Charlotte Malerich, whose story “Meat” appeared in the first edition of AMONG ANIMALS, is back with another amazing story, “Phoenix Cross,” in AMONG ANIMALS 2. And join Charlotte in person at The Potter’s House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, October 14, at 7 p.m., for a reading and a discussion about the relationships among humans and animals.
Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: The life of food animals is a constant source of inspiration and horror. I went vegetarian and finally vegan in my teens, after I became aware that literally billions of animals are living out short, miserable, crowded lives in the meat and dairy industry every moment. It’s an awareness that sits in the back of my mind constantly, and writing about that, fictionalizing it, is like an exorcism. It’s a way to handle the despair I’d feel otherwise, and I suppose it’s also a way to force my readers to take on that awareness. Perhaps that’s a nasty thing to do, from the readers’ perspective. But from the animals’ perspective, the more awareness the better.
This story in particular came about because chickens get so little empathy and respect. In the culture I live in, people seem to have an easier time feeling for mammals than for birds. Birds are even exempt from the federal U.S. regulations for humane slaughter — so legally you can kill a duck without desensitizing them, but not a pig. And I think most vegans can relate to the experience I’ve had, of people telling you that they don’t eat “red meat,” only chicken(s), as if this is somehow progressive. In reality, Americans kill more animals than ever because of this trend, so where’s the progress? I grew up in the suburbs, but my neighbors kept chickens; as an adult, I’ve visited sanctuaries and met rescued chickens. They aren’t any less interesting or alive or individual than a rabbit or a horse. They aren’t less deserving of full lives. So with this story, I really wanted to push that button and give birds their due.
Q: What was your writing/research process?
A: I had this idea that an immortal creature would make the perfect object of exploitation, because it keeps regenerating itself, no matter what you do to it. I love taking elements of mythology and folklore and putting them in a mundane context–like how would a phoenix fit into a modern capitalist society? So I started writing from the perspective of a phoenix in a factory farm, more as an exercise for myself than anything else. Trying to capture that very non-human perspective forced me to figure out what it is that I, as a human, share with a bird, i.e., what really makes this creature relatable to me? It came down to very basic, physical experiences: hunger, thirst, heat and cold, desire for space and freedom of movement. Then the cycle of this mythological creature’s life — birth, life, death — became a natural metaphor for the fact that in the real world, it isn’t just a single animal who is confined, maimed, and killed; it’s billions, over and over again. The suffering doesn’t end with the individual animal’s death, because it’s repeated and multiplied, so long as the industry continues and grows.
But that wasn’t a story; it was just a cycle of experiences. So I put it aside for a long time, and it wasn’t until years later that I picked it up again, after I’d read a short story by Nalo Hopkinson which also involved an egg and the magical bird (which was very, very different from mine). This time, I tried writing the experience of the creatures on the other side: the human farmers who were maintaining the system that’s oppressing the birds — humans who are also being oppressed by the same system. Then I had a story! There was conflict, but more importantly there was also hope for intervention and change. I went through a lot of revisions, partly because I had very specific ideas about including the human and avian perspectives, and a lot of it just didn’t work for my readers — who are all human, after all. I had to trim the story down and find ways to lead human readers into the bird’s experience.
I was also doing a lot of research to make sure I got the details right. I looked at the investigations of groups like Mercy for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, and United Poultry Concerns; but most importantly for my human protagonist Joe and his family’s predicament, I read The Meat Racket by Christopher Leonard. Leonard’s a free-market, anti-regulation guy, yet his observations about life for these farmers who contract with the big agriculture companies like Tyson match what you’d find in more liberal sources like Food Inc. or Michael Pollan. I’m not a farmer myself. I don’t claim to speak for farmers. But, without minimizing the suffering that non-human animals’ experience, I tried to tell a story that was honest about the stresses and the changes in the industry that human farmers are coping with.
Q: Many farms are family businesses, and in this story Joe begins to empathize with the animals, while the rest of his family continues to see them as a commodity. Do you feel it’s possible for empathy to grow even when one’s livelihood depends on raising animals for food?
A: It’s definitely possible. There’s Howard Lyman, for example, who was a fourth-generation rancher and ultimately became a vigorous animal rights and environmental activist. He may be the most prominent, but he’s not unique. I’ve heard other vegans’ stories that began when they encountered animals with whom they connected on a farm — sometimes their family’s. It’s very natural to feel empathy for another sentient creature, and horror when they are treated as nothing more than a commodity. Farm workers absolutely experience it.
In most cases, though, I do think this empathy gets stifled by the immediate demands of the job, and the consequences for the workers and their families if they don’t do it. The threat of bankruptcy, of losing homes, of not being able to pay medical bills — these are very real. I don’t want to ignore them. There’s also a social and cultural cost to changing a way of life that might have been in your family for generations, and tied up in ideas about heritage and independence (even though you may be completely beholden to a vast corporation now). Under that kind of stress, I don’t expect human beings to be compassionate and far-sighted. I’m not. Often the most we can do is slack off and surreptitiously look for a way out — but that just removes us personally from the process, it doesn’t put an end to the exploitation as a whole. If one farmer decides they don’t want to kill chickens anymore, the industry can hire another. And that’s a recipe to feeling powerless.
