An interview with Among Animals contributor C.S. Malerich (“Meat”)
by Jennifer Doyle
Q: Charlotte, your works integrate many social classifications and positions—such as gender, race, class, and species. Do you have a topic or theme in mind before you begin writing, or do you recognize one while/after completing the work?
A: The idea for the story is first and foremost. Since I write speculative fiction, it’s all about “what if X, Y, or Z premise was true?” But that inspiration usually comes alongside a political question. While I can get story ideas from just about anywhere—like a dream I had or a co-worker’s offhand comment—most often I get inspired in a self-consciously political way. I’ll hear a story, fictional or not, think about the politics of it (by politics I mean the power dynamics that are working in the story), and then I’ll rearrange that story and transform it into something that offers a different perspective—or problematizes the ideology behind it, as a literary critic might say. In the case of “Meat,” I was reading Betty Fussell’s book Raising Steaks, about the beef industry; she includes an anecdote about this family that runs their own Mom-and-Pop slaughterhouse in rural Vermont. They had a couple cattle of their own that they were raising to be dinner. The kids, on the one hand, treated them like pets, but on the other hand, they gave them names like “T-Bone” and “Brisket.” I took that little anecdote and used it to explore a major contradiction in the concept of humane meat: on the one hand, professing to care about someone—that’s why it has to be humane—and at the same time planning that someone’s death—otherwise there’s no meat.
Q: When you were a teenager, one of your fondest pastimes was listening to poets read their work. Do you prefer an artist’s inflection, whether through audio books or live readings, as opposed to your unique interpretation of their work?
A: Honestly, I think I went to poetry readings more to impress my high school English teacher than because I enjoyed the poetry. But I love performing, and those readings were another outlet for me. I’m pretty introverted, so having a whole group of people listening to me at once takes some of the pressure off. It saves me many smaller one-on-one conversations later, and in most performance settings, the audience isn’t going to interrupt or answer back. If I do talk to someone from the audience later, they already have a good feel for who I am and what I’m about, so we bypass the awkward “getting-to-know-you” phase of the conversation. Plus, we already have something to talk about.
I do have a great respect for other performers—whether they are doing their own work or someone else’s. It’s nice to hear how an author reads their own work, but hearing another person’s interpretation can show you other registers and nuances of meaning. I think that’s why I like seeing multiple productions of the same play, and hearing how different actors say the same lines. Most authors can’t perform their work the way it sounds in their heads anyway; even something as basic as a character’s accent or pitch is beyond what a lot of authors can do. I know that’s been my experience reading my own prose.
Have you ever heard a song that grabbed you, and then later you read the lyrics? It’s inevitably disappointing. The same is true of a lot of poetry and even a lot of prose: It’s just better to hear it. The human voice, with inflection and pitch and rhythm, adds so much depth that is all but impossible to convey on the page. Obviously, I don’t dislike the written word, or I wouldn’t do all the reading and writing that I do. But there is something great about hearing literature out loud, period.
Q: Your character Meat is adopted by a family that mutually accepts her as kin and keeps her at a safe distance. Because Meat bestows human qualities—and it is never disclosed if Meat is a non-human animal—does the family’s conflict between compassion and superiority reflect ethnocentrism?
A: The whole story depends on that tension between affectionate acceptance and the idea that this person is inferior and therefore her need—in fact, her very life—are less valid. It’s difficult for the characters in the story to see that contradiction because they know what Meat is, and so the dominant ideology is working on them: Meat is classified in their society as a lesser being, as meant for food, which makes it impossible for them to fully accept her as a member of the family. I was very deliberate, though, in hiding Meat’s full identity from the reader, so whatever ideology the reader brings to the story about non-humans and humans, they can’t easily apply it to Meat’s character. So what the reader gets is just the tension between the affection and the superiority, without being able to reconcile it.
I am assuming that readers’ knowledge of other forms of oppression, like ethnocentrism, helps them see this contradiction clearly, even though the characters can’t. Though the oppression of a particular group always has its unique features, I don’t think it’s wrong to see commonalities. To get very Marxian for a minute, oppression works on a material basis, creates an ideology of superiority/inferiority, and that ideology affects people’s actions. So for instance, one group might be classified as property: in many times and places, women were legally the property of their fathers or husbands; in North America, African people were legally the property of slavers; and domestic animals are still the property of their owners. This didn’t mean historically that men never felt affection for their daughters, or slave-owning families never felt affection toward their slaves. Or that today farmers can’t feel affection and concern for the animals they raise. But those emotions, where they exist, butt up against a wall of ideology, not to mention social pressure and material interests in maintaining the status quo. The affection actually becomes a justification: a lot of people genuinely believed it was in women’s best interest to remain in the custody of men; that it was in African Americans’ best interest to stay on plantations working for masters who would take care of them. So they didn’t challenge the system; they didn’t struggle for equality.
I think today people at least realize that that kind of paternalistic, “white-man’s-burden” affection is at odds with itself, even if racism and sexism haven’t gone away. With respect to animals, because we have so much farther to go in terms of seeing their lives as equally valid, Meat’s exact species had to be left ambiguous, or the ideology that she’s “just an animal” would kick in, and the reader’s reaction to the story would change. It’s my hope that, because you can read her as any species or no species, as a human from another ethnicity or as an extraterrestrial, not only will the contradiction between loving her and eating her will be sharper, but that the classification of some creatures as “meat” and some as “not-meat” becomes harder to support.
Q: Since the family is described as progressive, does their budding compassion reflect the abolition of human slavery or other liberating movements?
