It isn’t easy to write about animals, especially if the goal is to actually portray them as they are and not just use them, as so often happens, as symbols, metaphors, and mirrors. In order to confront these difficulties, Sangamithra Iyer recently launched The Literary Animal Project to bring writers and readers into conversation to explore the many quandaries in writing about animals and try to find effective, and literary, ways forward.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Sangamithra Iyer is a writer, engineer, environmental planner, and literary animal. Her first book, Governing Bodies, a lyrical reckoning of the ways bodies—human, animal, and water— are controlled and liberated, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. She served as an editor of Satya magazine, and her work has been published in numerous outlets and anthologies, including our very own Hen Press, which published “The Lines We Draw.” Most recently, she is the founder of The Literary Animal project, a habitat for conversations and writings about the ways animal lives are portrayed on the page and how we forge a more just and compassionate multi-species world, for which she was awarded a Culture and Animals Foundation grant.
- Eat Differently Theatrical Commercial
- The Lines We Draw ebook
- Sangamithra Iyer’s Website
- Literary Animal Substack
- Invisible Cities
- Writing for Animals (w/ Are You Willing Essay)
- Satya Magazine archive
- Small Days and Nights
- The Carrying: Poems
- Next of Kin
- Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
- Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals
- What We Fed to the Manticore
- Fathoms: The World in the Whale
- Experimental Animals: (A Reality Fiction)
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
- The Ethics of Diet; A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh Eating
- For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation
- The First Step: An Essay On the Morals of Diet, to Which Are Added Two Stories
Jasmin Singer: Welcome back to Our Hen House, Sangu.
Sangamithra Iyer: Thank you, Jasmin. So happy to be here.
Jasmin Singer: I know I always say to people that it's been a long time, but for real, it's been a really long time since we've chatted, and I'm so excited that you're in front of me and that you're talking to our listeners right now. So, how have you been?
Sangamithra Iyer: I've been good. And it's weird. I think this pandemic time is really, really strange but I guess it's interesting because I feel like I'm kept up with you guys because I listened to the podcast. So in some ways, I feel still very much connected, even if we haven't chatted in some time. So I'm excited about being here and talking with you.
Jasmin Singer: Well, that's sweet. I'm happy to hear that. Where are you right now?
Sangamithra Iyer: I'm in Queens, New York.
Jasmin Singer: Your background of all these books looks like what I want. I feel like I need a photograph of it to make my fake background because, like, total goals for real.
Sangamithra Iyer: Life goes, yeah.
Jasmin Singer: I love it. And speaking of books, let's just start off by talking a bit about Literary Animals and what it is and why you started it.
Sangamithra Iyer: Yeah, thank you. I started the Literary Animal Project, which I'm hoping for it to be this sort of habitat where we can have these conversations about writing, writing about animals, and how animal lives are portrayed on the page. And I think it's something that I'd just been thinking about for years as a reader and a writer.
As I read, collecting passages that I find moving and trying to understand why. And as a writer, I'm just excited to have this space to put these texts in conversation and put writers in conversation. And I'm using the word literary animal in its most expansive possibilities of all the ways because I consider myself a literary animal, both as a reader and a writer, so I think anyone who is reading and writing about, thinking about animals. I think literary animals are also the animals on the page.
Literary animals are also us animal people on the page. So both in life and in literature, and thinking through these questions. And I think literature is a place where we can hold these very, very difficult conversations and sit with the complexities of the world. And I think it's a necessary place for us as literary animals to be contributing to to make sure different voices and perspectives are included, and how we want to provide that sort of reflection of animal agency.
And there's no shortage of animals in literature. Perhaps they were the first muses. There's that very famous John Berger essay, Why Look at Animals? And he sort of posits that animals are the first metaphor. And I think what I'm interested in the Literary Animal Project is not just like any writing that has animals in it. It's how we can think about animals more than just metaphor, more than just symbols, more than just mirrors, as full beings themselves. And so I'm interested in the conversation around it, with both readers and writers and to talk about the craft and the ethics of these decisions.
Jasmin Singer: Wow, that is all so friggin cool, and also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that you wrote the most beautiful piece for Our Hen House's short-lived publishing effort. You wrote The Lines We Draw, which was just absolutely stunning, and I've been a fan of your writing for so long. You've been doing this for a long time.
You've been connecting these dots between animals and the literary arts for so long. So I just wanted to mention that because it's really cool. It's really, really cool to see how you're continuing to evolve as a word person.
