Recently, I hosted a literary reading that focused on animal life. Poetry, essays, and stories that presented nonhuman animals as the subjects of their own lives, and revealed the complications of human-nonhuman relationships and interactions, were read aloud at the event.
I’ve long been a writer and an animal activist, and it seemed natural to join these two passions while, the hope went, exposing activists to literature and a new kind of activism, and exposing literary fans to the possibility of animal rights as a social justice movement.
People in the movement might ask: Why should literature be used as a form of activism? Doesn’t it seem awfully passive? Yes and no. Words can have immense power when they’re spoken – and sometimes, even more, when they’re not. Silences can be critical when it comes to issues of social justice. Too many of us are silent on a whole lot of things that matter, and too many times, those who have voices are silenced by others. Literature is important because it can give voice to these silenced subjects, whether victims of centuries-old massacres, American slave narratives, Holocaust memoirs, or the nonhuman test subjects in a medical research vivisection lab, where animals are scientifically objectified to an overly grotesque and reprehensible degree.
Authors die, but their works remain available; and as people begin to recognize the value of prose and poetry written by people outside the canon, even more interesting discoveries continue to be made. Readers can immerse themselves in these old worlds, even if they make us squirm with their sexism and racism, and capture a glimpse of what society was once like. It helps us understand how far we’ve come as a country, and still how far we have to go. Current authors with an interest in history and social justice might write non-fiction, or fictionalize accounts of historical individuals, somehow bringing a new perspective, a fresh twist to an old issue, or even just introduce readers to a history or topic they never before knew. In literature, social justice issues can blaze to life.
PhD candidate Annelise Heinz, in an interview with English scholar Paula Moya, remarks in Stanford University’s Gender News, that
Literature . . . shapes the very frameworks we use to approach the world, including our attitudes toward race, class, and gender.
Literary scholars can help us understand this process . . . They can also give us the tools we need to access literature written by people whose lives are very different from ours, and whose experiences and attitudes are far from our own. By bridging understanding among diverse groups the study of literature can have powerful implications for social justice.
As Moya sees it, literary critics not only have a right to comment on issues of race, class, and gender—they have a responsibility to do so.
I would add, of course, that both readers and critics have a responsibility to bring the issue of speciesism and the overlooked result – animal rights – to light. Speciesism can be defined as “a failure, in attitude or practice, to accord any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect” (Joan Dunayer). And when social justice advocates consider animal rights to be unworthy, or an issue to be taken care of after all the humans are free and equal, they are being speciesist.
This is not surprising, since the plight of nonhuman animals is actually seen as a normal condition of life, if indeed it is actually seen by the mainstream in the first place. Animal cruelty is so accepted that when you question it – whether you question meat-eating, dairy-drinking, horse racing, hunting, vivisection, or what have you – people often seem confused and respond defensively, but sometimes they become interested. Depending on where you live, they might look at you like you just slid down a waterslide from a spaceship, hit one of your three heads, and now purple polka-dotted bumps are growing from your forehead.
Humans have exploited nonhuman animals in innumerable ways over the centuries, but these human actions have created a normalcy of violence that, when fought against, are considered the province of the privileged. Animal activists are frequently thought of as privileged and even selfish, and are told that fighting for non-humans is a luxury.
Intersectional activists see things a bit differently. Even though their primary activism may not be animal rights, they don’t mock it or see it as something apart from human rights issues. And intersectional activists whose primary focus is animal rights do not denigrate other social justice movements or engage in racist or sexist tactics to encourage others to take a look at the horror stories that are so frequently a part of life for millions of nonhuman animals on a daily basis. It is a movement that is gaining momentum, but is, nevertheless, still small.
But back to literature. As the quote above shows, nonhuman animals are almost always beyond the scope of literary critics and writers, unless they are activists who also happen to be critics or writers. I am not suggesting that personal stories – and by this I mean anything that’s written, since all writing is personal – must be overtly about animals or animal rights. But critics far too frequently read from their own perspective, ignoring even the most blatant and intentional use of nonhuman animals and/or vegetarianism[i] written in novels and poetry. Carol Adams makes an excellent study of vegetarianism and literature (among other things) in The Sexual Politics of Meat and brings up this point, but reading from a vegan perspective, and then reading reviews, will just as easily show readers how nonhuman animals are marginalized in the minds of literary critics.
Take, for example, The Well of Loneliness. Critics often read it as a terrible and unrealistic story of wealth and white privilege, despite the protagonist’s nature of inversion (what we call today a lesbian or possibly genderqueer person), and completely ignore the presence of nonhuman animals and the roles they play throughout the novel, including several issues that suggest both an awareness and ignorance by the author of the plight of geese used for foie gras, working horses, fur coats, and the terrible conditions of pet stores. Animals abound in this novel, and yet only one critic that I could find has written about them; and in that case, she reads the relationship between the protagonist and her horse as a sort of sexualized series of masturbatory interaction, along with power and gender identity. But is the horse the subject of his own life? Are you kidding?
Animals, when written, critics seem to say, are meant only to be symbols. Critics – and, it seems, much of the human population – are unsure of what to do when confronted head-on with animals in literature, unless they’re reading a cozy mystery with a librarian and a couple magical cats. Mostly, though, animals as subjects, even if secondary characters, are, as in real life, ignored by critics and readers.
Yet the plight of nonhuman animals is real, like the plight of any other oppressed group. Species is as arbitrary a category as race, gender, ethnicity. That most people still view nonhuman animals far into the “other” category, evidenced by treating them the way most people would never consider treating another human, is not only common, it is expected. It is so expected, in fact, that the acts of rape, murder, exploitation, maiming, physical, and overt psychological abuse are given different names when humans do those things to animals.
Activists often work hard to end slavery, exploitation, abuse, rape, and murder when these things happen to humans. But they don’t see the connection between a glass of milk and rape and murder because of ingrained, societally-sanctioned, normalized speciesism. We are taught that nonhumans don’t matter, and that they are here for our use. This isn’t surprising. It has been the argument of racists and the patriarchy for millennia. So the good news is that if humans can overcome normalized sexism, for example (yes, it’s still a battle but it’s better than it used to be), they can eventually overcome normalized speciesism.
So now back to – why writing for activism? Because I’m a writer and an activist so it made sense. Also, reading is a personal thing, most often done alone. We bring our own experiences and prejudices to the world in the book, but at the same time we may experience situations, meet people we never thought about before, all in the privacy of our heads and our hearts, where we are not accountable to anyone but ourselves. We might begin to understand the world differently through someone else’s eyes. The power of words can make us think in ways we never thought before; the experience of reading can allow us to examine our consciences without fear of repercussion.
Though most of us alive now can never fully understand the horrors of Auschwitz, reading Holocaust memoirs or fiction by Ida Fink can make us understand a little more deeply the devastation of prejudice and fear. In any case, those of us who enjoy writing, or are good at it – or hopefully both! – can use our words and our voices for whatever moves us. Maybe what moves us will move others, maybe even spur them to more action than wanting to marry a sparkly vampire.
We can speak out through our writing.
Nonhuman animals, who often speak up, although not in human language, don’t have this luxury. They can’t give us their own stories in a language we understand. Therefore, it is up to those of us who can use the human languages to put, as best as we can, these issues – these STORIES – into words. And so we must.
[i] While I recognize that vegetarianism is fairly close to meat-eating, before basically the last twenty years, it was seen as a radical step and often synonymous with animal rights, or at least concern for nonhuman animals. What we now call vegan.