An interview with Among Animals contributor C.S. Malerich

Charlotte Malerich, whose story “Meat” appeared in the first edition of AMONG ANIMALS, is back with another amazing story, “Phoenix Cross,” in AMONG ANIMALS 2And 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.   

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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.

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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.

Announcing AMONG ANIMALS 2

We are thrilled to announce the publication of Among Animals 2, the second edition of our popular anthology of short fiction that explores the relationships among animals and humans.

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Last week, we celebrated the book’s publication in Australia with a seminar on writing about animals at the University of Sydney.

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We are grateful to Peter John Chen, Dinesh Wadiwel, and Sascha Morrell for making this event possible; we enjoyed a lively discussion about animals and society as well as the depiction of animals in literature. It was also a great pleasure to hear Sascha Morrell read from her beautiful story, “Roo,” which appears in the anthology.

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And stay tuned for more Among Animals events here in the U.S.!

On Thursday, October 13, at 7 p.m., contributors Rachel King and Catherine Evleshin will read from their stories at Annie Bloom’s in Portland, Oregon. Click here for details.

On Friday, October 14, at 7 p.m. Charlotte Malerich will read from her story at The Potter’s House in  Washington, D.C. The reading will be followed by a discussion about animals as part of the larger social justice movement. Click here for details.

For more information on the anthology, please feel free to subscribe to our mailing list. And do keep an eye on the blog: We will be posting interviews with our contributors in the coming weeks, in which you can learn more about these talented authors and the inspiration behind their stories. Here is our list of contributors and their stories:

 

RooSascha Morrell
It Won’t Be Long NowJoeAnn Hart
Bight, Tomcat, and the MoonCarmen Marcus
Phoenix CrossC.S. Malerich
Shooting a MuleJ. Bowers
Lost PetsLaura Maylene Walter
Exotic Animal Alert: Please Post WidelyRamola D
VivariumClaire Ibarra
Julia and the Sea BearNels Hanson
A Normal RabbitRachel King
A Sterile PlaceCatherine Evleshin
How to Identify Birds in the WildRobyn Ryle
StraysAnne Elliott
CaptivityAnthony Sorge
The Truth of Ten Thousand ThingsHunter Liguore

 

To order your own copy of Among Animals 2, click here.

Writing for Cecil: A guest post by Mindy Mejia

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dragon Keeper author Mindy Mejia, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Writing for Cecil

A few weeks ago a building near my office was overrun by police cars and media vans. I didn’t know what was going on until someone told me, complete with a meaningful look in one of the spare cubicles, “That’s where the dentist’s office is.”

I didn’t need to be told which dentist, because in the prior three days “dentist” had become the country’s newest dirty word. That’s all we knew about Walter Palmer. He was a dentist who enjoyed traveling the world and killing magnificent animals, that is, until he killed the wrong one.

As a vegetarian I’ve had mixed feelings about the Cecil backlash. Obviously it was a horrific, completely unjustifiable crime committed by a total asshat. Cecil’s death was senseless, cruel, and exacerbated by the likely slaughter of his twenty-four cubs as a new male takes over his pride. On the other hand, I live in the Midwest, where a bird flu epidemic has forced the extermination of forty-eight million chickens in the last several months. Let me say that again. Forty-eight million chickens. That’s the total human population of California, Oregon, and Washington combined, and other than a few brief clips of some poultry barns on the news, who even heard about these deaths, let alone cared? Personally, I can’t wrap my head around a scale that weighs the lives of twenty-five lions as greater than the lives of forty-eight million birds. As a writer, however, that scale—like everything else illogical about our species—fascinates me.

There are insights here for anyone writing about animals, but especially those who are working within an environmental theme. Cecil’s death showed us that people care. They are willing to become invested and even help spur social change if their sympathies are triggered. But what is the trigger? How can a writer tap into that amazing human-animal connection?

First, let me be clear that I’m no expert. I possess no degrees that end in -ology. I’m just a writer who has spent some time examining the relationship between people and the other species who live on this planet. In my opinion, the catalyst for the public reaction to Cecil’s death distills down to three main components: the Rarity factor, the Apex Predator factor, and the Charismatic Mega Vertebrate factor. Let’s break them down, one by one.

Rarity

Rare Suburban Hosta Cat
Rare Suburban Hosta Cat

Why is gold worth more than water? Why do we value a lion’s life more than a chicken’s? After all, most of us directly depend on chickens as part of our food chain while lions have comparatively little impact on our survival. So why care about some lion halfway across the world? The answer is partly psychological—we are drawn to the rare and exotic—but also partly legislative. Cecil’s life was protected within the borders of his refuge and that law was the only thing that made his killing a crime. In the U.S. the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 and it mandated that the lives of threatened animals must be protected. Scarcity has become a kind of virtue; it makes certain animal’s lives more precious. To see this effect in reverse, look at the Obama administration’s decision to remove gray wolves in the Great Lakes region from the list. Almost immediately Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan created hunting seasons to “manage their wolf populations” and fifteen hundred wolves were killed as a result. Less scarcity? Less value.

