In Conversation

Animal perspective

Breaking the language barrier

ERIN HORTLE: In Tasmania, there is a place where female octopuses emerge from the water and make their way across an isthmus, with a highway running across it, in search of habitat to extrude their eggs. Luckily, on the other side of this isthmus, there is such habitat – vast systems of sea caves – and here, they tend to their eggs, not eating or sleeping until the eggs hatch, and the female octopuses die, spent.

I wanted to tell these octopuses’ story, but it wasn’t until I had an idea for a human angle that I began writing in earnest. But it bugged me that the octopuses only emerged as characters when their paths directly intersected with those of the human characters; it meant their plot line was both moderated and diminished. So, I decided to write a piece from the perspective of the octopus.

Initially, I was hesitant. Despite the fact my motive was to more fully explore the octopus’s story, it would be me imagining and writing – I was profoundly aware that I couldn’t know what an octopus thinks and, perhaps more than this, I couldn’t know how an octopus thinks. This quandary brought to mind Franz Kafka’s ‘A Report to the Academy’, when the languaged chimpanzee narrator, Red Peter, outlines the impossibility of describing to humans his life as a pre-­languaged chimp: ‘What I felt then as an ape I can represent now only in human terms, and therefore I misrepresent it,’ he explains. The implication is that if one thinks, or writes, in human language, one thinks, or writes, as a human; thus, one inevitably misrepresents the non-­human animal consciousness one is attempting to represent.

This is the problem of anthropomorphism.

Eventually, I came to a realisation: it seemed to me that while a piece of writing will be anthropomorphic on this very fundamental level, this does not mean that it must be anthropocentric. This shifted my focus, and qualms, entirely.

LAURA JEAN McKAY: I love that we’ve started with the octopus crossing. It taps into the travelling aspect that our books share. The characters – in Erin’s The Octopus and I; in Chris’ Mammoth; and in my book, The Animals in That Country – all travel, traversing roads and plateaus, as well as crossing from land to air to sea. The stories also go to places of interspecies communication that are hard to get to, even in fiction. I wrote a whole early draft of Animals and showed it to my partner, who said, ‘This novel about talking animals is great…except that there aren’t any talking animals.’ In my horror of anthropomorphism, I’d written a novel that avoided the whole point: ‘What if we knew what other animals were saying?’ Like you, Erin, I quickly shifted to the thinking that anthropomorphism isn’t so bad; it’s just the basic human way of relating to other creatures with more extraordinary abilities. It’s anthropocentrism – the placing of humans at the centre of all things – that’s the problem. As Chris explores so beautifully in Mammoth, humans are pretty limited, stupid and dangerous – how else would the world get so messed up?

So, from that place, I started to rewrite. I knew that Jean and the other human characters infected with ‘zooflu’, a strange new virus, couldn’t read animal minds. Instead they were decoding the smells, movements and subtle noises of other animal bodies and able to translate them into words. This was one of the symptoms of the flu. I focused on animal ‘superpowers’: if humans prioritise sight, what is it like to be a dingo and process smells up to a hundred times better than humans? Or to perceive the world through sonar? To be an insect fatally attracted to human sweat? The insects were my way in. When I wrote them, they SHOUTED their LIVES in CAPS. It’s a tense part of the novel but I also wanted there to be a great joy in the insect speech. A creature that small undoing a great big human: there is a beautiful decentring in that.

Once I allowed myself to write like a bug, other animal characters opened up to me. The birds in the novel emphasise every other word. Sue the dingo navigates her difficult wild and captive life through direct speech and asides (in parentheses). I wrote the animal dialogues, turned them into (bad) songs, fed them through the internet as translated and scrambled texts and popped them back in the novel. I wanted to get the dialogue as far from my human way of perceiving as possible, while still keeping the wonder and heart of the characters. What came out is often described as poetry. That’s not the way I see it, but I think it’s the closest form: poetry is supposed to offer a window into a moment, something that surprises us, an insight into a given, an angle that we’ve never noticed before. And who is more overlooked, misunderstood, unseen than the other animals we share the world with? It was really important to me that the non-­human animal characters weren’t offering prophesies, answering unanswerable questions or solving human problems. They needed to exist as strong characters, agents of their own narrative journey.

This makes me think about voicelessness and giving voice. Was this something that you were both attempting to do? What responsibilities do we carry, as human writers writing other animal speech?

CHRIS FLYNN: The idea of animals not having a voice is in many ways the essential flaw at the heart of anthropocentrism. The Australian charity Voiceless chose their name ‘because animals cannot raise their voice in protest or advocate for themselves in a court of law’. Voiceless says: ‘We have a moral, ethical duty to speak up for them. But animals are not voiceless. They speak in languages we humans have failed to understand or have simply chosen not to hear.’

