The title of A. Marie Houser’s After Coetzee: An Anthology of Animal Fictions appears unassuming, but it packs quite a pledge. It promises readers insight into the lifeworlds of more-than-human species in the vein of Nobel Prize in Literature winner J.M. Coetzee, an author whose lauded works The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello brought the animal question to a wide audience so that they may consider the animal condition. As Coetzee’s readers learn, the condition of our fellow species is often steeped in cruelty because, as Costello states, there’s an unquestioned human notion that other animals’ “lives are not as important to them as our lives are to us.”
In writing animals, contributors to After Coetzee are faced with the same dilemma as Coetzee, noted here in a 2004 interview with Satya magazine:
There is a strong argument to be made that it is impossible for a human being to inhabit the consciousness of an animal […] If it is indeed impossible – or at least very difficult – to inhabit the consciousness of an animal, then in writing about animals there is a temptation to project upon them feelings and thoughts that may belong only to our own human mind and heart. There is also a temptation to seek in animals what is easiest for human beings to sympathize or empathize with, and consequently to favor those animal species which for one reason or another seem to us to be “almost human” in their mental and emotional processes. So dogs (for example) are treated as “almost human” whereas reptiles are treated as entirely alien. 1
The author plainly concludes that writers are limited in their ability to explore animals’ lives in sensitive ways that go beyond metaphor. As such, it is inspiring when effort is made to offer readers didactic writings that help them see animals made invisible by human assumption of our own superiority. Coetzee’s literary efforts challenge this assumption. In Houser’s words, they “gave permission, to seriously address our misapprehension of nonhuman animals, question our figurations of them, and engage them in our texts as subjects in themselves, for themselves.”
To return to the collection’s title – After Coetzee is both a tribute to the author and a plea for a continued corpus of literature that gives life to all species as individuals, not mere extensions of, or metaphors for, humans.
After Coetzee is a gathering of sixteen – though considering the eloquence of Houser’s introduction, I would say seventeen – literary productions that acknowledge the ways in which, as Houser writes, “[n]onhuman worlds overlap, withdraw from, and overtake our own; they are our own.” The fourteen short stories, play, and poem range in style, point-of-view, and species focus, from the dogs and cats we treat as “almost human” via Kyoko Yoshida, J.T. Townley, Amy Cicchino, and David Armstrong; to those seen as “alien” via Jonathan Balcombe, Melanie Rae Thon, and Laura Madeline Wiseman; to our fellow primates through Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis and Diane Josefowicz; to the varied other species exploited for human ends, as explored by W.P. Osborn, David Brooks, Justin Maxwell, Michael X. Wang, and Olga Kotnowska. Gabriel Gudding’s poem and Gary Barwin’s final story offer holistic considerations of where and how all life, animal and otherwise, fits within a spectrum, as opposed to a Great Chain, of being.
This collection is at the forefront of a literary corpus to continue Coetzee’s project, coming at the relative beginning of what has been called the animal turn in which, as Harriet Ritvo explains, non-humans “have emerged as a more frequent form of scholarship in the humanities and social science […] With change in degree has come a potential change in kind.”2 Animal theorizing is no longer mere apolitical navel gazing, as scholars from sundry disciplines write and take action from unapologetic and liberatory perspectives.
But surely the animal turn is no longer relegated to academia; it has seeped into popular culture as well. Along with Coetzee’s sophisticated novels and essays, there are documentaries such as What the Health?, as specious as some claim its science to be, and films such as Okja. With each new release of its kind, social media becomes abuzz with tweets and Facebook shares about people going vegan upon seeing animals differently. Whether or not humans really are going—and staying—vegan en masse after watching these productions is arguable, but it speaks to the potential of the arts, even the mainstream ones, even for a moment, to cause shifts in consciousness.
Animal rights activists use many means to convince others that animals matter: video screenings, leafleting, protesting, marching, etc. Reading After Coetzee should be added to that list, for it is not an academic tome written for experts in a field; it is simply a book that does what quality literature should do: captivate the minds of readers as they ponder the living world from which fictions manifest.
It’s promising to think what will arise in readers’ minds as they come to the end of Wang’s “Cures and Superstitions” or Wiseman’s “How to Kill Butterflies,” two especially provocative pieces.3 Wang’s story follows a traditional story arc that at first does not seem animal-centric; however, commentary on tigers and alligators peppered throughout rage to full meaning at the end in a rousing, meaningful turn. Wiseman’s piece, while more stylistically distinctive, is no less impactful, centering on this question: “When is the exact moment you learn to kill?” If you think the answer is “never,” that you have never learned to take a life, “How to Kill Butterflies” may cause a profound reconsideration.
Art has a proven power to make viewers and readers see truths in unique, beautiful, and challenging ways. As such, Houser’s collection is a work of art of interest to anyone who enjoys good writing. That said, academics within the animal turn would do well to assure this anthology makes its way into any course where literature and culture are being studied, but especially those focused on more-than-human animals.
After Coetzee succeeds in carrying on its namesake’s legacy and the legacy of anyone who has tried to make the world better for our fellow species. It continues the project of making animals visible, which comes down to two words underscored in David Armstrong’s “Truth Be Told” in which a female human ponders an utterance that could have saved the life of “her sister, the deer, and the dog. ‘See me,’ she says. See me. See me. See me.”
- http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/daed.2007.136.4.118 (Full access not granted here; purchase required)
- As a lone reviewer, I have the privilege of singling out those works that I found most inspiring, but I can say without artifice that each piece is distinctly thought-provoking, expressive, and deserving of a close read.