Sangamithra Iyer: Thank you and it was such a pleasure to work with you guys on that, and it was such a complicated story that had all these different elements. That you guys provided a home for it, created a home for that work, was so meaningful to me, and so I'm very grateful to have that. A lot of this work is an extension of that, of just how we hold all these multiple truths and just sit with the uncomfortable but create art that is meaningful and lasting and is an extension of activism in a way.
It's also perhaps nourishment for activists. Whenever I come across something, and it's not necessarily, like, changing my mind, but it's something where I feel seen. Or where I'm thinking about something, and it's just like, I'm so glad someone articulated this very specific feeling I have, you know?
When we were just talking about how to answer the question, how are you in this world that is so challenging? So it's always nice to encounter readers, or characters on the page, that are also navigating the challenges that we are.
Jasmin Singer: Totally. Yeah, when we first hopped on before I hit record, we were just like, how do you even begin to approach how are we doing? And to that end, some of us like to read for entertainment to get away from the woes of the world. So why is literature that struggles with often painful questions about animals and veganism, and climate important?
Sangamithra Iyer: Yeah. Hmm. I mean, I think there's a way to have both, to be engaging in these difficult issues and it not be oppressive to read. And that's one of the governing questions of Literary Animal Project is you know, we want to keep the reader on the page, and so how do we do that?
But I think we're living in this moment that is just like these compounding crises. And I'm always thinking about the animals. This summer, much of this country was blanketed with smoke from the Canadian wildfires.
And most of the coverage was like, how do we protect ourselves, you know, stay indoors and have a filter or air conditioning. And I kept thinking about, like, what about the animals? They can't do that.
There is more and more writing about climate and more and more writing about these issues, and the pandemic made a lot of the things that you and I and many of the listeners have been arguing for years very apparent, very visible, all of these invisible violences. But I think we really need to sort of create that space for the animal's stories and not forget that.
And, I also just like reading, not just books about animals, but just literature in general. And I always find inspiration in unexpected places. And I wanted to share with you, because there's this book, which is not an animal book per se, but Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.
I want to read a short passage because I think it'll kind of help with this question, too. And just to set up this book, you know, this book is these imagined conversation between Marco Polo and Kubla Khan. And Marco Polo is describing these imaginary cities of this empire, and they're these short, beautiful, poetic little paragraphs about cities, and as the book gets closer to the end, they could just get darker and darker, and the cities become more terrible. But Marco Polo and Kublai Khan get closer and closer. So that's interesting. But at the very end, Kublai Khan's like, what's the point? We're all just gearing towards this infernal city. And then Marco Polo has this response that I'm gonna read, which is
The inferno of the living is not something that will be. If there is one, it is what already is here. The inferno where we live every day that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many. Accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you no longer can see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension.
Seek and learn to recognize who and what in the midst of the inferno are not inferno, then make them endure. Give them space. So, I think a lot about this, between literary animal and writing and art. And I think Our Hen House does this every single week, in terms of finding out who is not the inferno, giving them space, making them endure.
And I really think that is the importance of literature and how we can contribute. I think when we see that on the page, it is source of comfort and relief from the inferno that we are dealing with. So I think it is important, and these are some of the questions of Literary Animal, both us as chroniclers of the inferno, but chroniclers equally of the not inferno.
Jasmin Singer: Wow, that was really beautiful, definitely keep it coming because I'm super interested in the way your brain works. You seem to be able to read something relating to many different subjects and kind of look at it through a vegan lens. Would you say that's true?
Sangamithra Iyer: I do think that's true. And I think my evolution as a writer is just trying to hone that and, like, realizing it. I think we all have these superpowers, which are the way we see the world and react to it. Part of writing is getting that on the page. I know you had Andrew Lipstein on, and his book, The Vegan.
And I was trying to sign on for that conversation, but I had some difficulties.
Jasmin Singer: I heard about that! No, I heard about that, and by the time this airs, that will have already aired, but yeah.
Sangamithra Iyer: But, I think there's like two points of that, like, in the book, when the narrator goes vegan, all of a sudden, there's sort of this opening and like noticing animals everywhere and being so attuned to that. And I think so much of Our Hen House listeners. We all are unique, and we have a range of perspectives, but we all do have this, like, just paying attention to what we notice and what we think about, and I think that's really important to get on the page, because, in this book, in the normal world that he's in, of finance and whatever, no one is thinking about these things.
