On Wildness and Communication: Exploring the Inner Lives of Animals in Fiction
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri on the Inspiration Behind Her Debut Collection
Sometimes I wonder whether I am wild, or I am tame. And then I remember it depends on who is answering that question. Consider, for instance, the birds in my neighborhood. There are a handful of undeveloped fields near my home that are filled with tall grass and ground squirrels. A few years ago, as I strolled past one on a midday walk, I heard urgent chirping. I looked down and saw an earth-toned bird about the size of a mourning dove staring at me defiantly with her wings spread out to her sides. Immediately behind her was her ground nest, and nestled inside were her eggs.
As I walked by her, she turned her head to keep staring at me. She quieted her chirping only when I was a safe distance away. She was wild, and I am, in my own mind, tame. But am I? When I consider that day now, I imagine that she would say I am a predator. I stomped by with a relatively enormous head and giant clomping feet, and if I had decided to turn in to the field, I would have crushed her nest.
There is another bird that I think of often. Some years ago, I was on a family visit to a zoo and we all stood at an exhibit watching cheetahs, which are, in pretty much everyone’s opinion, extremely glamorous. My husband tapped my shoulder and pointed out an exhibit opposite the cheetahs, just across the path. Inside, right up against the mesh of the cage, stood a tall bird with a majestic black crest. And he was staring at us. Watching us watch the cheetahs. I had come there as a spectator, but there I was, suddenly being observed.
To me, he looked lonely, though there was no way I could communicate with him to understand whether that was true. I wondered whether he was traditionally a flocking bird, and whether life in that cage by himself left him so desolate that crowds of people staring at him was the closest he could feel to being among his own kind. And who was wild and who was tame in this scenario? Is he tame because of a life in captivity, and am I wilder because compared to him I am free? Perhaps we are both tame, because we both live in a world where our primary interaction is to watch each other.
I think also of my pets. All the pets I have had over my lifetime, and most importantly, the two cats in my home that were my dependable friends over the years that I wrote this collection. Every person who has ever lived with a cat will probably agree that it’s not possible to own a cat, but it’s very possible to befriend one. Over the years that we lived together, we developed a language of sorts; a way of communicating. So, when I call my cat’s name, and she stays put and does not come trotting toward me humming that sweet amalgam between a purr and a meow, I know it’s not because she doesn’t know her own name. It’s because she is choosing to ignore me. In this scenario, I think it is me that is tame.
If I were to set aside the traditional meanings of wildness and tameness and define them for myself, I would frame them in terms of dependence and communication. I imagine that for two living things (human or not), to be wild from each other is to have no need to communicate. But once the need to communicate arises, it breeds interaction, which creates interdependence, which creates more interaction, which requires more communication, which in my mind is how we tame each other.
I thought about all of this as I wrote the stories in my debut collection, What We Fed to the Manticore. Each story is narrated from the perspective of an animal, and each time, I considered whether the animal whose story I told had any sort of need to communicate with humans. And if they did, what did they want from that communication? In some cases, humanity sat on the edge of the narrative, and though their influence was palpable, it was indirect. In these stories, I focused on which animals needed to communicate with each other, and why. In others, there was a direct relationship between my main animal character and a human.If I were to set aside the traditional meanings of wildness and tameness and define them for myself, I would frame them in terms of dependence and communication.
In these scenarios, I asked myself how much they depended on each other and imagined that the greater the interdependence, the greater their ability to communicate. For instance, in “Let Your Body Meet the Ground,” the pigeon narrator is dependent upon Dr. Shah and Toy Man for her care and well-being, so it’s important for her to understand them in order to comprehend what is happening to her. But they are not similarly dependent upon her, so they have less of a need to understand her. But, in “The Good Donkey,” Hafiz and his donkey are surrogate family members to each other. They offer consistency and comfort to each other in a life turned upside down. They are interdependent both in a practical sense, and emotionally, and they needed to speak to each other without any limits.
Thinking about the ways my narrators did or did not interact with the humans around them helped me frame what features of our lives and world they might be familiar with and what would be incomprehensible. And it helped me re-envision how the environment looks when I distance myself from my own human perspective. How would a wolf describe a truck or a gun if she’s never seen one before? How would a bird who’s never left the city she lives in describe an elevated rail line? What does a devastating cyclone feel like to a tiger? What does the noise of a container ship do to the underwater world of a blue whale?
What helped me find my way to my own answers to these questions was to place myself inside the lives of my narrators by learning as much as I could about their environments and their behaviors, and imagining a fully realized self and life for each one. This was my first and most important inspiration for writing this collection. Every time I have learned about a different animal, I have wondered what they think about the world they live in.
But the inner lives of animals are such a mystery to me, which has made me feel that my understanding of the world is incomplete. I am writing to fill that empty space for myself. In the end I did what I hope my readers will do: I dissolved the distance in my mind between myself and the wild world, which helped me understand that the story of my life includes the story of all the life that surrounds us.
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s What We Fed to the Manticore is available now via Tin House.