Book Review

Yunker, John (ed). 2018. Writing for Animals: New Perspectives for Writers and Instructors to Educate and Inspire.  Ashland, Oregon: Ashland Creek Press.

Review by Emma Hardy April 2019

Two years ago, I went out to the Great Barrier Reef with a group of citizen scientists to survey the impact coral bleaching and cyclone Debbie. Before I even stepped onto the boat, I knew I wanted to write about it. There’s so much life under the water. There’s so much we don’t see, don’t know anything about. So much life that some might consider us the abnormalities for crawling out in the first place.

Yet much of this life is dying. And, from our homes on land, we’re too far away to properly bear witness and take notice.

So I set out with my pen and notebook. I noted down the sharp mannerisms and neat turns of phrase of the fellow humans. I tried to capture the tacky stick of wetsuit to skin, the heaviness of salt-licked limbs after hours on the ocean. But when it came to the creatures I was actually there to write about: the fish, the clams, the coral (yes, coral, too, is an animal), my writing lacked—something. I fell flat. My fish were too fish, and not enough that specific fish, right there, in front of me. I had set out to write about animals, but ultimately, I didn’t know where to start.

Knowing where to start is just one of the concerns that Writing for Animals aims to help writers address. From the title alone, it’s clear that this book isn’t for people who want to write about animals, nor people who want to include quirky doves as metaphor or plot points in human-centred stories. Instead, this book considers the ways that we can write with animals at the centre of our stories. How can narrative help save a species? How can we use language to pull at the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and bring non-human animals and humans closer together?

The essays are structured in four parts: The Writer as a Naturalist, The Craft of Writing About Animals, Anthropomorphism and Literature, and finally, Writers Change the World. Each section speaks to the different needs a writer has when approaching writing about and for animals. How does one go about research? What are the ethics of writing about someone ‘other’, someone who cannot write in human language? Can one write from the perspective of an animal? And how? How do you know if you are doing it right, wrong, badly or not at all? Not all the writers in this collection agree on the answers to these questions, but there are still clear takeaways across the board. Get to know your subject as well as you can. Sit with them. Respect them.

In her essay, ‘A Case for More Reality in Writing for Animals’, Rosemary Lombard provides a great starting point for research, field and otherwise. Like many of the writers in the collection, she generously provides tangible tips for getting to know animals better, and in turn, translates that knowledge onto the page. These tips are not vague, nor are they purely theoretical. At times it’s as though she is pleading with writers to do right by their subjects. “Please, please don’t dumb your animals down,” she writes (page 75). The following essays reiterate this advice: by sitting with animals we can learn that their differences are as complex, intelligent and multifaceted as our own.

Writing for Animals is an American-centric text, which can be a hurdle if wolves and deer and bears are not the context from which you write in. In ‘Writing Animals Where You Are’, Hunger Liguore argues that we should focus on the animals closest to us: the mice in our yard, the birds on our street. “When we choose to recognise the animal world most available to us, we open up so many opportunities to reconnect, essentially eliminating the false boundaries between us and them” (page 136). The idea of writing about the magpies that lived outside my old share house, the kangaroo my mum once called the cops on, and the chickens in my friend’s backyard (or the chickens on my other friends’ plates) sends a thrill through me—a need through me. And this collection of essays provides a great place to start.

Before this book, I had thought about writing animals in abstract terms. Concerns about anthropomorphism and putting words in animals’ mouths (or noses, or tentacles) haunted me, but they became unproductive. They stopped me from getting out there and doing the work. How could I know whether I had written an animal fairly, before I had even tried writing it at all? The writers in this book believe writing can make a positive impact in the case for non-human animal rights. And to see that take effect, we need to do it. 

Writing for Animals provides impetus and direction for writers who are ready to get on with the doing. It is practical. It’s process-focussed. It makes an urgent case for writing about the beings we share the planet with now—before it’s too late, and before there’s no one left to write for.

For more information on Writing for Animals see: https://ashlandcreekpress.com/books/writingforanimals.html

Emma Hardy is a Melbourne-based writer and improviser. She has been published in The Monthly, Dumbo Feather and The Lifted Brow. She tweets @emahrdy. 

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