Then, when he becomes vegan, he's like, oh my gosh, I think we need to give space to that sort of paying attention to things, but I do read widely and generously. had a writing mentor who passed away, Louise DeSalvo, and she always said to pan for possibility, not criticism, when reading. And I think I just do that, and I think I just bring my own. You know, I think, maybe all readers, like whatever baggage I'm having that day, or whatever question is bothering me, I read into that in whatever I'm reading, and so, oftentimes when I revisit books, I'm a different person when I read them.
And so I get something new out of it every time.
Jasmin Singer: What about with writing? What are the challenges in writing about animals in particular?
Sangamithra Iyer: A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay for Ashland Creek Press. They have that wonderful anthology, Writing for Animals, which I think is a great resource. It's about writing for animals and not just about animals. And I think my essay was called Are You Willing? And it was inspired by this Mary Oliver poem, which begins with the lines, Here is a story to break your heart. Are you willing?
And I love that because it is this warning and an invitation, so you're disarming the reader, and then you're inviting them into this, in her case, this tragic tale of loons dying. And then she's like, I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean to break it open so it can never again be closed to the world.
And I think a lot of the challenges of it is even against ourselves too, is we're afraid of our hearts breaking, and our readers are afraid of it. We did this 20th anniversary issue of Satya Magazine, and I interviewed this wonderful scholar and writer Naisargi Dave, who had written a book about queer activism in India and just published a book on animal activism in India.
And actually, she was part of this first event that I had for the Literary Animal Project. But, I remember this essay that Naisargi wrote about running into somebody saying like, oh, I could never work at an animal shelter. I'm deathly afraid of caring too much. And she was interrogating that.
It's like, is there any other politics that is deathly afraid of caring too much? And she has this brilliant kind of philosophy that she articulates. It's called the tyranny of consistency and how we're always confronted like, well, if I do this and I have to do this, and if I can't do everything, I may as well do nothing.
And what. Naisargi does so brilliantly is saying this whole framework of like, if I can't do everything, then I might as well do nothing is how normativity maintains itself. And so those of us who are activists are always having to be as consistent as possible to the nth degree.
But then, those in power, the industries that we're trying to fight, don't have to account for their contradictions and inconsistencies. I think about that, like writing into this. There's challenges of writing into this where, if you're writing to something that is challenging, a status quo, all the defenses are up. People don't wanna hear about it. They know about it, but they don't wanna hear about it.
So I think all of that is there. You know, I had a friend who taught this essay in a class on food studies in Rochester.
Jasmin Singer: Oh! Wait, which friend?
Sangamithra Iyer: My friend is Layla Nadir. She's vegan.
Jasmin Singer: Cool, alright!
Sangamithra Iyer: Yes. And she's writing a beautiful memoir. I'll let her describe it. Afghan Americana.
But I think it was interesting because it was an essay that was talking about the difficulty about writing about these things.
And that actually, I think, was a way to open up the discussion where, when you're writing about the complexity of it and you sort of write into those fears is more liberating. It's not like you have the answer. It's just like, oh, this is really tricky. And then also coming to it with a sort of compassion because I think people are protective of their hearts, like this defense mechanism.
It's not always just these various oppressive isms. And I think we as activists also have our limits and our boundaries, so coming to that from that place of sort of generosity and openness. So, I guess the biggest challenge is that and how we are perceived.
I think the challenges of what it means to be a vegan, or an activist, or angry, or this or that, I think we might self-censor or different things to not come across as what we think other people perceive us to be. And so there's the challenges of, like, how we can be unapologetic and not negotiate against the animals, but at the same time, be like generous and inviting and keeping people on the page.
And so those are all the tensions that I'm happy to talk with other writers about how they're navigating those as well. So that's one of the areas of future consideration.
Jasmin Singer: One of the considerations that really springs to mind for me is grief. Like there is so much grief attached to all of these topics that they can feel unbearable. How do you go about managing that?
Sangamithra Iyer: Yeah, I feel like grief is just this long-term companion of mine. And, you know, I think even my writing, like the book that I'm working on, is sort of born of grief, both from the losing of my father about 20 years ago, which kind of started this project, but all of the grief that we feel as people who are in this world caring and thinking about the other beings. And I think I'm, like, jiggering my relationship with grief. It is a powerful thing.
There is this psychologist, Francis Weller, I think is the name, who said something like, grief is subversive, and it's our refusal to live numb and small. And I think we live in a society that doesn't do well with grief in general, and then we have all these different layers of more invisible grief, this ambiguous grief about climate change.
