As our fall issue was coming together earlier this year, the concept of land ownership began to emerge as a shared concern from several of the stories. Specifically, the crazy-making circumstance of recognizing the need for an escape from the social model of “ownership” but being taught by our society that no good alternative model exists or could even be imagined. We occupy a kind of existential pickle, and the project for this issue was to find a way out, to spark new visions for new ways of stewarding the land.
But how might that translate to fiction? We had a difficult time finding someone whose work was provoked by the same anxiety, until we heard about Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, whose debut short story collection What We Fed to the Manticore was released in September. The stories are told by a gallery of animals, their voices embodied down to the sentence level. While we were busy wondering how a capitalist product can think outside of capitalism, she was producing human language stories that think outside human language. The story she wrote for us, ‘Controlled Burn’, continues that project to wondrous effect.
We asked Aimee Nezhukumatathil to speak with Talia about the unique pleasures and challenges of speaking for the more-than-human world. That conversation is presented here.
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri: I was thrilled to get my hands on World of Wonders, and I wanted to start by bringing up your essay on the whale shark, which has really stayed with me. I felt the visceral thrill of a whale shark underneath me when I was reading that essay. Just this overwhelming sense of the vastness of an animal that size and how very different they are from us. But also, I felt all of the complications of sorrow and joy and wonder existing together because this very spectacular creature is living in an environment that we manufactured as a copy of where she is supposed to live.
The fairy tale about Kablay becoming the whale shark is perhaps the perfect way to help me understand why I (and a lot of people) are drawn to animals, because it illustrates this indescribable connection between all of us. The barrier between human and whale shark in that story is so fluid. The hunger to connect (at least in me) is so palpable that I have this (perhaps irrational) conviction that if I just look in their eyes, we will understand each other. They will see that we are the same! But it’s not really that way, of course. And I can never truly be close to animals in their natural habitats the same way I can in a sort of manufactured one. It’s almost as though the only way we are able to do it in a way that feels tangible is when they are removed from their habitats and put in a manufactured one. So, does that mean we only understand each other when we remove them from the natural world in the way that we’ve removed ourselves? And do they even feel the same as we do?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: You hit upon something I didn’t set out to do (but that ended up being kind of a touchstone for the animals I included in that book), which is to say, I wanted to depict them as multifaceted, and I wanted to depict my awareness of/interactions with them as complex and complicated too. For example, I almost cut the whale shark essay for a couple of reasons, not least of which is I felt a little ashamed of snorkeling with them in a tank for crying out loud.
TLK: I’m really glad you left that essay in. It’s one of my favorites. It’s so complicated to be a human animal, and I feel like you captured the feeling of that very strange blend we are of wild and something else so perfectly and I return to it a lot. One of the many things I love about it was how you set the wild and captive right next to each other by describing your fear of the different sharks in the tank and then acknowledging that they were captive even as they frightened you. What do you think the whale shark was thinking when you were there? Do you wonder what it meant to her to keep looking at you? Do you think they have the same curiosity about us that we have about them?
AN: It’s so hard to say (even though I love to anthropomorphize) what she was thinking, but her eyes, her eyes! As close to searching and registering and regarding my shape as anything I’ve seen underwater.
And—it’s not lost on me that you and I are two women of color who write about animals.
What about you? Why this turn to animals in your writing? Is it about making sense of our world? Making sense of our place in the world? Something else?
TLK: I feel like I’ve given a lot of answers to the question of why I’ve chosen animals, and all my answers touch on things that are absolutely true: that I want to collapse the distance between humanity and the natural word; that I want to introduce and reinforce the idea that all life is entangled and connected and enmeshed; and also that our life and our survival depends on understanding these things. But I think even though this is all true and important, it might be that the bigger motivation for me is that I feel almost swallowed up by my own curiosity.
I have this little cat named Fig and over the years I’ve watched her do all kinds of hilarious things. And while I don’t always understand them, I’m always entertained. Pets are fun companions, and I love all the weird and wonderful ways she brings joy to my life. But that’s not really why she’s here, in an existential sense. She has a whole cat life she’s living that really isn’t about me, and I feel like that’s important. It’s important to me, at least. And I want to try to understand it, even if I will always fail. When she was a kitten, I would sometimes catch her sitting on our bathroom counter in front of a large mirror, just meowing quietly at her own reflection. It sounded like a conversation (and that was probably me anthropomorphizing), but I always wonder what those kinds of things mean to her. I think a lot about her selfhood. And I guess I think a lot about the selfhood of all kinds of creatures, and I want to climb inside and to know what it feels like.
I feel like this shows up in your work, too. I’m thinking in particular of “Self-Portrait as Scallop” and “Bengal Tiger” from Oceanic, which both feel to me like poems where you inhabit the animal, but there’s this second layer, where you the writer/me the reader retain humanness while also living inside this animal body. I love that. I also think it’s wonderful symmetry to have these two inhabiting poems as a frame for a collection.
AN: What was the litmus test of choosing animals for your collection What We Fed to the Manticore? Did the animal always come first?
TLK: I let them choose me at first. The animals and their environments shape the stories and act as the engine, and then I get swept away in what they do. I did want to build this collection so that it included a variety of animals and continents, although I didn’t cover everything. And I didn’t want to duplicate animals or environments too much because I wanted to maintain a broad reach. One of the stories I left out involved a wolf in North America, and the two wolf stories felt too similar, so I chose one. But it’s a bit difficult to choose, because I find so many creatures to be interesting. And I think all of their stories are unique.
AN: Was the animal so integral to the forward motion of each story that you couldn’t have a story without that particular animal as the story’s vehicle?
