Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Sangamithra Iyer

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.

Announcing the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize!

We are delighted to announce the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature: Katy Yocom, for her novel THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR.

Judge JoeAnn Hart writes, “THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR begins with a focused lens on the endangered Bengal tiger then expands its reach with every page to reveal the interconnectedness of the natural world and fragility of all life. Weaving together the worn threads of ecological balance, this ambitious and moving novel addresses scarcity, climate change, family dynamics, cultural conflict, human accountability, women’s economic autonomy, and most of all, love, in all its wondrous forms. This is a story not just about saving the tigers, but ourselves.”

Katy Yocom was born and raised in Atchison, Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she has lived ever since. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon.com, The Louisville Review, decomP magazinE, StyleSubstanceSoul, and Louisville Magazine, among other publications.

In conducting research for her novel, THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, she traveled to India, funded by a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She has also been awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council and has served as writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Crosshatch Hill House, and Hopscotch House. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poetry has been translated into Bulgarian. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.

She lives with her husband in Louisville, Kentucky, where she helps direct Spalding’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Learn more about Katy on her website and via Facebook.

As the Siskiyou Prize winner, Katy will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA and a $1,000 cash prize.

It was a very competitive contest this year, and we would also like to congratulate the finalists and semifinalists:

 

FINALISTS

Small Small Redemption: Essays by Sangamithra Iyer

The Heart of the Sound: A memoir by Marybeth Holleman (published by Bison Books)

Song of the Ghost Dog: A YA novel by Sharon Piuser

SEMIFINALISTS

Karstland: A novel by Caroline Manring

Rumors of Wolves: A novel by C.K. Adams

The Harp-Maker of Exmoor: A novel by Hazel Prior

 

Thanks to everyone who submitted and to everyone who writes with the goal of making this world a better place. And please stay tuned for announcements for the next Siskiyou Prize!