And there's different names for it, like disenfranchised grief. And I think a lot of my writing is governed from it. Like that might be the the impetus and it is about sitting with it. But I also recently read, and I'm gonna try to dig it up real quick, a passage which was a book this writer Tishani Doshi. I sort of come to these different writings from different places, and she wrote this amazing essay about COVID in India, and then I looked up her book and she had this novel and it's set in this rural village.
And the protagonist and her sister live and they take care of these wild dogs, but then something happens to the dogs, and then there's this paragraph that relates to grief here, No one has asked me how I'm coping with my recent dog tragedy because they're not furry house animals. Because they're a pack of wild things, the expectation is that wild things might happen to them, such as being poisoned in mass. Vic had said something to the effect of the numbers being under control now. Even Rohini, who proclaimed to be a canine freak, was only interested in her two poms. It feels so silly to talk about grief, but I haven't been able to sleep, and when I drove down here, I cried most of the way. I am angry, too, because there is such easy acceptance of death. The cheapness of it, those beautiful animals gone. And we chatter here about things I don't comprehend but somehow are part of.
I run into these passages, and I sit with them, and I think they're really important, like the ways of her capturing this grief that no one talks about, and the mourning for the wild dogs that were poisoned, that nobody talks about, even the people who claim to be dog lovers.
And so I'm sort of like a collector of these passages, and I want to put them in conversation, but I do think they are really meaningful, and they're meaningful to me as a reader encountering them because it's also how I cope with this. So I think like reading and writing are my two coping mechanisms of how to process this and so I'm always grateful when I get these types of encounters.
Jasmin Singer: Wow. When you were talking about that, I was thinking about the grief around roadkill. I mean, we have to compartmentalize all the time. I mean, you live in New York City, where I lived for 20 years. And, obviously, you're on the corner, and there's a hot dog stand, and we have to compartmentalize that.
For some reason, I gave a lot of thought and energy to how to compartmentalize that because it's part of the food system, and as we're vegans, we co-exist with that. But roadkill, I personally have never come across, maybe you have, or someone listening to this has, but I've never come across something written about, like, where to put that.
Because when we drive, maybe I'll see a dead animal down the street. If I'm not the one driving, I will shield my eyes until we're past it because I can't take it in. And then we'll just kind of have a moment.
Maybe my wife will, like, pat my knee or something, you know, like, yeah, it's horrible. And then we just continue with the conversation. And it's like, what just happened? We just witnessed an entire family broken apart because of their family member who was dead on the side of the road in the most undignified way.
Like, I don't know. I don't know what we do about that. I'm not even sure what my question is here, but you’re talking about grief. It really reminded me of that.
Sangamithra Iyer: There's this soul poet, Ada Lamone, who's our Poet Laureate now. She had a collection called The Carrying, and it's about these different griefs that are carrying, and there's a poem that is about her on her way to fertility treatments, but she runs into all the road-killed animals, and she's thinking about them, and she's like, what if my body is meant to carry grief, and not a baby?
But there's a turn in the poem, too, as this is like a noble thing to be carrying. Like those of us who are carrying this, it is a beautiful thing that we do care and we are connected. So, on the grief thing, I remember, I think, early in the pandemic, there was some Zoom about grief for activists.
And it was interesting because it was the normal stages of grief. It’s like different for activism, because the last stage is acceptance. And, like, for us, acceptance isn't what we want, you know? And so for us, it's transformation like, how do we transform this into something else?
So there's that on the grief. The other thing on the grief is, as part of my book, I got into learning about these ancient Tamil poets, and Tamil was my first language. And there are these eco poets like there were eco poets before we had eco poetry, you know, they're like 2000 years ago writing.
And I find these commentaries about how they wrote about animals, and they're writing about animal grief. They're writing about the death of a mate due to human hands. They're writing about like a climate grief like what happens when it's in drought and the deer faints, forlorn.
And then there's this elephant who's looking for water and this image of an elephant like a boat in a waterless river. I'm just so inspired that like 2000 years ago, these poets are so in tune with the natural world. And there's a grammar that has an ecological emphasis in Tamil.
So I'm just being blown away by all of this sort of understanding of it. But, the poetry is classified into these two terms, agam and poram, which is inness and outness. But I think a lot of what they do is combine it. And I think it's giving me language for this, of how we combine our inner and outer grief, our personal and planetary grief.
Those are the things that I'm very interested in, and seeing it on the page, this sort of connection.
