Category: On writing


Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Alex Lockwood

By Midge Raymond,

Alex Lockwood’s article “With a Hope to Change Things: An Exploration of the Craft of Writing about Animals with the Founders of Zoomorphic Magazine” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: Most fundamentally, I have chosen (as far as a writer can) to only take on new projects that foreground the nonhuman and their relations with humans, as much as possible to work towards texts, narratives, and stories that help bring our relationships to light, and to contribute towards a more equal and just sharing of this world across species. Although sometimes as writers we don’t know quite what compels us to write the next story or book or poem, there are conscious decisions we can make responding to the state of the world, and the disastrous state of our hierarchical and dominant current relations with nonhumans. As I come to know more about animals and the nonhuman world, the more I recognize my spiritual and practical responsibilities to attempt to redress through my practice the worst forms of these exploitative relations and hopefully envision new and more equal, kind, and loving relationships.

In particular, I have spent a lot more time working in the second person, and writing works that give serious credence to the voices and agencies of nonhuman others, to the existing and complicated relations between beings across species (in cross-species encounter) and the truly relational nature of who we are, in that without these relations we do not know ourselves and, when you get down to the biota level, we wouldn’t even be alive.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: Compassion. Do not repeat or reinforce dominant speciesist practices in your writing. Question why it is okay to depict or represent particular animals in particular ways. Enrich your writing through learning in the three Es — ethology, ecofeminism, ecocriticism — to continue to forge new visions for ways of interrelating based on kinship and not dominance. Change your own name to that of an animal’s and see where that takes you. Don’t get bogged down by questions of whether or not animals can be fully represented in human language, because your audience is human, generally. But do nurture an understanding of nonrepresentational theories, politics, and practices that shift you and your ego out of the way. If you’re a white, Western male, as I am, do everything that you can to mobilize your white, Western, male privileges and give your writing over to the practice of centering the lives and leadership and needs of all previously marginalised groups, human and nonhuman.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: Donna Haraway’s Camille stories are must-reads for how we are now thinking about our multi-species encounters. Cynan Jones has done plenty of good work around animals and viscerality. The animal poet Susan Richardson, whom I interviewed for my chapter, is an incredible writer, perhaps one of the leading animal poets of our day, following in and beyond the footsteps of Les Murray. Sara Baume, Melissa Harrison, Robin Lamont, pattrice jones, Barbara King, Carol J. Adams, Ceridwen Dovey, Lydia Millet are all women working in different genres and forms to respectfully and compassionately help us reach the lives of animals.

Q: Your Q&A with the editors of Zoomorphic magazine highlights the role of literature in a changing world. What other media do you recommend for those who care about animals and wish to write about them with authenticity and compassion?

A: Literature remains for me the art form that can transform our relationship with the world most fully, but of course many would suggest film is the same or better at doing so, and films such as Okja have had a recent huge impact on the ways in which people have changed their relations to animals. Short films and exposes such as Dominion and Land of Hope and Glory have recently, from the documentary perspective, really changed people’s visions of how to relate in cross-species encounters and spaces. I think children’s books are vitally important in beginning that journey of love and compassion, or exploitation and abuse, depending on the forms in which they are written and the ways in which parents and teachers communicate them, and of course how writers write them, so I cannot recommend people such as Ruby Roth enough.

Alex Lockwood is the author of The Pig in Thin Air (Lantern Books), an exploration of the place of the body in animal advocacy, as well as senior lecturer in journalism at the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, Sunderland University, UK. He has published widely on human-animal relations and is currently working on a series of novels concerned with human-animal conflict.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Sangamithra Iyer

By Midge Raymond,

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.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Marybeth Holleman

By Midge Raymond,

Marybeth Holleman’s essay “Other Nations” appears in Writing for Animals.

 

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: It’s become more challenging, and more interesting. The more I learn and experience the more-than-human world, the more I see the need, as a writer, to be a conduit for them — for my writing to speak for them, in some way. This became very clear to me following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. This was a terrible industrial disaster that took thousands of wild lives, threatened generations more, and permanently degraded a huge swath of coastal wilderness. I witnessed the way humanity considered this disaster as compared to a disaster in which it was human lives that were lost. I realized then that the best I could do was try to give voice to these nonhuman lives, as best I can and in full awareness of the filters I carry as a human.

