11 July 2023
Animals and social justice: readings on animals in literature
From 7 March – 9 July 2023 the British Library Treasures Gallery has had a small exhibition ‘From the Margins to the Mainstream: Animal Rights in Britain’, which follows the progression of animal rights from the enlightenment period until the present day.
To complement the exhibition guest Kim Stallwood, a highly respected international figure in animal welfare, has written a series of four blog posts of his own thoughts and opinions on key themes connected with animal rights in Britain and around the world. The articles are based on his own reading and research and aim to highlight some of the books held at the British Library that have helped shape his view. In 2022, the Library acquired the Kim Stallwood Archive and a few of the items from the collection are included in the exhibition.
Copyright: Paul Knight, Image Courtesy of Kim Stallwood (2023)
Guest writer Kim Stallwood writes his final guest blog about books held at the British Library that have helped shape his understanding of the importance of animal rights in social justice:
“Janina Duszejko lives alone in rural Poland near the Czech border. She teaches in a local school in the nearby town. She loves nature, particularly the woods where she lives, and supplements her income by maintaining nearby cabins owned by part-time summer residents. A vegetarian and supporter of animal rights, she mourns the disappearance of her two beloved dogs. She perseveres with her studies in astrology and continues to translate with her friend Dizzy the English poet William Blake (1757 – 1827). Studying helps her to grieve. She believes it may reveal what happened to her dogs. Or, indeed, the local hunters dead in suspicious circumstances.
Duszejko is the protagonist in the novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk, London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018, shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.325469), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018. The book was originally published in Tokarczuk’s native language, Polish, in 2009 called Prowadź Swój Pług Prez Kości Umarłych (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, Olga Tokarczuk, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2009, shelfmark YF.2010.a.22348). Tokarczuk is recognised for her ‘narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.’
Front covers of the English version of Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and original Polish version Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych by Olga Tokarczuk. Credit: English: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk, London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018, shelfmark ELD.DS.325469 and Polish: Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, Olga Tokarczuk, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2009, shelfmark YF.2010.a.22348
Novels entertain with their narrative imaginations. They engage readers with an infinite variety of human experiences. But, considering this is a guest post for The British Library’s Social Science blog, what has Duszejko’s imagined life got to do with animals and social justice?
I choose not to use, as may be expected, an acclaimed nonfiction book or a trusted textbook to explore animals and social justice. I pick a novel instead. Novels often explore themes of social justice. Think Dickens or Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. But what of fiction about animals and social justice? Perhaps few people would consider the plight of animals a social justice issue. But clearly both the prize-winning author, Tokarczuk, and her narrator Janina, do. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is in the tradition of novels engaging readers with the infinite variety of human-animal experiences. There is Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, London: Oxford University Press, 1931, shelfmark 012199.e.4/49). Hackenfeller's Ape by Brigid Brophy (Hackenfeller's Ape, Brigid Brophy, London: Secker & Warburg, 1964, shelfmark X.907/1310). The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary (The Roots of Heaven, Romain Gary, pseud. Romain Kassef, London: White Lion Publishers, 1973, shelfmark X.989/19402). A Tiger for Malgudi by R K Narayan (A tiger for Malgudi, R.K. Narayan, London: Heinemann, 1983, shelfmark Nov.48695). Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons by J M Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello: eight lessons, J.M. Coetzee, Leicester: W.F. Howes, 2004, shelfmark LT.2013.x.1797), which won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay (The Animals in That Country, Laura Jean McKay, Brunswick, Victoria: Scribe, 2020, shelfmark ELD.DS.497335), winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature and Victorian Premier's Prize for Fiction in Australia in 2021.
Book spine covers of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, Hackenfeller's Ape by Brigid Brophy, The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary, A Tiger for Malgudi by R K Narayan, and Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons by J M Coetzee. Credit: Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, London: Oxford University Press, 1931, shelfmark 012199.e.4/49. Hackenfeller's Ape, Brigid Brophy, London: Secker & Warburg, 1964, shelfmark X.907/1310, The Roots of Heaven, Romain Gary, pseud. Romain Kassef, London: White Lion Publishers, 1973, shelfmark X.989/19402, A tiger for Malgudi, R.K. Narayan, London: Heinemann, 1983, shelfmark Nov.48695, and Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, J.M. Coetzee, Leicester: W.F. Howes, 2004, shelfmark LT.2013.x.1797.