So ultimately, I think we need an analysis that doesn’t pit human interests against the interests of other species, but sees us all (chicken, human, fish, whatever) as victims of the same oppressive system. What makes Joe the protagonist of the story and not another member of the family is his consistent animosity toward the company: in other words, his enemy is the same as the birds’, even if the nature of the relationship differs. He’s also unique in his family in that he never made a choice about his profession, but has this role laid out for him from childhood. Even if we’re vegan today, most of us grew up eating meat (and sometimes killing animals for other people to eat) simply because it’s what our parents did and what they expected us to do. As Joe is growing more aware of the birds’ situation, he’s also growing more aware — and more angry — about his own.
Analogies like this are always a little crass, but I’m going to go ahead, and I’ll take the criticism if it comes: Let’s compare this to the national movement against mass incarceration. More and more people understand that the American justice system is biased against black, brown, and working-class people. We incarcerate far too many people, for too long. Yet attempts to end this always meet opposition, and not just from private prison corporations or the industries that use prison labor. It comes from prison guard unions, too, and it’s pretty clear why. It isn’t as if the average corrections officer is making six figures, living high, but they are able to provide for their family, get health insurance, and save for retirement. They have stability, and they’re going to fight to keep it. So if we really care about humans or any other animals locked up in cages, we have to fight for the kind of economy that’s going to give workers — en masse — an option to walk away from the slaughterhouse or the detention center. I’m encouraged by the transitional approach that’s happening in parts of the renewable energy movement, like the agreement made around the closing of Diablo Canyon, the last nuclear power plant in California. Friends of the Earth was able to organize with the utility workers, so that the ultimate agreement with the company includes retraining and retention for those workers, so they can move on to other jobs and aren’t going to just get laid off.
Q: In your story, technology helps corporations make more money from animals. What role do you think technology can play in favor of the rights of animals?
A: I view science and the expansion of human knowledge generally as a force for good — or at least not a force for bad. And technology is just the application of knowledge to solve a practical problem. Once something new is invented, or new areas of knowledge are open, there are a whole range of possible applications. Drones can be used for dropping bombs or expanding a corporate delivery empire, or drones can be used to investigate factory farms and show people what is really going on there, as Will Potter is doing. Lots of other people are using their ingenuity to answer questions other than how to increase profits. The fact that we can grow human tissues and actually simulate whole body systems now makes the animal testing industry look pretty backward. I’d also include green technologies as a net gain for animals: if we are serious about the rights of other species, we have to preserve the planet that we are all living on, and a major overhaul of our energy sources has to be part of that. (So does changing our diet.)
Overall though, I’m not too optimistic that technology itself is the answer to animal exploitation because in many areas, it isn’t as if animal industries are just waiting around to be shown a better way. In movies, of course, I’m pleased when a director uses CGI animals on screen instead of live animals, but the ability to tell stories about animals without animals has been around for generations — in clay or hand-drawn animation, in puppets, in costumes, in other media like music or text. Bambi came out in 1942, and the book was published in 1923. I haven’t seen it, but I find it hard to believe that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a better piece of environmental fiction — though, yes, good for him for using only CGI animals. I’m also leery of turning animal rights into a marketing tool, the way Wayne Pacelle of HSUS suggests. His appeal is really to corporate capitalists: “Hey! Be animal friendly and you’ll make more money!” I’m skeptical that that approach is going to pay off in the larger scheme of things.
What I’d really like to challenge people who care about animals to do is to be part of a larger movement for social justice, so that we all can focus our time, energy, and skills on solving problems where the bottom line isn’t what kind of profit we’re going to get, but how we are going to insure a basic, decent standard of living for all human beings that also puts us in an ecological balance with other species and with the planet. The major deficit in that struggle isn’t cool new technologies; I think it’s political and economic freedom.
Q: What are you writing now?
A: Thank you for asking! My main project is an urban fantasy novel, that is currently morphing into something closer to New Weird. I also have shorter pieces that I am polishing: a novelette about witchcraft and a group of striking textile workers in the 1830s and several different short stories. One of my co-workers and I have an ongoing zine project about life in a public library. I have more ideas for stories than I have time to write, which I suppose is a better problem to have than the opposite.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: Lots of love for chickens, a little compassion for farmers, and burning hatred for capitalism.
Less flippantly: I’m very curious where readers’ sympathies will lie at the end of this story. First, the story draws us into Joe and his family’s situation, and then, along with Joe, we’re drawn even further out of our own experience, into the birds’ situation. It’s like a nesting box. And I hope we identify with and ultimately respect how these creatures — the birds as well the human beings — endure and struggle to control their own bodies and live decent lives. If readers come away with multiple levels of awareness and solidarity, then I’ve accomplished my goal.