It’s very challenging, for they’re not like us, and yet, in ways, they are…how to write that? Not by being overly anthropomorphic, which is a disservice to other animals’ true selves, but also not by being anthropocentric, which is also a disservice and a lie. They are not, regardless of the unfortunate legacy of Descartian thinking, mere machines. And it’s fascinating, as a writer, to lean in on that, to step beyond the convenience of either/or thinking, to question pat answers, and to really witness the truths of their lives. In early June on the Kenai River, my husband and I watched salmon jump. Why, I asked my biologist husband, do salmon jump out of the water? He starting to recite theories – to loosen the eggs, to rid of parasites…Well, we don’t really know. And I love that; I love that we don’t always have some clear and constant explanation for what another being is doing. The salmon jumping: What if it’s just for fun, or just for the rush? What if there’s no reason at all, except joy?

 

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: Balance. Standing in the middle. Embracing both/and rather than seeing things as either/or. We wield great power when we write about nonhuman lives; it’s easy for stories about animals to be dismissed as overly romantic or anthropomorphic or complete fantasy. If we want our stories to reach as many people as possible, we must be prepared to straddle beauty and terror, loss and life, differences and similarities. We have to balance our own humility and authority.

Humility. We must remember that our human knowledge will always be limited, regardless of how deeply we try to understand other lives. They are, as Henry Beston wrote, “not brethren, not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” For example, just because I’ve published a book about wolves doesn’t mean I know wolves. Even if I spent years living with wolves, even then, I would not claim to know what it’s like to be a wolf. In fact, what I’ve found to be true in writing about the more-than-human world is that the more I learn, the more I see how little I know. How little all humans know.

Authority. We must root our writing in unmediated experience. Spend time with the animals we’re writing about; write about what we actually see, hear, smell, feel. Do tons of research, read all the scientific information we can, but be sure to root our words in direct, actual experience. Then embrace the authority of our own experience and knowledge. In The Heart of the Sound, I described watching a mountain goat swim from Culross Island to the mainland. Scientists later told me there were no goats on Culross Island, and goats do not swim in saltwater. But I know what I saw. And I know, from that, that as much as science can teach us about the world, it is always —always — an incomplete picture.

 

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: Ursula LeGuin’s short story “The Author of the Acacia Seeds.” Yes, it’s science fiction, and fantastical, but it makes you think about language among nonhumans in a different light. It translates to reality. Then there’s Gretchen Primack’s poetry collection Kind, and Lisa Courturier’s amazing essay collection The Hopes of Snakes and lovely poetry collection Animals/Bodies. Nancy Lord has a great short story on a wolf-dog called “Recall of the Wild.” And there’s Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” which is a brilliant description of one of those brief moments of unmediated connection with the nonhuman world.

 

Q: You rerouted your career from environmental policy work to creative writing. In what ways do you feel this is more effective and/or rewarding?

A: Oh, so much more rewarding! Effective in a longer-lasting way. Policy can be undone quickly, as we’re seeing right now with many regulations that took decades to put in place. We’d like to think policy is done with a rational, reasoned, careful approach, but it’s just not. When I began work in environmental policy, I learned fast that the problem wasn’t, as I’d naively assumed as a college student, some lack of information transmittal, some failure of communication between scientists and politicians. No, it’s a fundamental difference in intention and values and process. The political realm, in its present form, is fraught with poor decisions with no basis in scientific knowledge or rational thinking…much less the kind of both/and openness that I spoke of above. For example, here in Alaska, the state put in place a no-kill buffer for wolf protection along the boundary of Denali National Park…and then took it away simply out of spite over an unrelated political spat.

Writing, on the other hand, lasts. We still read stories — unabridged, unmediated — that are hundreds of years old. Writing can reach people on a deeper level, a subtle plane, one they may not even consciously recognize. Story bypasses the analytical mind and aims straight for memory and imagination. Story has power; it makes people more empathetic, more able to enter the world of the Other. It is transcendent in its potential to effect change.

The downside is that, with policy work, you can see the effects of your work — whether success or failure — very clearly and sometimes quickly. When they put the wildlife buffer in place, wolves stopped being killed, and more wolves were seen in the park. With writing, you can’t, for the most part, see the effects. There are exceptions, of course: consider Silent Spring. But mostly we writers, and really, all artists, rarely witness any far-reaching effects from our work. Every now and then I’ll get a note from some reader that confirms what I’ve hoped — that my work is reaching people, is having an effect on their view of the world. But mostly I just have to have faith in what I cannot, and likely will never, see—in the ripple effect of my words as they find their way out into the world.