Jasmin Singer: Yeah, wow, that's beautiful. I keep looking over at my bulletin board because there's something I wrote down on a Post-it note sometime recently. I can't find it. But the basic gist of it was I was talking to someone about acceptance because you just brought up acceptance, and she said acceptance is not inaction. It’s a neutral word. Because I was bringing up the difficulty of dealing with acceptance as an activist, as a vegan, and she said acceptance is just the neutrality that happens before there's action. She said it so much better than me. I wish that I had this.
Oh, I found it. Okay. This is not what this person said, but she found this in a book, and it said learn to cooperate with the inevitable. And so we took that saying, learn to cooperate with the inevitable. And I said, well, what does cooperate mean in this setting? And we decided it was acceptance, and I said, well, what does inevitable mean?
Because as an activist, I have a really hard time with the idea that something is inevitable. And she said it's not that torture or suffering or mayhem is inevitable. It's that the reality you are being presented with that you are accepting is inevitable, and from there, you can take an action.
And, I've been thinking about that so much lately. I know I'm throwing this at you right now, but I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that, on the idea of acceptance not being something that we bring a judgment to.
Sangamithra Iyer: It's interesting and I think I share your concerns around the word or the dissatisfaction, as an activist, with this sort of acceptance. I think this is just the challenge that we're all living in, of not wanting the acceptance to be complacency, not wanting it to be cynicism.
I think for me, those two, I feel like those are the easy things and those are the easy things like how you become the inferno, of just like accepting it and becoming a part of it. And then the other part, as Kalvina says, it's hard or requires constant vigilance, not becoming the inferno, not getting so subsumed by it, but on some level, in a society that we're all sort of living in, we are subsumed by it to some extent.
And so it is this... I don't know what the word is. It’s not acceptance, but like it's... I like it where even if I don't have the answer, it's like sitting with it and knowing that something is bad versus being like, okay, that's how it is. What are you gonna do? And I think it's the same thing with grief.
It's just like anyone who's lost someone, there's the people you can sit with, and that'll just be there for you. And I think the same thing with animal stuff, like when you read something terrible, and there's the few people on your text thread that you can share it with, but then everyone else is like, don't tell me about this or trying to console you in some way, but like, oh, don't, don't read the news or don't, you know, and it's like, that's not the point.
So, I think I do want to be confronted with the things, I don't want to avoid it, but it is finding this way of sitting. And I think in this Ashland Creek essay that I point to this Taoist practice of Wu Wei, which is like sitting in inaction to let confusion and conflict settle out, so a deeper wisdom can emerge.
So it's not acceptance, but it's just giving space for that deeper wisdom, which I think is similar to maybe what that person was trying to is like the step before the action.
Jasmin Singer: And the person who I was talking to about this was my coach. But it is satisfying to think about these thoughts terms of animals and in terms of like how we can be stronger at showing up for others, other marginalized groups.
You mentioned that Next of Kin was a spark book for you. What is next of kin? And was it a spark book for you? Can you expand on that?
Sangamithra Iyer: Sure, so Next of Kin was a book written by Roger Fouts about his relationship with Washoe, the first chimpanzee who acquired sign language. And I read it in college and it was amazing to encounter all these chimps and their lives and their personalities. I think Washoe, she's like a literary animal in the sense of she's a poet, she invented new words for different things.
So like swan was water bird and Christmas was sweet tree and the potty was dirty good because it was dirty and good. So it's amazing to learn about these animals and their minds. But it was really the sort of the ethical reckoning with animal research, at the end of the book, that drew me in.
And to have someone who was in the sciences and doing this research kind of reject it and say we shouldn't be doing this, was really powerful for me. And I call it a spark book as like a play on like the spark bird, which birders do like, which is your first bird that you know... and I'm like chickens. You know, um, but, in terms of setting me off on literary animal, I think I was always reading books and then trying to figure out what I want to do with my life with it and so it was in college and then I read this book and I did a summer in Washington with Roger Fouts and his chimps and then it inspired me to go to Cameroon to work with chimps who are rescued from the bushmeat trade, which led me to writing an article about it for Satya Magazine, beloved Satya. And so it just felt like, reading and writing about books has always been propelling me in my journey, as both a writer and an activist. But I call it my spark book because I think it set me on this journey,
Jasmin Singer: I love that, just that idea of like your spark animal, your spark book, especially as it relates to animal rights. And that is just really beautiful. So, you mentioned that Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is one of your favorites. Tell us about that. Tell us why.