Of course, it’s easy to highlight an animal’s rarity when writing about an endangered species, but what if you’re not? The principle can still work even if your character is a more common animal, as C.S. Malerich demonstrates in her short story “Meat.” In the story, the protagonist’s father decides to raise an animal for slaughter to provide ethically-minded food for his family. Malerich never reveals the animal’s species and it becomes a guessing game for the reader. Could the animal be a cow? Certain scenes seem to suggest it at first, but as the story progresses, the narrator gives the animal increasingly sophisticated behaviors and counterintuitive physical characteristics. Is it a monkey? An emu? The reader’s imagination races to the exotic, almost in defiance of the undeniably human-like character that is emerging.

“Meat” taps into the rarity factor by refusing to tell us if the animal is rare or not. We are unbalanced by not knowing the societal worth that has already been placed on this life and seek desperately to recover that label so we can apply the pre-determined value and move on. When we realize Meat’s species will not be revealed, the real question emerges: why do we value some animals more than others?

 

Apex Predator

Danger raises the stakes
Danger raises the stakes

 

Aside from his almost-endangered status, Cecil was also the king of the jungle and, let’s be honest, we love our kings. Humans are the ultimate predators on planet Earth, at least for the time being, and our imaginations gravitate toward other apex predators—animals that preside over the top of their food chains. Look at Shark Week. Grizzly Man. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Yes, a predator can be dead for sixty-six million years and we still happily break box office records to watch their re-creations strut and slaughter on the big screen.

Whenever I talk to readers about The Dragon Keeper, my novel about a Komodo dragon’s virgin birth, their questions usually always cycle around to the species’ rumored poisonous bite. Sure, dragons can spontaneously reproduce, but they can really kill you, right? As writers we want to explore the animal behind the diet, but don’t ignore your animal’s predatory instincts; they’ll do wonders to heighten suspense. In every scene I wrote with Jata, the book’s Komodo, I knew she had the power to wreak havoc. She could have bitten her zookeeper’s hand off during feeding scenes or ambushed her in the exhibit. I used real-life accounts of Komodo attacks from the headlines to add tension to the friendship that developed between the woman and the dragon, to remind the reader that, at any moment, their delicate relationship could shatter.

Even if you’re writing about a herbivore, you can utilize the predator principle for drawing reader interest and raising the stakes in a story. Every animal can become formidable in the right situation. Look at the deer who charged a jogger in Germany in 2011. Or the gaze of raccoons that attacked a Washington jogger in 2012. Or the repeated barred owl attacks on runners earlier this year in Oregon. Hmm. The secret to raising the stakes might be a track suit…

 

Charismatic Mega Vertebrate

Big personality = Big appeal
Big personality = Big appeal

Perhaps the biggest reason Cecil’s death caused such an outcry was because he was Cecil, not some random lion unacquainted with the human world. He had a name, a radio collar, and an unofficial fan club, and he’d attracted this human following because he was a charismatic mega vertebrate.

This is the term used by zoos to describe their poster exhibits. Lions, tigers, and bears, yes, but don’t forget gorillas, elephants, and dolphins. These species, through their larger-than-life personalities, human-like characteristics, or sheer vitality, are why visitors pay the price of admission. Simply put, they keep their zoo’s lights on. Knut the polar bear was responsible for a thirty percent increase in attendance the year he was born at the Berlin zoo. On the flip side, the Copenhagen zoo caused a worldwide controversy when they killed Marius the giraffe. The lesson? Charisma counts.

The good news here is that a writer can employ these characterization techniques to turn any vertebrate into a charismatic one. (Sorry, nonvertebrates. I’ll need to see a really compelling jellyfish or worm story before I can be convinced this strategy works for you.) An animal should be approached just like any other character in your book. Build their backstory, their mannerisms, their quirks, and then give their actions weight in the narrative. Make them integral to and capable of changing the world you’ve created. Don’t be afraid of anthropomorphizing. We naturally humanize animals in order to feel closer to them, so let your human characters forge those connections and your readers will follow suit. To learn characterization from masters on both ends of the spectrum, grab a copy of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Charlotte’s Web. These books are courses onto themselves.

Lastly, give your animal a great name, a name that endears and endures, that shines a spotlight on this individual character and lets them climb, trot, or swim into their rightful place in your readers’ hearts.* It won’t help Cecil—or those forty-eight million chickens—but the more readers your book reaches, the greater the odds that a future animal’s life could be safeguarded as something worth preserving.

*Note that Wilbur and Fern are already taken. For alternative popular names from the year 1912, try Albert, Mildred, or Frances.

An interview with Among Animals contributor Charlotte Malerich

An interview with Among Animals contributor C.S. Malerich (“Meat”)

by Jennifer Hartsock

 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.

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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.

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Announcing AMONG ANIMALS, a fiction anthology

We are thrilled to announce the forthcoming publication of our first fiction anthology, Among Animals: The Lives of  Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction.

amonganimalsThe anthology, scheduled for publication in February of 2014, features stories from among the best voices in contemporary fiction (you can see a list of contributors here). We received more than 300 story submissions, and it was quite a feat to choose only fifteen…but we think you’ll be as pleased with these stories as we are. The settings and animals featured in this collection range from the wilderness to our backyards, from bears to dolphins to emus.

To be notified when this book is available, please click here and scroll down to join the mailing list. And if you’re a book reviewer, please feel free to contact us for a review copy.