A: In a lot of ways, the story is about the failure of compassion. What the family feels for her, and whatever progressive aspirations they have, really doesn’t do Meat any good. If some members of the family, through their experience with Meat, become aware of the contradiction between their feelings and their actions, they could choose a more radical path in the future. To be realistic, though, there’s an equally good chance that they’ll ignore that contradiction, and even suppress their compassion, in order to continue living as a meat-eating family that thinks well of themselves.
That’s the limitation of “Meat,” that it’s all about the family. We never see Meat’s point of view, or see much outside of the family’s social world, so change has to come from within them. From where I sit, the prognosis isn’t good.
But when we talk about abolition in the real world, whether of human slavery or animal exploitation, the really revolutionary influences come from people who are consciously rejecting the norms of society, and from the oppressed themselves. Without the slave revolts in the Caribbean and in the U.S., without the Harriet Tubmans and the John Browns and the Frederick Douglasses, and without the many, many people who spread abolitionist ideas, who were part of the Underground Railroad, and fought in the Civil War for the North, chattel slavery could not have been abolished in the U.S. It came at a very high price for those folks, physically, economically, socially. Slavery didn’t end because slave-owners and -traders became humane and compassionate and voluntarily gave up their way of life.
Animal liberation won’t happen in an identical way, but it definitely depends on people who are willing to take a position that puts them at odds with the people around them and the society they live in. It also depends on the animals themselves: They can’t organize an armed uprising or write an autobiography, but they do communicate with us. They fight, kick, bite, balk, scream, and run away when they are threatened; they sunbathe, frolic, lick, nuzzle, and smile when they’re allowed to live safe and free. Humans have to learn to interpret this communication under a new paradigm; it can’t happen between owner and property.
If I wrote a sequel to “Meat” in a more hopeful light, the narrator’s older sister would probably ally herself with Filet and some of the protestors from the opening. They’d rescue Filet, replace all the meat in the grocery store with tofu, and burn down the butcher’s kill room.
Q: When Meat is killed, the narrator’s father praises a “humane” slaughter, while her mother shows kindness to the carcass. Does the gender of her parents have an influence over their reactions to the same action?
A: The parents’ reactions to Meat’s killing aren’t meant to suggest that women are fundamentally more sensitive and compassionate to animals, though I see how it could be read that way. Given the way the two characters have interacted with Meat to this point, those felt like the right reactions for them to have: Dad’s main concern all along has been “humane” treatment, not seeing Meat suffer, and he’s relieved at the end that he’s achieved that goal. He’s got a utilitarian, Peter-Singer-style ethics to him; for him, his obligation to Meat is the prevention of her suffering. Of course, Meat’s now beyond the possibility of suffering, and he gets to have that dinner he’s been waiting for. So it’s like having his cake and eating it, too, guilt-free. Mom is more in tune with the emotional loss that comes with Meat’s death. She has been caring for Meat just like she cares for the other members of the family, so to some degree, she sees Meat like another one of her kids.
The reactions are indeed related to gender, but that’s because their interactions with Meat have been shaped by the roles they play in the family, and those roles in turn were largely determined by gender expectations. I knew as I was drafting the story that I needed one parent who was the driving force behind raising Meat, the parent with the social conscience, who could be influenced by exposés of factory farming, etc. I needed the other parent to be the practical one who had reservations about the whole thing because of the work involved as well as the effect on the kids. I could have easily reversed the mother and father, or had same-sex parents, without changing their personalities or their role in the story. But I think I ended up with Social-Conscience Dad and Practical Mom because I decided the family would basically conform to traditional division of labor: Mom cooks and cleans and takes care of the kids. Some of what I’m doing in “Meat” is satirizing progressives, or people who think of themselves as progressive; I’m sure the father consciously believes men and women should share household responsibilities, yet somehow his wife is still the one feeding the family, bathing the kids, etc. It’s not meant to be a slap at men especially but really a measure of how difficult it is to break entrenched ideologies, even just in your personal life. So much of the story is about the gap between the values people claim to hold and how they actually live. Gender roles are one aspect of that.
Q: One reason you write fiction is to consider how the world might be different. Do you write with the intention of perceiving the world differently, or to escape from it for a while?
A: I definitely write for myself to escape the world for a while, and to manage my frustrations with it in a more constructive way than punching walls or tearing apart my fingernails. If I can give that to my readers also, then I’ve done well. What’s interesting is that my stories, even though they are fantasy, usually don’t end up feeling very escapist. “Dark” and “melancholy” are two adjectives I’ve heard. (“Moralistic,” is a another.) So at the end of the day, I think I’m just trying to describe the real world and how it works in a new way. It’s that Picasso quote: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” I’m trying to get my readers to understand something about the real world, usually an ugly something.
I’ve flirted with the idea of writing a story set in a society that I’d actually want to live in, but that’s a much harder task. For example, I really admire what Ursula Le Guin did in The Dispossessed because the novel gives a comprehensive vision of how an anarchist society could run, but there’s also a suspenseful narrative and characters with problems, and that’s what keeps you turning the pages. The trouble with writing fiction is that there has to be conflict, or you can’t hold a reader’s attention. The bigger the conflict, the higher the stakes, the better. So, like a lot of writers, I head for the dystopian. I write about class societies, racist societies, societies that slaughter other creatures without a thought. If there’s escape in these stories, it’s that some of the characters are resistant, and some of them have mutually affectionate relationships with one another, even in the midst of all the awful. If there isn’t triumph, there’s dignity.