Anthropomorphism gets a bad rap. Someone decided somewhere that talking animals equates to terrible fiction, or at the very least childishness. I guess we blame Disney and Pixar. In the first half-­dozen interviews I did about Mammoth, I was asked if I watched the Ice Age movies as research because: animal banter. It didn’t even occur to me. I’m not seven.

Instead, I spent years working with animals. Real ones, who didn’t burst into song every five minutes. I worked at the RSPCA shelter in Burwood, Melbourne. It’s the largest RSPCA facility in Australia. There are so many dogs there at any given time, you have to wear ear defenders. And kittens rapidly lose their charm during breeding season; walking into their rooms first thing in the morning is akin to entering the Bog of Eternal Stench. It is easy to be overwhelmed by these animals’ attempts at communication.

Anthropocentrism unravels in the face of such a mass, raw outpouring of speech. Just like they reveal in your books, Laura and Erin, these creatures want to fight, fuck, eat, and shit and say hello, man, why don’t you come over here for a minute because I can smell what you’re thinking; I can hear the blood rushing through your veins; I am so very aware of you.

Every staff member reported the same sensation: feeling your ego dissipate; going through entire days where you didn’t think about yourself. The arrogant, narcissistic and – let’s face it, violent – human impulse to see ourselves as lords over the animal kingdom is undermined when we realise that we can understand animals, if only we stop to listen. It doesn’t suit our purposes to think of animals as sentient beings who experience a range of emotions, who love and who remember. Those thousands of creatures I worked with (correction: worked for) reminded me every day in stark terms that I was one of them. Without them, I couldn’t have written Mammoth. If I don’t have your ‘zooflu’, Laura, I have something in the ballpark. I also definitely have toxoplasmosis: cats control my brain and can make me do their bidding.

I know you both spend, and have spent, an awful lot of time in nature – in the water, out in the bush. Did interactions with animals change your perspective on anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism and your own place in the natural world?

EH: I spend a lot of time in and on the water, and time spent observing and interacting with animals has shaped my thinking in innumerable ways.

Laura, you asked about voice and voicelessness, and the responsibilities human writers carry. My attitude to this changed as I wrote different animals’ perspectives. My approach to writing octopuses was academic. In order to represent an octopus’s consciousness, I sought to understand it as well as I could by immersing myself in octopus research. The challenge became translating this scientific knowledge into creative writing, but not in a way that merely sought to render science speak more accessible. The philosopher Elizabeth Grosz writes, ‘Art unleashes and intensifies, through the principles of composition, what science contains and slows down through the plane of reference.’ This was what I wanted to do: I wanted to take that which science had slowed and charted (in this instance, octopus physiology) and compose it into a narrative that would hopefully drag human readers out of their own anthropomorphism in order to (hopefully) prompt them to contemplate anthropocentrism in a new light.

My approach to seals was different. It was driven by my observations of the ways they interact with one another in the water and the ways they interact with humans. They are smart and strategic. They read the sounds of boat engines to know when you’re trolling, when you’re bottom bashing – and if you’re bottom bashing, they float, face down and flippers up, and keep an eye on your line so they can steal your fish right before you land it. They’re also very social, in particular ways, and this – along with the associated interior lives that might accompany this – fascinated me. Fur seals segregate on the basis of sex. When a young male gets to a certain age, he has to relocate to a haul-­out and live with the other males. To extrapolate via human analogy: male seals go through some kind of a rite of passage. To (potentially) anthropomorphise: how does he feel about this? Pups play together. Does he miss his young female friends? Does he find it hard being at the bottom of a masculine hierarchy? I pondered these questions while sitting in the boat, observing the interplay between seals at a haul-­out.

A culture in which anthropomorphism is taboo, or cringeworthy, limits our capacity to imagine (relegating it to something childish, as you say, Chris) and, through imagination, to empathise. We’re happy enough to reduce animals’ behaviour to a drive for survival, but we won’t allow that their lives are more than those base instincts. This is less an inadequacy of non-­human animals, and more an inadequacy on our part. If I had not speculated about a young seal’s inner life, it would have said more about my lack of inner life than the seal’s. On the one hand, the seal doesn’t care if I speculate or not, so whatever; maybe it’s all narcissism or something on my part. But wilful ignorance and narrow-­mindedness are tools of anthropocentrism, and ideological anthropocentrism has led to us fucking the planet, and this will affect the seal.

