Translate the language of animals


“Human breathing is pretty much all we will have left if we’re not careful. Why not try to breathe alongside others? Why not try to make the stories that matter? ‘ keynote speaker Laura Jean McKay asked during an address at this year’s Small Press Network Independent Publishing Conference.

McKay is the author of an award-winning novel, The animals of this country, which tracks down a virus with the odd ability for humans and animals to communicate with each other. To illustrate the importance of other species, McKay opened her speech with a list of all the animals she has seen recently (around 100 birds and 1,000 insects) and asking viewers to think about an important animal encounter they have themselves had.

Indeed, that opening speech was generously sprinkled with anecdotes (and short videos) about non-human creatures, with McKay using an encounter she had with a sea lion in Dunedin as a springboard to talk about the synergies between the animal-human interactions and the very writing process.

“Sea lions expire before submersion and store oxygen in their blood. I could write this breath in a whole word! This sound is history and it’s my job as a writer to use what little I have to communicate it in words. It is the sound of the encounter; the moment a big hairy mammal that lives in water breaks the surface to look directly at me… ”McKay enthused.

“When I’m up close, I feel that the door to questioning opens like it does with a good story. Oh yes. What is happening? What happens next? It is also the sound of the last moments, the approach of a stranger, a confused exchange of meanings before immersing oneself in another world. ‘

Laura Jean McKay

McKay argues for a space to be opened up for meaningful interaction with the animals, or for a reconfiguration, if we allow it. “What if we start with the moment between a sea lion’s gaze and its breath? What if we put humans on the side of our narratives and bring the rest of the world together? If the characters start from an off-center position, the conversation that continues from there is potentially one where both human and non-human characters can step outside of their assigned species roles, or at least challenge them.

McKay noted how more urgent interspecies encounters have become, “with the industrial-scale oppression of non-human animals, accelerating climate change and extinction.” Humans, she stressed, are both powerful and vulnerable. “We are super predators on a global scale… and yet our heavy reliance on other species is vulnerable. ”

She told about a group of scientists who traveled to Christmas Island to try and protect a critically endangered species of bat, but by the time they arrived there were none left. only one. The group recorded the bat’s last moment echo, “This is the sound of life. This is the sound of extinction. But we have the power to record these things: through the image, the words and the human voice. ‘

The sound of a species already lost but preserved by human experience resonates with McKay’s storytelling instinct. She questioned “the ability of humans to destroy and preserve through the imagination and asked,” Is it our responsibility as writers and editors to try to fight loss first. with the second? This preservation by telling a story about it once it’s over, is that still enough?

Perhaps to reinforce the serious direction the speech was heading in, Mckay laughed and pointed out, “Not all stories should be about saving the world … and I’m not saying literature alone, either. has the capacity to do so. ” But, she continued, “Coming as I do from a colonial literary culture that dictates that stories are about the human experience, it is my urgent responsibility to devise alternative ways of doing things.

“This is part of the environmental shift in Western literature announced by Rachel Carson Silent spring and the animal to which Peter Singer Animal liberation is in the foreground. The stories we published have to work harder than ever to maintain the techniques that every culture in the world has developed: at its core, how to tell a story that conveys important information and makes people at least want to listen or read the ending. . ‘

Contemporary literature is also part of a renewed collective turn towards a more than human world, infinitely more interesting and infinitely fascinating than the narratives limited to the human experience – most cultures other than those of which I am, those which have preserved connection to the earth, the environment and non-human species, know that.

Laura Jean McKay

McKay despised the fallibility of the human animal. “We know how to adapt well. But we cannot fly without help. We cannot hear high and low frequency sounds. We cannot breathe on our own underwater or swim particularly well. Our teeth are dull and our noses short. We tend to kill everything, including each other.

And yet, McKay sees that humans can redeem themselves. “What we can do is use language to create stories, narratives, images in the mind that are made up of words, but that form scenes that evoke emotions and fuel ideas… If it is is the right thing we can do and if we just do “I don’t really understand the great things other animals can do, couldn’t we imagine ourselves and other animals as species on the same? planet with extraordinary and different capacities? “

McKay’s novel and keynote speech for SPN to some extent address the commonalities and differences between humans and other sentient creatures, but she was all too aware of the challenges of writing with animal voices and d ‘to be accused of anthropomorphism.

The title of her book, she reminded us, is taken from Margaret Atwood’s poem and poetry collection of the same name. “This particular poem describes metaphorical and literal representations of non-human animals and opens with the following line: ‘In this country animals / have people’s faces. It is a provocative image of blurred and disturbed borders. And after all, there is a freedom to be gleaned to “slip from the need to know everything to a place of wonder, where humor, error and relationships reside.”

Laura Jean McKay’s keynote “Publishing and the environment” was presented as part of the Small Press Network’s 2021 Independent Publishing Conference.

ArtsHub is a co-sponsor of the SPN Book of the Year Award.

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