As you can see, animals are not an alien species to questions of social justice. Justice is sought in these books as imagined in society, respectively for horses; an imagined nonhuman primate sent into space; African elephants; a wild-caught tiger performing in a circus ring; and animals generally. Sewell and Narayan imagine the lives of animals and their stories as told by a horse and a tiger. The others are from our human perspective. I am fascinated by how novels with animal protagonists provoke our imaginations and jump-start our minds. (But, what of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) you ask? I refuse to include it. It is not a book about them. It is about us.)
Front cover of The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay. Credit The Animals in That Country, Laura Jean McKay, Brunswick, Victoria: Scribe, 2020, shelfmark ELD.DS.497335
In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Tokarczuk writes a whodunit served with an order of animal ethics. Duszejko speculates that the deer in the woods and the foxes freed from a fur farm have killed the hunters in revenge. Duszejko describes how Dizzy finds a video they watch on the Internet:
A handsome Stag attacks a hunter. We see it standing on its hind legs, striking the Man with its front hooves. The hunter falls over, but the Animal doesn’t stop, it stamps on him in a fury, it doesn’t give him a chance to crawl away on his knees. (Tokarczuk, 2019, p.224)
‘The World Turned Upside Down’ is a folkloric tradition where songs and art reverse power roles from human to human and human to animal. Women serenade men and give them roses. Working-class men instruct upper-class men to do manual work. Horses sit in carriages drawn by men, and even animal to animal when sheep chase lions.
Would animals do to us what we do to them? Would they fight back? (As they do in Gene Stone and Jon Doyle’s The Awareness (The Awareness, Gene Stone, Jon Doyle, New York: The Stone Press, 2014), when all animals suddenly gain conscious awareness of human domination.) Do they resist? What if humans and animals and their place in society were reversed? Is this what is meant by animals and social justice?
Front cover of The Awareness by Gene Stone and Jon Doyle. Credit: The Awareness, Gene Stone, Jon Doyle, New York: The Stone Press, 2014
In this series of guest posts, I have explained why animals matter in the climate emergency. Industrial agriculture may have provided us with cheap food in a lifetime but we need to move away from chemical-dependent, intensive factory farming to reduce the impact of climate change. I described the spaghetti junction of patriarchy, sexism, racism, capitalism, speciesism, and how the intersection of oppressions maintains its power and control, preventing us from establishing a caring society for all. I argued the greatest challenge facing the animal rights movement is making the moral and legal status of animals a mainstream political issue. Going vegan and speaking out for animals are important steps for people to take. But optional lifestyle choices must be complemented with initiatives that seek institutional, political, and legal change for animals.
In short, animal rights is social justice. The animal rights movement is a social justice movement. Novelists know it. So do some advocates. Our work is to make this everyday common sense. Animals are part of society. They deserve social justice.
Not wanting to give away what happened to Duszejko’s dogs or reveal any other spoilers, I urge you to read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
Read books. Change the world. ”
CC-BY Kim Stallwood is a vegan animal rights author and independent scholar. The British Library acquired the Kim Stallwood Archive in 2020. He is a consultant with Tier im Recht, the Swiss-based animal law organisation, and on the board of directors of the US-based Culture and Animals Foundation.
Brophy B. (1964) Hackenfeller's Ape, London: Secker & Warburg, shelfmark X.907/1310
Coetzee, J.M. (2004) Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, Leicester: W.F. Howes, shelfmark LT.2013.x.1797
Gary R. (1973) The Roots of Heaven, London: White Lion Publishers, shelfmark X.989/19402.
Mckay, L. (2020) The Animals in That Country, Brunswick, Victoria: Scribe, shelfmark ELD.DS.497335
Narayan, R.K. (1983) A Tiger for Malgudi, London: Heinemann, shelfmark Nov.48695
Orwell, G. (1949) Animal farm, London: Secker & Warburg, shelfmark YA.1989.a.17407
Sewell, A. (1931) Black Beauty, London: Oxford University Press, shelfmark 012199.e.4/49
Stone, G., Doyle J. (2014) The Awareness, New York: The Stone Press
Tokarczuk, O. (2009) Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, shelfmark YF.2010.a.22348
Tokarczuk, O. translated Lloyd-Jones, A. (2018) Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, shelfmark ELD.DS.325469