Translating the language of animals

Author Laura Jean McKay looks at the way we write about the environment as a way of understanding it while changing ourselves.
A sea lion dives down into blue water

‘Human breath is about all we’ll be left with if we’re not careful. Why not try to breath alongside others? Why not try to make the stories that matter?’ asked keynote speaker Laura Jean McKay in a keynote at this year’s Small Press Network’s Independent Publishing Conference.

McKay is the author of a prize-winning novel, The Animals in That Country, that canvasses a virus with the uncanny ability for humans and animals to communicate with one another. To illustrate the importance of other species, McKay opened her address with a list of all the animals she has seen recently (about 100 birds and 1000 insects) and a request for viewers to think about a significant animal encounter they’ve had themselves.

Indeed, this keynote speech was liberally sprinkled with anecdotes (and short videos) about non-human creatures, with McKay using a meeting she had with a sea lion in Dunedin as a springboard to talking about the synergies between animal-human interactions and the very process of writing.

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

‘When I’m up close I feel the door of questioning opening the way it does with a good story. Oh yes. What’s happening? What comes next? It’s also the sound of last moments, a stranger approaching, an exchange of muddled meaning before submersion into another world.’ 

Laura Jean McKay

McKay makes the case for a space to be opened up for meaningful exchanges with animals, or a reconfiguration, if we so allow it. ‘What happens if we start with the moment between a sea lion’s gaze and their exhaling breath? What happens if we shuffle the humans to the side of our narratives and bring the rest of the world up closer? If characters begin from a decentred position, the conversation that continues from there is potentially one where both human and nonhuman characters can step outside their assigned species roles, or at least question them.’

McKay noted how inter-species encounters have become more urgent, ‘with industrial-scale oppression of non-human animals, accelerating climate change and extinction’. Humans, she pointed out are both powerful and vulnerable. ‘We’re super predators on a global scale… and yet, there’s vulnerability in our great reliance on other species.’

She spoke about a group of scientists who travelled to Christmas Island to try and protect a critically endangered species of bats, but by the time they arrived there was only one left of its kind. The group recorded the echolation of the bat’s final moment, ‘This is the sound of life. This is the sound of extinction. But we do have the power to record these things: through image, words and through human voice.’

The sound of a species already lost but retained through human experience resonates with McKay’s instinct for storytelling. She wondered at ‘the ability for humans to both destroy and to preserve through the imagination and asked, ‘Is it our responsibility as writers and publishers to try to combat first, the loss, with the second? This preservation in telling a story about it once it’s over, is it enough anymore?’

Perhaps to leaven the serious direction the keynote was heading towards, Mckay laughed and pointed out, ‘not every story should set out to save the world…and I’m not saying either that literature single-handedly has the capacity to do so.’ But, she continued, ‘Coming as I do from a colonial literary culture which dictates that stories are about human experience, it is my urgent responsibility to conceive of other ways of doing things.

‘This is part of the environmental turn in Western literature heralded by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the animal turn to which Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation is at the forefront. The stories that we’ve published must work harder than ever to retain the techniques that every culture in the world has developed: at its essence, how to tell a story that conveys important information and moves people at least to want to listen or read to the end.’

Contemporary literature is also part of a renewed collective turn towards a more-than-human world, which is infinitely more interesting and endlessly fascinating than the stories limited to human experience ⁠— most cultures other than the ones I’m from, those who have retained connection to land, environment and non-human species⁠—know this.’ 

Laura Jean McKay

McKay was scornful of the fallibility of the human animal. ‘We are good  at adapting. But we can’t fly without help. We can’t hear high and low frequency sounds. We can’t breathe by ourselves underwater or swim particularly well. Our teeth are blunt and noses short. We tend to kill everything, including each other.’

And yet, McKay sees that humans can redeem themselves. ‘What we can do is to use language to create stories, narratives, pictures in minds that are made out of words, but that form scenes evoke emotions and fuel ideas … If this is the great thing that we can do and if we just 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 differing abilities?’

McKay’s novel and keynote speech for SPN goes some way to address both the commonalities and differences between humans and other sentient creatures but she was all too aware of the challenges of writing in the voice of animals and being accused of anthropomorphism.

The title of her book, she reminded us, was taken from Margaret Atwood’s poem and poetry collection of the same name. ‘This particular poem describes the metaphoric and literal depictions of non-human animals and opens with the line, “In that country the animals/ have the faces of people.”‘ It’s a provocative image about blurred and disrupted boundaries. And after all, there is freedom to be gleaned from ‘slipping from the need to know everything into a place of wondering, where humour, mistake and relationships lie.’

The keynote ‘Publishing and the environment’ by Laura Jean McKay 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. 

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and a freelance arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She's the outgoing books editor of The Big issue. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press. Twitter: @thuy_on

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