When Franz Kafka wrote “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” he was describing a need for writing that cut through cultural insensibilities. Now that we are living in the epoch of the Anthropocene, writers are reprising Kafka’s call to “read only books that bite and sting us.” Theorists, such as Kate Rigby, are asking whether stories can rupture indifference, cut through “the psychic numbness” engendered by ways of thinking and being that “render us insouciant towards suffering, heedless of injustice, content with affluence, and dangerously unaware of our own imperilment.”Read More
“If vegans have been forced to functioned from within the discourse of carnism, it is time for them to dislocate that ‘within’, to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it theirs; containing it, taking it in their own mouths, biting that tongue with their own teeth and invent for themselves a language to get inside of!”
Taken and adapted (lightly, lightly) from H. Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa
Before I can write out from “within” I need to understand its contours, knots, investments, blind spots, myths, histories, prejudices and inheritances. How to begin? How should I move through the slow, ethically lonely struggle that is waking up to the uses by which so much life on earth has been organised in ways that drive mass extinctions and slaughters? 1 What are the stories I don’t yet have? What are the stories I need?
When I look around I see a terrifying pattern: animals are not meant to survive. At least they are not meant to survive as their animal selves. To some readers it will seem silly, irrelevant or insulting to spend time thinking about the lives of animals when the scale of human suffering seems to be reaching new intensities. But each time a persecuted person or group is animalised for the purposes of oppression, domination and even genocide, I am brought back to the same question: If we do not reckon with the reality that violence against so many kinds of animal is presumed to be permissible, how can we hope to seriously challenge thought patterns that rely on animalisation as a precursor to violence against other humans? I do not address this question by thinking about animals as metaphors, I think about their actual lives. The story of animal liberation is made up of a web of stories that include human liberations of all kinds. The story of animal liberation can no longer be marginalised because the reality of violence against animals is not marginal. It is happening everywhere.
I address these concerns from within the boundaries of my work as a creative writing teacher at a university here in Melbourne. I do this because I need to think through a pattern of silence in which I am embedded. It is the silence I take up when I am faced with the possibility of speaking from the politics of my identity as a vegan in the classroom. When I do not articulate the way my veganism collides with my feminism, which is characterised by my lesbianism; when I give into the silence that weighs against these identities, I allow the effects of that silence to grow.
As animal activists and scholars have been saying since the 1970s, to be human is to live out a certain kind of animality, it is not to be devoid of animality. Human exceptionalism is a story we tell ourselves to know that we exist over and above other kinds of animals. I no longer want to contribute to that narrative.
One day, in a class I teach on contemporary fiction, it occurred to me to read aloud a passage from a book that I had not put on the reading list. The passage describes ‘the live hang’—a process essential to maintaining the rapidity of chicken slaughter. I’m standing in front of a room filled with creative writing students. There’s nothing to stop me. They’re here. I’m here. The words are here—I have Dinesh Wadiwel’s The War Against Animals (2015) in a pile of books on the lectern. The birds would be led through the bath water of my class.
“The birds will be led through an electrical water bath which is designed to stun them into senselessness, their necks will be cut, they will be bled, and then their bodies will be scalded in defeathering tanks.”
By the time our class finishes, approximately two thousand birds would have been hung, dragged, electrified, neck-slit and boiled in a single abattoir in Australia.
In creative writing, we come together to imagine things. But, at this time, when there are no interdisciplinary creative writing and animal studies or environmental studies courses on offer in Australian universities (and when the kind of guerrilla pedagogy I have just imagined would surely trouble students with deeply wounding realities), I stay quiet. Though I am haunted by Audre Lorde’s words, “Your silence will not protect you.” 2
Lorde spoke this truth in her address at the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbians and Literature Panel” in December 1977. She acknowledged that writers who are trying to transform silence into language and action would need to scrutinise “the truth of what we speak and the truth of the language by which we speak it.” But, that to do this might mean risking judgement, harassment, censure or contempt. Still it must be done by someone (by many someones).
I feel an energetic and ethical connection to the intersectional feminism practiced by lesbian poet-activists such as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. These writers pioneered ways to tell stories from, and about, the crossroads of multiple identities, politics, cultures and oppressions. I turn back to them now because, in them, I rediscover a creative inheritance that takes seriously the way all lives are imminently tied together in processes of living and dying, in systems of violence and oppression.
