given their traumatic past histories, a happy and unexpected outcome. When Kohl could not longer walk, or his pain be treated effectively, he was euthanized. From outside the barn where the procedure took place, Harper was watching, and after it was over, he could see his friend’s body, lying in straw on the barn floor. At first, Harper tried to communicate with Kohl in the usual ways. Getting no response, he bent down and prodded Kohl with his head. After more inspection and prodding, Harper lay down next to Kohl and put his head and neck over Kohl’s neck. He stayed in that position for some hours.

Harper got up eventually, and sanctuary caretakers removed Kohl’s body. For a while after that, Harper went every day to his favorite spot, once shared with Kohl, next to a small pond. There he would sit. Efforts to introduce him to another potential duck friend didn’t take, which was especially sad because Harper was now more nervous around people without Kohl. Everyone at the sanctuary recognized Harper’s depression. Two months later, Harper died as well.

Reading the many stories included in this book isn’t easy. Particularly because, as King notes, too many of the scientists who provide the source material resist seeing grief where grief clearly resides. And, in some horrible cases, scientists have inflicted grief onto animals only to prove that it does exist.

The author astutely makes the point that not all humans grieve publicly, so we can’t assume that the lack of display with animals is proof that they do not grieve. People are not all the same, and neither are animals of a given species.

The key is not that all animals grieve but that all animals have the capacity to grieve. And this is the point that matters most. It’s not that one “special” cat suffers visibly while other cats may not suffer so visibly. It’s that all animals feel loss and deal with it in different ways.

The major lesson to be taken from this book for those in charge of animals is to allow the necessary time for grieving. Don’t just rush away the body. Let the animal companions spend time with the body and grieve in their own ways, if this takes a few minutes or hours or longer.

People need time to grieve. So do animals.

“Grief is but the price of love,” the author writes, quoting animal welfare activist Marc Bekoff.

Anthropomorphism is a four-letter word in scientific circles and the author did a good job of keeping her distance while laying out the facts for all to see — though at times I felt she worked a bit too hard to keep her distance (I’m not scientist so I have no problem anthropomorphizing). For instance, while there is ample evidence that elephants and dolphins and apes grieve, the author cites the limited evidence for monkeys to conclude they do not mourn the dead.

It’s time that more people felt grief over the way we treat animals. This book is an important step in that direction.

How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King

University of Chicago Press

EcoLit Books received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher. Here is our review policy.

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