TLK: Paying attention to environments means that the forward motion of the story takes care of itself in a lot of ways. Nature is so dramatic. Maybe that’s another reason why I like to write in this space. Amitav Ghosh touches on this in The Great Derangement, when he talks about how the natural world is the embodiment of the uncanny. Despite the fact that we call it the natural world, it feels supernatural to me. Like salmon, for instance. They swim upstream to spawn and not all of them make it, and it’s an epic quest! Can you imagine climbing a mountain unassisted just to start a family?—Or, eels! I just learned that eels can travel over land to their breeding location. What kind of journey could that possibly be? I don’t know that my life will ever be that interesting.
How did you narrow your list for World of Wonders? I remember one of your talks where you shared that essays were ultimately left out and I was wondering how you selected which ones stayed.
AN: My own litmus test for what to keep (I had over 200 plants and animals and whittled it down to about thirty!) was which animals and plants made me still curious and wanting to know more to the point where I could feel unrest in my own body, so electric and over the top, I know, but it’s true! And also, where I felt charged and electric upon draft after draft of writing about it.
TLK: And when you choose to leave something out, do you ever look for ways to fold it into later work? I’m wondering if you feel like this kind of work can ever be truly finished.
AN: I hope that writing about the furry, the scaled, the finned and feathered inhabitants of the planet really becomes my life work. I don’t ever expect there will come a day where I say, “Wellll! That does it—I’m good!” and stop wanting to be with and write and read about animals.
I want to collapse the distance between humanity and the natural word; I want to introduce and reinforce the idea that all life is entangled and connected and enmeshed.
TLK: I think I’ll be curious about animal lives forever, and I feel like I could keep on writing stories this way, even if no one is reading, because my curiosity isn’t satisfied yet.
AN: How much research goes into your stories? I always feel a little sheepish when people ask this of my essays, because in truth I have been obsessing over most of these animals since I was a kid. It’s just what I read for pleasure. I mean, we fact-checked things to be sure I got measurements right . . . but I was writing drafts first with what I already knew or observed directly about the animals and plants. I have no intention to deceive anyone, even if it fits a narrative or has a music I want—quite the opposite, actually. But I wonder how this works in fiction for you, when you have more leeway with “truth”?
TLK: The writing about the natural world that resonates most with me is work that comes from a place of love for the subject. Curiosity and love. I don’t want to deceive readers either, and I don’t think it’s really necessary, because the facts of nature are really spectacular. I do a lot of research, but it comes from that same way of obsessing about animals. And in many ways, the story grows out of what I learn about them. It’s fun because I love learning new things.
But also, it felt like an important component of the work because in every story I’m asking the reader to accept something that might be unbelievable, and I wanted all that uncanniness to be nested inside reality. My instincts told me that, if I want readers to believe that a wolf can tell us this story while she lives inside a time loop, then the weather needs to be accurate, the landscape needs to be accurate, her behavior needs to approximate the wolves we recognize, and so on.
The other factor was that I wanted readers to feel like they had become all of these animals, so I needed to understand how their senses work. I didn’t use a particularly formal or even consistent process when I did research for each story, and my sources were wide and varied. I think the process of trying to manufacture the sense of being something else is inexact, and I don’t even know how close I was able to get to that feeling. But I did a lot of random things. Like, I would spend a lot of time moving my arms in a way that mimicked the way a bird’s wings move when they fly, so I could imagine flying. And I listened to a lot of underwater audio from shipping channels so I could imagine what those sounds mean for a whale. But my bones are heavy and my ears don’t float inside my head. All I have left is what feels like desperate grasping at experiences that I want so much to understand.
Is that part of where your nature obsessions come from, too? The desire to be immersed? How much of your work do you get to base on experiences?
AN: Though I definitely write a good majority of my work from direct experiences and observations from my travels all over the world, it was very important to me to include essays (and poems) about animals I’d never seen before. Especially in environmental writing, I wanted to upend the notion that some have about having to experience something directly in order to write about it—when that goes against the imagination and hearts of most people! I mean, I think (I hope!) most people are capable of caring for people and things without ever having them in their home as pets, for example. So I included things like narwhals in the hopes of nudging the reader like—if I can get you to care about a whale you’d never seen before, maybe, just maybe, you can care about people you’ve never encountered before too. People who are different than you—who love and move and look different than you, especially.
TLK: Maybe that’s why I love research so much. It’s the best way for me to feel close to all these other living things.
AN: What are your definitions of “wildness” and “tameness”?
TLK: The line between the two is very blurry! We’re all living in various stages of wildness and tameness throughout our lives, but the more I think about them, the more I think of wildness in degrees related to how distant two creatures are from understanding each other. We think of certain animals as wild but only in relation to ourselves. For example, are snow leopards wild, or are they just very far away from the human experience?
I also think of wildness and tameness in terms of communication. The greater ability a creature has to communicate with a different creature, the more tame it is in relation to that creature. I suppose I think of these things as relative. Humans have an uncanny ability to center ourselves in every story and I think I’m trying to reframe us as just one of many things that live in the environment.
AN: How does that figure into your next steps, if at all? I’m dying to know what you are working on!
TLK: I am working on a novel that asks similar questions. I want to explore more directly the differences between wild and captive animals. And I also want to explore what happens to spaces that were once developed by humans that have been reclaimed by the land. I’m thinking of abandoned towns and amusement parks. And also of a book I read several years ago called Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl by Mary Mycio, which talked about the animals and plants that have grown in and around the site of the reactor and how the animal communities are faring. So I’m writing a novel that has wild animals, and captive animals, and abandoned spaces, and I’m going to put them all together to see what happens. I think I am always writing toward the questions of what our world is like now, and what all the possibilities are for how it could become someday.