In a time when there is widespread understanding of the violence and trauma animals sustain as part of industrialised animal agriculture as well as the links between the role animal agriculture plays in global poverty and hunger, displacement and migration, climate change and biodiversity, it stuns me that one cannot (yet) gain access to a class or an in-depth reading list that seriously considers the art and craft of telling stories about the lives and deaths of persons of all species. 
In place of engaging with such stories in a carefully curated and ethico-politically relevant way, there is an overwhelming silence in creative writing courses. Silence is a technology, a pose, a standing position. If maintained over minutes, hours, days, months and years this ‘simple’ pose (like standing on a single spot) becomes excruciating. But the machinery of silence rolls on. I have built muscle for this silence. I am muscle bound and the machinery that mediates mass animal slaughter, such as the electric bath designed to stun chickens before slaughter, buzzes on.
Silence is a door that is open and closed.
Silence is an argument on its own.
On the edge of the humanities, there are animal studies and ecofeminist activist-scholars, artists and researchers who challenge the centrality of humans within the humanities.  They also challenge the false separations that insist nature and culture exist in opposition to one another. This work challenges some of the core ideas of the humanities, such as: What makes a knowing subject and what constitutes personhood?  Creative-academic-activist work that engages seriously with these questions can open new lines of intellectual and imaginative inquiry.  This work is both practical and imaginative because it asks writers to research how, in cultural, biological and political ways, their lives are joined-up to the lives and deaths of distant and unexpected others of all species and kinds.
Earlier this year I discovered that a drug I used to take to relieve chronic back pain contains the anti-inflammatory ingredient diclofenac. Diclofenac is an over-the-counter painkiller first synthesised by Alfred Sallmann and Rudolf Pfister in 1973. It was introduced onto the pharmaceutical market as Voltaren®. Since its creation, diclofenac has become a common over-the-counter drug administered in humans for minor aches, inflammations and period pain. Now, it is sold under three dozen brand names and, since the 1990s, has been used in certain countries for administration in animal ‘health’ regimes—in particular to assist animals to survive (for as long as necessary) in factory farm conditions.
In the 1990s, diclofenac was introduced into the Indian livestock sector to treat inflammation, pain and fevers experienced by cows raised and kept for milk production. Soon after its introduction, vultures who ate the bodies of the dead and discarded cows began suffering from kidney failure. India’s vultures started dying in large numbers because the residues of diclofenac, found in the bodies of the deceased cows, were causing uric acid to accumulate in their blood and crystallise around their internal organs. This caused a deadly condition known as visceral gout.
Within ten years, three of India’s vulture species—the oriental white-backed Gyps bengalensis, the long-billed G. indicus and the slender-billed G. tenuirostris—had declined in population by more than 97%.  Their main food supply was killing them.
Despite knowing of the connection between diclofenac-laced cow corpses and the production of a deadly renal disease in vultures, the Spanish Agency for Medicines (AEM) approved two products containing diclofenac to be used on pigs and cows in 2013. The organisation BirdLife International: Europe & Asia have been campaigning furiously to have this drug banned in Europe, as its introduction now threatens the populations of Eurasian griffon vultures. That saga is ongoing.
By taking diclofenac I found my body tied up in knots of unthinkable and unpredictable forms of multi-species destruction. In this pharmaceutical micro-fiction, my body is activated within a global network of species extinction and sub-therapeutic (and sometimes illegal) veterinary practices in animal agriculture across Southern Asia and parts of Europe. My use of this drug ties me, in toxic planetary flows, with power, chemicals, capital and vulture cultures. But how to write about these knots and flows? What narrative forms allow me to convey the complexities of these tangles? 
Right now, the cultural geography of creative writing courses in Australia needs to expand to include ways of modelling research and writing practices that allow these kinds of stories to be told. For me, this means that the familiar idea “write what you know” must be re-evaluated. Why not encourage students to “write to discover the realities of the world you are embedded within”?  When I do this, I stray from the traditional, anthropocentric, domain of the humanities. To write stray is to learn how we are embedded in multi-species, multi-geographic and multi-temporal contexts. When I write stray, my primary task is learning how to displace the lies that allow me to live as if my choices do not cause consequences (or traumas) for others. 