The thing I loved about your novels was the way non-­human animal voices invited me, as a reader, to step outside myself, to imagine new complexities and potentials in the non-­human. I want to return to that Grosz quote because it helped me think about the role art can play in progressing human understanding of the more-­than-­human world. Why did you decide to explore these ideas through art in the form of creative writing? What do you hope your stories, and these animals, will do now out in the world?

LJM: I’m glad you brought up the seals, Erin. After reading those chapters it was hard to comprehend that I was a bipedal land mammal, so much did I feel part of the colony and that young pup’s life!

But as well as writing about what might happen if the language barrier between people and other animals was taken away, I wanted to look at power and representation and who speaks for who. A magpie helped with this, and my memory of her also goes some way to responding to your question, Chris, on how interactions with animals might change our perspective. In 2015, this magpie’s territory included a house I was renting. The verandah was absolutely hers and it was absolutely mine and we met in an if-­not-­shared-­then-­acknowledged space. I worked there on nice days and, in the spring, she started dropping off the magpie chicks while she and her gentle giant of a partner (whose toe she ripped off in a fight) hunted for lizards and worms. The babies were adorable, uncoordinated and totally distracting: it was flattering to share a space with them. But the more I wrote alongside them, the more I thought about the power imbalance. I was never at risk. The worst that happened to me was bird shit. One day, the magpie mother walked into the house and, being an upward-­thinking animal, couldn’t get out. She flung herself at the windows until she was exhausted. I wrapped a towel around her and realised she’d given up. She was expecting to die. She had put everything at risk in my company.

Turning to Erin’s question of what our stories might do in the world, one of the things I like about conversations with writers making eco-­ and climate fiction is that we’ve all said: of course we should have good characters and story, but there are also urgent themes that need direct address! Also: what if a tree or a pig isn’t a metaphor? What if it’s a tree or a pig? What if that’s the subject that needs discussing? We are increasingly raising very specific questions in our work. So I hope that readers will take a moment to step back, be quiet (hard for us humans!) and really look at other animals. Maybe that animal is a companion. Maybe it’s wild. Or what we call a pest. Or not alive anymore – maybe we’re wearing it. What happens if we stop and really consider our relationships with them?

Do you both have more to write in terms of other animals? Or do you feel as though your thinking around this is somewhat complete?

CF: I’m often surprised when I read criticism of contemporary fiction, especially Australian fiction, and it is assumed all authors are smartypants who think very deeply about hidden meaning, politics, the use of metaphor. When my first book, A Tiger in Eden, came out, some of the reviews went way over my head. I’m fairly literal: the penguin in Mammoth isn’t a metaphor, a representation of mankind’s folly in contributing to melting ice shelves in the Antarctic. He’s a penguin fossil. He doesn’t represent anything except himself. It’s a very anthropocentric reaction to view animals as representations of human foibles, and probably goes some way to explaining why anthropomorphism generates so many eye-­rolls. Our animals have voices (granted, assigned by us, through processes that are both complex, reasoned and narratively convenient) and personalities. They want to talk about the natural world and our skewed relationship with the animal kingdom of which we are an integral, vital component. That probably just irritates human-­centric literary theorists, whose likely response would be: can you not?

Maybe this relates to your question, Erin, on our decisions to write about animals creatively, rather than penning serious, detached non-­fiction books about octopuses, dingoes and mastodons. For a start, we’re probably all hopelessly unqualified to write such books and secondly, where’s the fun in that? We’re artists, damn it. We’re supposed to be the crazy ones with radical notions that make people think differently about the world.

Do we want to be known as the ‘animal authors’? It’s easy to be pigeonholed in this business. I’m obliquely sticking with the topic in that I’m working on a book investigating the origin of mythological creatures and how they might be related to misidentified dinosaur and megafauna fossils.

EH: Look, I don’t mind metaphors and symbolism as modes of creating meaning around politics, etc., and I do think novels are open to interpretation, and that those interpretations are acts of meaning-­making. So I kind of don’t mind – and am quite intrigued by – interpretations of The Octopus and I. But I am surprised at people wanting me to explain, or make sense, of my human protagonist’s relationship with the octopuses in comprehensible or reductive ways. I’ve been told a number of times, ‘I found your book frustrating because I know the animals are meant to be symbolic of something about each of the humans, but I couldn’t always make it fit.’ Sometimes I wonder if a compulsion to read symbolism is less about the poetry of language and layers of meaning within texts and more a way of reducing language and ideas into something manageable – something compartmental. To do this to animals is another way of stripping them of their complexity, because it assumes their complexity is only something to be understood in reference to us. I see this as more an anthropocentrism than an anthropomorphism.