Marybeth Holleman is the author of The Heart of the Sound, co-author of Among Wolves, and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. A Pushcart-Prize nominee, her essays, poems, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, and anthologies, among them Orion, Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, Literary Mama, North American Review, AQR, and The Future of Nature, as well as on National Public Radio. Holleman has taught creative writing and women’s studies at the University of Alaska and has written for nonprofits on environmental issues from polar bears to oil spills. A North Carolina transplant, she has lived in Alaska for more than twenty-five years.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Hunter Liguore

By Midge Raymond,

Hunter Ligoure’s essay “Writing Animals Where You Are” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: Compassion. With knowledge comes the awareness that there is no separation between animals and humans, nor is there a hierarchy of animals that are more important, or are more deserving of our love and compassion. (E.g., many are saddened by the loss of a pet, but not the loss of a squirrel or housefly). If we’re still long enough, we can recognize our sameness — the need for food, water, shelter, love, play, rest, and harmony, rather than suffering. Animals and humans want these things equally, and through awareness, not only in my writing, but in my way of life, I’m creating a world that realizes these actions as integral opportunities, available to be carried in every moment, everywhere. There isn’t a separate time for animals; our relationship is a seamless day.

 

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: Change the image of “watching” animals to “participating with” animals. When we watch, we’re actively creating a separation. We’re partners, living and wanting those same necessities I mentioned above. When we participate, we will go from being a false, stagnant observer, to a constant participant that is nurturing the world to ensure safety, love, compassion, food/water, play, shelter, for all animals. It will carry into the writing — it will foster a generation of environmental/nature writing aimed at solutions and actions, as opposed to despair, because the writer is now active and participating, too.

I would encourage writers to relearning perceptions and old mindsets created by the mass-mind … we all have them, a teaching or experience we cling to that causes a habitual reaction rather than a conscious action. I’ve had close encounters with bears and skunks — close, as in a handful of feet — where the very initial reaction is one of purity and presentness, not fear. The moment is often confounded with the mass-mind, the experiences of others. So while I’m not advocating petting a bear, I’m suggesting to acknowledge and consider how much one’s perception is based on habit, reaction/response, rather than being in the moment. Nature/animals allow us to be “here” and “present,” to fully experience life with them, not apart from them. It’s the same when you’re outside and feel a mosquito digging into your skin — the mass-response is to kill and swat, rather than gently disengage. Ticks, too. Houseflies … Who taught you to kill as the first response? My family taught me to eat animals, and I unlearned it. How could I spend years as an “animal advocate” and eat animals? But the mass-mind said that it was okay because some animals need preservation; others don’t. I unlearn the old responses every day by being open to the animals here and now and loving them equally — if fear arises, I ask why. There is nothing more beautiful than the pink nose of a skunk, who will not spray if you’re attentive and compassionate enough to allow it.

Focus on where you are writing right now. The office plant, the spider in the bathroom at the restaurant, the windowsill bird feeder, the parks that can use all your love to keep the litter at bay, to promote habitats. Cemeteries are open to visit and have a plethora of wildlife; walk your neighborhoods and cultivate a reciprocal relationship right now with whatever animal is there — the spider, gnat, birds, rabbits … when you do, the whole world opens and harmony floods in.

 

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: It’s very important where our mind rests all day. If it rests on a terrible, hopeless future, then collectively, we’re creating that day tomorrow. When we send out books, social media posts, videos that show despair, terror, violence, and so on, done to animals and the environment, then we’re triggering helplessness in the viewer, and restricting the possibility of the future that we do want to share together. How, as authors, can we offer a conversation that allows participation, not terror?

Books that offer a view out the window of harmony, which is here right now for us, are the ones I’m most interested in. Show us that our small effort matters; show us what change is occurring, so that we will be inspired to believe in ourselves and in creating a harmonious world. Two that come to mind are:

1. A Plea for the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion by Matthieu Ricard

Ricard shows us that the world is changing for animal, and he rallies us to get on board. In his book we see meat factories closing; he calls us to be responsible for our daily actions, and we want to join in, since we’re given permission to be accountable, and let go of our old habits.