I advocate for this stray way of reading and writing because I am troubled by the way the humanities hangs onto itself. When the 2017 Returning Harvard Chair in Australian Studies suggested that the black swans in Alexis Wright’s novel The Swan Book (2013) should be read as an allegory for human displacement—even as we know that animals are becoming stray in vast numbers because of climate change, habitat loss and human activities like war—I felt a deep sense of despair that the journeys of exile in which so many animals are caught was not acknowledged. I felt sad, too, that Alexis Wright’s multi-species politics was so radically reduced to the anthropocentric.
As feminist film theorist Barbara Creed advocates in her book on stray politics and ethics, “A stray ethics offers a new aesthetic that unsettles established positions. It is the stray thought and outside point of view that shifts the ground from under us, which can offer the most radical and transformative insights.” Earth-moving, radical and transformative: these are the words that come to me when I think of the effects of Wright’s swirling novel.
For the poet Adrienne Rich, the dynamics between political visions and the demand for fresh visions of literature are clear.  Her poem, ‘Diving into the Wreck’, offers a vision of the poet as an explorer who goes down to the scene of a disaster and searches for remnants of those whose lives remain unremarked, unrecorded. This poem speaks of the task of narrative re-visioning (not to be confused with the kind of revisionist history or alternative fact-making that is proliferating). I cite this poem because in it Rich authors the beginning of a process of ethical repair that begins by entering disaster zones:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this
the ribs of disaster.
I am driven back to Rich’s work now because, as Claudia Rankine writes in her introduction to Rich’s Collected Poems: 1950-2012 (2013), she is a poet who risks herself “in order to give the self”. What else can a writer do? I want to offer this question, and so many more, to those who are now furiously researching and writing their way into the making of our earthly stories, our future literatures.
1 In Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015) Jason W Moore describes the organization of nature as fundamental to the creation of capitalism. He calls this condition the “Capitalocene”. As Moore shows, capitalist economics needs stories that legitimate species, race and gender domination to thrive.
2 Quoted from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from The Cancer Journals (New York, Aunt Lute Books, 1980).
 Though one can study the following in Australia universities: animals and the law, animals and sociology, animals in theology and philosophy, psychology and Australian environmental history. For a list of Animal Studies courses on offer across Australia go to the Australasian Animal Studies Association website.
Donna Haraway has even playfully suggested re-naming the humanities the humusities (as in humus, the organic component of soil formed by the decomposition of leaves) in a move toward re-imagining the humanities as part of a vast compost heap of earthly involvement and inquiry. For Haraway, thinking is a tentacular and sympoietic (collectively-producing), not autopoietic (self-producing), generative practice full of “graspings, frayings, and weavings, passing relays again and again, in the generative recursions that make up living and dying.” (Staying with the Trouble, 33).
For a discussion of this see Cary Wolfe’s article ‘Human, All Too Human: “Animal Studies” and the Humanities’ in PLMA (2009).
For thorough-going discussion of animal studies as a “tainted” field see Rhoda M Wilkie, ‘Academic “Dirty Work”: Mapping Scholarly Labour in a Tainted Mixed-Species Field’ in Society & Animals 23 (2015) 211- 230.
Although the veterinary use of diclofenac was banned in India in 2006, reports have shown there is on going illegal veterinary administration of the drug to animals kept in factory farming conditions. This story is further complicated by the fact that new pharmaceutical replacements, intended to replace diclofenac, are being found to metabolise into diclofenac in the bodies of certain mammals. For a sad but detailed discussion of this situation see G K Mahapatro and K Arunkumar ‘The case for banning diclofenac and the vanishing vultures’ in Biodiversity (2004) 15.4, 265-268.
 For more information on the use of Diclofenac in Europe see the BirdLife website
 For the moment, Donna Haraway is my teacher. She models this kind of story telling in Staying with the Trouble (2017).
 This is certainly the kind of writing practice Donna Haraway is calling for, and modelling, in her most recent book Staying with the Trouble.
 I extrapolate the concept of stray writing from Barbara Creed’s fascinating study of stray politics and aesthetics, Stray: Human-Animal Ethics in the Anthropocene (NSW, Power Polemics, 2017).
 See Adrienne Rich ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision’ in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected prose 1966-1978.
This piece was published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Hayley Singer earned her PhD in creative writing from the Universiy of Melbourne where she teaches contemporary fictions and feminist writing practices. She writes and publishes essays on carnist narratives and connections between vanguard writing practices and animal activism.