The life of man, as David Hume pointed out, is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster. So it seems grossly unfair how many acres of print have been given over to the examination of the human experience and how little to the oyster experience – or indeed to the experience of any other species.
Some writers, and most notably writers for children, have tried to set this right. We have Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Buck in Jack London’s Call of the Wild. We have the rabbits of Watership Down and we have Tarka, Varjak Paw, Ratty and Mole… and of course Piers Torday’s chorus of wild things, of which he wrote in our recent blog post.
These can be memorable, insightful, important texts… but, as Thomas Nagel[i] points out, they are inaccurate. We cannot know the life of a bat, or an otter, or even an animal as close to us as a horse or a dog. There is an unbreachable gap between our experience and that of another species, and we write animal experiences from our place at the apex of the concept of evolution. We write other animals by regressing our own evolutionary journey in our imaginations, from a position of superiority.
Imagining the non-lived experience of others from a position of superiority is not an ethical act. Just listen to John Paul Sartre’s claim that ‘The European of 1945 can… redo in himself the project of the Chinese, of the Indian or the African… there is always some way of understanding an idiot, a child, a primitive man or a foreigner if one has sufficient information[ii]’, to hear how off it seems to us today. And, given that our own superior species is murdering all the fellow species of the planet, and taking their lands for our own insatiable needs, it isn’t hard to note the philosophical parallels between the literature of colonisation and the literature of animal narratives.
And yet novels are empathy machines. If we are to begin to feel the death of a bat as profoundly as we do the death of one of our own – if we are to embed the understanding of the interconnectedness of the lives on this planet into our emotional responses, fiction can play an important part in that change. This is perhaps especially true of fiction for young readers.
Activism, Human Rights and Social Sciences have long discussed when ‘speaking for’ a person or group can be condoned. The conclusion has been, basically, ‘when it is important’ and ‘when they would otherwise be silenced.’ Our furry, feathered and scaled others are all silent. Tarka herself can’t tell her story – at least not yet. Even Bunny the ‘talking dog’ doesn’t have enough buttons to express any longing she feels for freedom from domesticity, the way London did for Buck.
But appropriating other species’ voices and experience for artistic satisfaction and profit, at a time when we are literally killing them? That seems the grossest human consumption. When I was writing my Young Adult novel Dreaming the Bear, I stuck a post-it note in my writing shed, ‘Do Not Consume The Bear.’ And yet, in the end, my heroine accidently breathes in the bear’s last exhale. She consumed her, and it was too right for me to change. It might be that we are such agents of consumption that there is no other relationship we can have with the natural world – either as animals or as novelists.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is when we write other species is signal in the narrative that we are ‘speaking for’, that an act of imagination is taking place, that we are in a field of play. This can be done by writing animals who are clearly humans in fur suits (though with good natural history displayed), as Piers and Kenneth Graham have done. It can be done by writing from the outside of the experience of another species as I do, and as Hannah Gold has done in The Last Bear. Or, as in Nicola Davies’ new The Song That Sings Us, writing from an imagined future time when, at last, the animals can speak for themselves.
As I write, from my window I can see a flock of disappointed young wood sparrows – their feeders are empty. Of course, I am just imagining their disappointment, but they have tried several times to feed and have been twittering madly about the experience of failing to do so. My next act will be to go and stock their seed towers – this land was fields, and the house I rented opposite had been built the year before on an orchard. I owe the birds their food – I have inadvertently consumed their previous sources. And that is my last word on writing other species. That it’s not enough to just write and read – we also need to perform practical help.
You can find out more about Dreaming the Bear here.
Mimi Thebo is a Carnegie-longlisted author for children and teens. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, adapted for a BAFTA-winning BBC film, illustrated in light and signed for deaf children by ITV. Born in the USA, she is based in South West England, where she is Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol and a Royal Literary Fellow.
[i] Nagel, T. (1974) “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review, 83(4), pp. 435–450.
[ii] Quoted in Spivak, G. C. (1999) A critique of postcolonial reason : toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 172