Sangamithra Iyer: Oh, it's magnificent, you know, and I don't want to give any spoilers, but it is an animal rights book and you have this older woman or middle aged and, there's a lot of commentary about that too, like sort of like the power and the invisibility of this age. And again, it is someone who is very sensitive to animals and what's happening to them and attuned to it and paying attention.
And that is just a fabulous narrator, the character in the story, and it has some interesting turns, I don't want to give them away. I just read an essay of hers. There's a literary journal called Freemans, and they're closing, but an issue they did last year was an animals issue, and she has an essay, and so she's also like a literary animal in this essay, and she's reading Kutseya, and Singer, and Jane Goodall, and putting them in conversation, and so it's kind of an interesting read. And there's a lot of like meta literary animals where like, Kootzie writes this character, Elizabeth Costello, and like can give all these animal rights lectures on her behalf, you know? And she has some interesting musings in that.
Jasmin Singer: Yeah. okay. I'm very intrigued Definitely very intrigued. So what are some other works that you're excited about?
Sangamithra Iyer: So I think, in the past few years, some things that were exciting to me were Undrowned by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and the subtitle is Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. And it's just a really beautiful meditation on looking at marine mammals as our teachers, and in terms of all that they've endured at the hands of humans and climate change, and looking to them for teachings of the sea, and it's just beautifully written.
And she writes about grief and how they carry grief. There's a lot of decolonization of language too because she works with these texts that teach us what these animals are, and they're so fraught with white dude, explorer syndrome, even in terms of what we name them. Like the minky is named after a whaler, and sort of reclaiming some of that.
And so there's just a lot of beautiful things, but my favorite, favorite line in this book is, and what a celebration when we realize our survival need not make us into monsters. And again, she was probably writing about it for a particular context, but I just think it's the most amazing line.
And I think that's also an approach that we take. I think so much of the way the world works is like this fraught scarcity mentality, this fraught, like, I'm afraid of losing something or, nature is something to be conquered. And this notion, like, what a celebration when we realize our survival need not make us into monsters.
I can't wait for that celebration!
Jasmin Singer: Yeah, that's really beautiful. What else is exciting you these days? I see your bookshelf, so I know there's many know things.
Sangamithra Iyer: Yeah. So the other one is this short story collection, What We Fed to the Manticore by Talia Lakshmi Kalluri. And it is a series of short stories that are written from various animal perspectives. And she does a fantastic job. I mean, it's tricky, writing from an animal perspective, just like writing from any other, is hard.
How do you get it right? But what I love about Talia's work is it's such a radical thinking of like, these inner lives in this current moment where the outer world is so altered due to humans, but it's not about humans at all. There are some human engagements, but it's imagining these animals and they're inventing their own origin stories that have nothing to do with us.
And, I write about this on the Literary Animal Substack, there's an essay about vultures, which I thought was just so profound, like looking at this species whose ancestors had a die out because of chemicals that we put into cows that they ate, and like their survivors move to another land. It's some of the same things that I'm working with my other writer friends about intergenerational memory and intergenerational trauma and all these things, but thinking about it from the perspective of a vulture coming to this new land and being confronted with a mass die out of another species. Their role is to eat the dead.
And the vulture philosophy or whatever is that this is their role, their duty, their gift, but when does this gift become a burden? And so I was just blown away about the consideration of a vulture confronting their own intergenerational trauma and history and mass die out, and then at the same time witnessing this in another species. It's just taking it to a different level. And there's an essay about a pigeon at a bird rescue in India, and that one is a very sweet story, too, because it's about how an injured bird learns to get her confidence to fly again. All of that is just really wonderful.
And I'm excited because with the Literary Animal Project, we have an upcoming event on Zoom, which will air before this podcast does, but there'll be a recording of it. I'm inviting her and two other writers, Rajiv Mohabir and Shruti Swamy, to talk about whales. And she has a beautiful whale essay too, which is also like how you capture whale song on the page, or ship noise on the page, and interruptions.
All of that is really interesting to me. And I think she does a lot of trying to understand the senses of the animals, based on research like Ed Yong's work, or other people's work of how animals perceive the world and then how do we write about animals, that sort of sensibility. I'm really excited about that.
There's been like a bit of a whale kick. Rebecca Giggs has a really wonderful book, Fathoms, which is a really great whale nonfiction book. The other literary animal that I love is Talia Field. There's two books that I really recommend, one is Experimental Animals. It is an amazing book because it's a novel about vivisection, and it's set with the origins of vivisection, where you have the founder of vivisection, Claude Bernard. It's written from the perspective of his wife, who was an anti vivisector, and it's that era where vivisection, feminism, anti abolition, they're all like sort of linked together.