2. Ecotopia 2121: A Vision for Our Future Green Utopia in 100 Cities by Alan Marshall

A book, mostly in pictures, that offers a view of the future that is harmonious, hopeful, and green; Marshall shows us that we can be active today to create these cities now. Like the concept behind the butterfly affect — that one housefly you catch and release can make a difference; or the mosquitoes you deter with garlic, over an electric zapper; or that night garden you cultivate for moths — all those things matter and add up to a harmonious world.

Q: Your essay points out that all animals, not only exotic ones, deserve our attention. What “ordinary” animal is most important to you?

A: My day begins with animals and ends with them, and no “one” animal could be separated as being more important. They come seasonally, so at times, I become aware that certain animals will show themselves more than others. For instance, fireflies have appeared at night, and with that comes a sense of awareness that “the whole” has extended another ripple of harmony to allow this to happen. Blackberries have finally come freely, allowed to be welcomed, and now create natural food for wildlife. A mother deer came with two spotted fawns — again, it says there is support for her to do so. Three hundred grackles have descended, with their fledglings, having felt the ripple to come and be part of the harmony. I live in an urban area, sandwiched within supermarkets, houses, and busy roads, and yet it is absolute paradise here for thousands of birds and animals, right down to the smallest of small. We’re in a constant, seamless interaction, and the most “important” thing is supporting harmony, and the opportunities to heighten our reciprocal relationship with the whole. When that happens, the discord that others believe in cannot exist — those busy roads and the paved, hard cities become part of the whole and harmony, no longer the enemy but part of the cohesion.

 

Hunter Liguore’s life motto is “respect for differences.” Her writing seeks to create a dialogue that promotes understanding our shared humanity as an alternative to discrimination and hate. She holds degrees in history and writing, and she teaches writing in New England. An award-winning writer, her work has appeared in over a hundred publications internationally, including Spirituality & Health, Orion, Great Plains Quarterly, and Anthropology & Humanism. She has several screenplays optioned, including Everylife, which is currently in pre-production. Her eco-fiction teen novel, Silent Winter, is forthcoming and already being compared to The Handmaid’s Tale. www.hunterliguore.org

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Beth Lyons

By Midge Raymond,

Beth Lyons’s essay “Real Advocacy within Fantasy Worlds” appears in Writing for Animals.

 

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I am primarily a genre writer — fantasy and science fiction — and my early work was pre-vegan. I didn’t always include meat eating or animal use in those stories; I didn’t  really think about it one way or another. As my understanding of veganism and its impact grew, I was able to use that knowledge to shape stories, and now I find it difficult to include meat-eating, hunting, and animal usage in my writing.

Genre lends itself splendidly to exploring all aspects of veganism, from the impact on the environment and on the human slaughterhouse workers to the sentience of animals, the physical impact to the body from eating animals, and the unsustainability of raising animals for food. My fantasy writing tends to focus more on the physical and emotional damage to humans and animals, my science fiction on the damage to the environment and impracticality of the current meat-based food system.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: “Tell a good story.” If you don’t write a compelling tale with memorable characters, no one will want to read it anyway, and your message and insights will be lost to the audience. This doesn’t mean that vegan values and information have to take a backseat, but the story and characters need room to become what they must. Character motivation, tension, and desire drive the story; all the vegan information you want to give your reader will come, and that illumination is the inevitable result of these characters and situations that you’ve created playing out in their own time and pace.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: I was riveted by Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The narrator, Rosemary, is human but we feel the depth of her love and loss. In addition, I have to mention Richard Adams. His books Watership Down and The Plague Dogs touched me deeply. He was a master storyteller.

 

Q: Your essay addresses the very essential aspect of what fictional characters eat and how to portray this authentically. What authors/books do you most admire for their portrayals of vegan characters?

A: First, there are not enough vegan characters out there! Many novels have vegetarian characters — the Eargon series by Christopher Paolini is a popular example. I also love Ruth Ozeki’s work. But E.D.E Bell’s Spireseeker is a great example of fantasy novel with a true vegan character — main character, even! Beryl is an elf, and in Bell’s universe, elves are vegan. Animal agency and sentience are explored as the novel unfolds, and because veganism is a core part of the elven culture and identity, it comes up again and again as Beryl navigates the world around her.

Beth Lyons is a former English literature teacher, award-winning poet, and traveler who now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of three fantasy novels and three science fiction novellas, all available via Amazon Kindle. In addition, she is a fiction editor, teaches workshops on editing and creative writing, and currently moderates an online writing forum.