Sangamithra Iyer’s essay “Are You Willing?” appears in Writing for Animals.
Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?
A: My entry into the world of writing about animals was when I worked for Satya Magazine more than a decade ago. Each month was a deep dive into a pressing planetary issue. Writing about animals became a much larger project: one that probed the intersections with environmentalism and social justice. By doing so, it evolved into a deeper exploration of how both power and compassion operate. Satya was foundational to me, as I discovered the kind of writer I wanted to be: curious, concerned, and willing to confront the complexity of the challenges we faced. My writing about animals still aims to expose multiple truths about how human actions impact the lives of other animals, but I’ve also grown increasingly interested in the role of writing to imagine other ways of being.
Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?
A: The lives of animals are often trivialized on the page. When animal stories make their way into the news, even the most respected journalism outlets resort to using puns. This instinct to make the easy joke is a self-defense mechanism, a way of avoiding the discomfort of facing the realities animals endure. As I write in my essay in this anthology, I’m interested in how we as writers create spaces in our work to allow the reader to process the uncomfortable and overcome that initial response of avoidance. Humor can still be a wonderful tool in this regard for the writer and animal advocate, but it’s important that the jokes aren’t at the animals’ expense.
Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?
A: I trace the animal activism of my early adulthood back to reading Next of Kin by Roger Fouts, which documented the story of Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language. Washoe and her chimpanzee family were portrayed as fully formed individuals with unique personalities. Reading this book led me to many others and inspired me volunteer at primate sanctuaries.
As a reader, though, one of my favorite things is encountering beautiful animal stories in books that are not specifically about animals, but where the author gives them respectful consideration. In my Writing for Animals essay, I introduce Ahmed Errachidi, a Guantanamo Bay detainee, who writes in his memoir The General about his daily visitors — the ants in his prison cell. Errachidi simply observes and appreciates their lives. He saves food for them and tries to protect them from the guards who stomp on them. It is one of the most beautiful and compelling passages about caring about and coexisting with animals that I have read. Similarly in Zeitoun, Dave Eggers tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he realizes that so many animals had drowned or were left stranded. Both these examples illustrate compassion toward animals in places where there was also dire human suffering. Writing about animals did not detract from the other atrocities but helped to portray a fuller picture.
Q: Your essay addresses the challenges of writing about difficult subjects, with the hope of opening hearts. What is the most difficult piece you’ve ever had to write in advocating for animals?
A: Several years ago, I went to India to document the rise of factory farming and visited several battery egg facilities, dairies, and a chicken slaughterhouse. We live in a world where violence against animals is both normalized and hidden. Writing against the norm and exposing what is concealed is always difficult. For me, the challenges are multifold. First, there is the emotional difficulty of bearing witness to animal suffering. Second, there is challenge of keeping my readers in a place where even I don’t want to be. (I am the person who can’t handle the meat freezer aisle in the supermarket.) Third is trying to understand the larger story and forces at play — globalization, urbanization, and migration. The story about meat in India is also complicated by religion and the oppressive caste system. Fourth is the difficulty of my choosing — figuring out how to include so much of what I’ve learned in a way that does not overwhelm my readers but rather open their hearts.
Sangamithra Iyer is a writer and civil engineer. She is the author of The Lines We Draw (Hen Press), was a finalist for the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, and is the editor of Satya: The Long View (2016). Sangu served as the assistant editor of Satya from 2004 to 2007, and as an associate for the public policy action tank Brighter Green. Her writing has been published by n+1, Creative Nonfiction, Waging Nonviolence, Hippocampus Magazine, Local Knowledge, Our Hen House, and VegNews. Her essays have been anthologized in Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education, Advocacy and Sanctuary; Sister Species: Women, Animals and Social Justice; and Letters to a New Vegan. She was a recipient of a Jerome Foundation literature travel grant and an artist residency at the Camargo Foundation. She lives in Queens, where she works on watershed protection and water supply infrastructure planning for New York City.