And so she's writing a letter to Anna Kingsford, who is another real life anti vivisection activist. What Talia Fields does so brilliantly is using the archive to write stories about who is neglected in the archive, which is women and animals and activists. And so she's using all the real archives of the real vivisector and Darwin and all these scientists and their conversations with each other.
And then this imagined letter of this woman who's not in the archive and putting together things. The things that I found that were so fascinating, you had all of these women who are trying to protect the stray dogs in France from getting vivisected. And so they divided the city up at night and took neighborhoods to collect dogs and take them to safety.
That was really fascinating to read about. And there's also a point, and again, she's bringing in all this real archival research. So there's a letter from the French Animal Protection Society to a German Animal Protection Society saying, our countries are not getting along, but can we get along to take care of the horses that are fighting?
So I don't know, I think she's doing a lot of really fascinating work. And her other book, Personhood, I think you guys would really love too. There's a book that the opening essays is narrated from a parrot at a wild bird sanctuary and also sort of like a little bit of the insanity that results from the trauma of their lives.
There's another essay about Happy the Elephant, which I think you both would really love. And again, she's does such a good job. She is a playwright by background. So she does a really good job of excerpting these things and putting them in conversation. So she has real stuff from the Non Human Rights Project and court cases, populating this essay about Happy. So in terms of doing innovative things in the field with animals, I think she's brilliant.
There's books that I think are total animal books that haven't been talked about as animal books like Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. It is just a gorgeous book that is written as a letter to his mother and it talks about so many things but animals are all throughout it and I was listening to a talk that he did with Hua Hsu, and there was one of us in the audience that was like, Hey, are you vegan?
And if so, how did it affect your writing? He answered the first question and it was just more like a technicality, like, yes, I'm vegan, but sometimes I make exceptions when my sister makes me something and she forgets that fish sauce isn't vegan or something.
And that was kind of like the least interesting question, right? The more interesting question was the second question, and how does it affect your writing? He's like, oh, it affects my writing all the time. There's animals all over this book. And he wanted to show the parallels of what we do to animals and what we do to ourselves.
And so it was just really interesting to hear him talk about it in that way, too. Because I just sensed it. And it's a book that is a brilliant book and has, it has so many, many, many themes. But, I tune into this one in particular, and it was really nice to see that it was intentional on his part too,
Jasmin Singer: I actually went to a Jonathan Safran Foer talk several years ago and it was about a new novel he had and there was like a talk back and so I raised my hand and I asked something very similar, like, of course you're very well known for writing Eating Animals, how has your understanding of what happens to animals behind closed doors influenced the rest of your writing, such as your fiction writing?
And he completely didn't answer it. He said, for those of you who don't know, and then he explained Eating Animals and then he just rambled and it had nothing at all to do with my question at all. And you know, maybe I threw him because the talk back was specifically for this book, but. Jonathan Saffran Foer, like, in my mind, what a huge disappointment.
Like, you write a book that is single handedly responsible for more people going vegan. I would say, anecdotally speaking, there are five books that I can point to that a lot of guests that I've interviewed throughout the years have pointed to as the book that made them go vegan. And that is by far one of the biggest, like one of the top five. And then he's not vegan.
So you mentioned a book in progress that you have. Is that Governing Bodies?
Sangamithra Iyer: It is, yeah. So I call Governing Bodies a sort of lyrical reckoning of the way bodies are controlled and liberated, whether it be human, animal, or water. It is part a personal story, a family history. I had mentioned before that it's a project that was born in grief after my father's death.
And my father, like Our Hen House listeners, had a real sensitivity to the world and the animals. And when I lost him, I was sort of searching for more connection and family history, and he had grown up in this sort of utopian experiment in India, where my grandfather was a civil engineer like I was, who quit to join the freedom movement in India.
And they had this sort of childhood that, you know, they were spinning their own cotton, and it was sort of rooted in a very nonviolent practice and compassion to animals. And so much of it was sort of like a quest to find Kalakurti, this place. And then I think over the years, I realized Kalakurti was more than just this place.
It was like this idea. And I was looking not just like the lineages that are in my family, but these lineages of ideas of thought. So it just has taken me to a lot of different places, in terms of time. I mentioned the Sangam poets, and there's my namesake Sangam Mithra, she's named after King Ashoka's daughter. And King Ashoka was this king who was very violent, but then had this radical transformation and became a king of peace, and he had these edicts sprinkled all over India that were about compassion to animals and peace.