Our stories are very different, but I think that at the heart of each book is a desire for some kind of realism when it comes to writing these animals’ perspectives, and that realism stems from our character-­driven approaches, as opposed to notions of animals as symbols. I was trying to understand characters (of all four species), and figure out how to do justice to that understanding, in writing that was sometimes formally experimental and other times less so. Reading your novels, and talking here, it seems to me that both of you have sought to think through the complexities of the animals and tell their stories in a manner that would do their lives some sort of justice – or, to put it in a cringeworthy way, to tell their truth. I’m calling that realism; maybe it’s something else.

It’s interesting, too, this idea of justice and truth being linked – it makes me think about the relationship between bearing witness and ethics. Do you see a connection between these ideas in your writing? Also, my next novel features a gannet…

LJM: I had a bit of a debate recently about a story draft I read in the first-­person voice of a rabbit. I loved this story and was bristling with joy as I went to a meeting to talk about it. The other readers said that it was hard to take seriously this childish work and what a pity because the author seemed like a really good writer. I had taken the story completely literally – this was a realistic, subtle and elegant exploration of how it might be to see the world as a rabbit! Writing so intensely and literally about animals is skewing my judgment for other readings and making me a bit difficult in book and writing groups. But this literality surely isn’t all bad – a bit of compensation for centuries of anthropocentric reading, at least!

Finding my way into your questions, Chris, about discussions after the book’s release, and yours, Erin, about the idea of justice and truth being linked, brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘The Animals in That Country’. It opens with the line ‘In that country the animals / have the faces of people.’ Later they have ‘the faces of / animals’ and then ‘the faces of / no one’.

The poem is a beautiful ode to (what becomes) roadkill. As well as loving and using the poem’s title, I love the way the animals change according to human determination. They are ‘the animals’, but in ‘this country’ they mean many things. I often say that my character Sue just arrived on the page and, once she did, Jean had a reason for being there too. But I also purposely chose a dingo because of their uneasy status in Australia. Protected, wild, domestic, feral, pest. Dangerous, misunderstood, doesn’t belong, been here for so long. I wanted to spend a few hundred pages with a character who, by her very bodily presence, scrambles a national taxonomy.

Is the way forward, now, to look backwards? Is that how you came to the extraordinary place of Mammoth, Chris?

CF: You have a gannet character in your next book, Erin. And you have a rabbit, Laura. You’re not fooling anyone; that was clearly your rabbit story that was dissed by the unsophisticated anthropocentric members of your lame book group. Childish, huh? Try cleaning the hutch of a huge bunny called Rabbit de Niro as he bites you. Reader, I almost died. In retrospect, he might’ve had myxomatosis. I really didn’t want to catch that.

For the record – and this is an early reveal – there is a bear in my next book. It will mostly be about humans this time, with a guest ursa. Since everyone seems to hate anthropomorphism so much, I’m taking a pseudo-­scientific sidestep in order to (hopefully) dive under the crashing wave of eye-­rolls.

Notions of justice, truth and bearing witness tie in nicely to your question when it comes to Mammoth, Laura: is the way forward to look backwards? In the case of Mammut, the idea of forwards and backwards, of future and past, have become uniquely intertwined because he died a long time ago and yet he’s making a comeback. His entire species fell victim to the dawn of anthropocentrism and now we’re beginning to realise we made a terrible mistake. The mammoth’s purpose was to stomp around and keep the ground cold. When they died, tens of millions of them sank into the mire and were forgotten. Fast forward 10,000 years and we’ve heated the planet so much they’re thawing out again. Almost every week, there’s a news story about the discovery of a mammoth carcass. Normally, this would serve as a poignant reminder of our past folly but weirdly, mammoths are popping up just in the nick of time. In some cases, their flesh and skin are still intact. My God, some of them bleed! Which is awful, but also handy if you like to collect DNA samples and you work in a synthetic biology facility in Shenzen.

It may have taken ten thousand years, but it looks like justice will finally be served for the mammoth. Pretty soon, they’ll be here again, lumbering around, doing their job of stomping, inspiring awe and looking cool. We will see baby mammoths on the news sometime in the next five years, maybe less. The concept is that a herd will help restore the permafrost and buy us some time.

In all the research and media surrounding the possibility of resurrecting these behemoths, the talk is about climate change – and rightly so. But I wonder if the re-­emergence of extinct megafauna isn’t a marker of something more profound, something era-­defining? Bringing animals back from the dead could be the ultimate anthropocentric act in that it defines the limits of our power. We become God. We correct our past mistakes and, in doing so, we hand the reins back to creatures that were here long before us. Their imprint on the world becomes more important than ours. As soon as that first herd of mammoth is set free, the Anthropocene is over, and we’ll be living in a new age. I hope we’re around to see it.

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