There were secular, you know like, religious tolerance, and Equality and a lot of really great principles, but they were also sort of forgotten about. They were in an ancient script and so they're permanent, but their story was sort of rediscovered many years later.
I think in writing this book, I just kept seeing this sort of pattern of things coming and going and returning. And these histories, like these Sangam poets, they lived in an area that was twice swallowed by the sea. So sometimes it's kind of amazing, like I'm reading about them at the New York Public Library, which is a site of a former drinking water reservoir, and I'm reading about this elephant, like a boat in a waterless river on top of this waterless reservoir. And it's kind of amazing all the labors that were in place for me to even have access to this old story.
So a lot of it is about that. And I think I'll talk a little bit more about, I call this book a catena and a catena is a chain of linked texts and it's sort of an homage to what I'm calling the OG catena, which is... Howard Williams wrote this book, The Ethics of Diet, in the late 19th century. So I encountered this book and the subtitle, A catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh Eating, I was like, that's a title. But the word catena was really striking to me because I feel like it gave me language for what I'm doing, in terms of like a chain of linked texts.
My background is in sort of geotechnical engineering and a catena in soil science is these series of soil layers down a slope, like each are unique but connected. They're distinct, but connected. It's sort of an homage because I feel like all of us are sort of extending this catena of thought.
So I'm sort of working through that and I think the first two parts are a little more backwards looking and the third part is more contemporary and chronicling of this moment and, trying to leave the archive that I've been looking for, for the future. It's sort of this archive of the not infernos amongst the infernos.
Jasmin Singer: Wow, that's amazing. And I know that we're going to be lucky enough to be treated to you reading an excerpt from that for our bonus content today, right?
Sangamithra Iyer: Yes, sure.
Jasmin Singer: Oh good. I'm excited about that. Before we close, you wrote recently about Karen Davis, who of course recently died, which is very sad.
She was quite the, speaking of OG, quite an OG activist. Can you share some of your thoughts about her?
Sangamithra Iyer: Yeah. So I wrote a post about her and I was reflecting on what I remembered. I remembered her doing this campaign against This American Life cause they had this poultry slam and it was just dumb stories about chickens and turkeys and she called them out on it.
And Ira Glass had invited her to come and she's like, no, you come here. And I think that was like the most brilliant move because it put him in the position of meeting her chickens. And I think that was really transformative. So I think about that too, in terms of literary animals, how we can kind of recreate that moment, because when he's there, he realizes that the show was wrong and these are not dumb birds and they are very unique and they're sweet. Then years later he goes on Letterman and he kind of recounts that story and the way he recounts it, it's still like kind of jokey and ridicule and they're like, oh these poultry activists and there's a disdain in it.
But then, Letterman's like, did that change you? He was like, yeah, every time I picked up chicken, I was thinking about the quiet ones and the shy ones and the outgoing ones. And then it became the last and I became a vegetarian because of that woman. And, so I think about that too.
Her activism was really great because she got him to the place, and then the chickens do the rest, you know? So I thought that was really wonderful, and I've been spending some time with her books, and the latest is For the Birds, and just understanding her as a literary animal, because she's prolific.
She has a PhD in English or literature. She came to this with deep scholarship on Soviet prisons and the Holocaust, and that sort of had a lens into how she looked at industrial animal agriculture. She also felt comforted in reading these sort of dark, somber novels.
But bringing it back to the catena, what made her vegetarian was reading Tolstoy's essay, The First Step, which is the introduction to, like, he penned the Russian introduction to Howard Williams's Ethics of Diet. So, that essay affected Karen Davis, who affected Ira Glass, and so many others.
And so I just think, about that and the power of literature. Our stories matter, these essays matter, and you have no idea the reach of your words, and they can be centuries later and keep going. So, that part was, it was pretty powerful for me.
Jasmin Singer: Love that. What a beautiful way of ending this part of our chat today, Sangu. Thank you so much for all that you're doing. I'd love to link to some of these books in our show notes, if that's okay with you. And certainly we will linking to your work. Tell our listeners how they can subscribe.
Sangamithra Iyer: Sure. It's literaryanimal.substack.Com. On Instagram, it's @literaryanimals with an S. That's the best way to keep in touch with the news and we'll have some events and then I'll figure out a place where we can archive some of these conversations.
Jasmin Singer: Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today on Our Hen House. It's been really fascinating and I'm excited about continuing to learn about what you're excited about.
Sangamithra Iyer: Yeah. Thank you so much.
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