Croatia-based novelist and poet Bernard Jan has written extensively about themes of animal rights, advocacy, and the relationship between humans and animals. His latest book, Cruel Summer, is about the journey of a young man trying to survive through personal trauma in a climate ravaged society.
How long have you been an animal rights advocate?
Bernard Jan: I have been an animal rights advocate and activist since November 2001. But we can say that my animal advocating years started much earlier when I wrote my novella Look for Me Under the Rainbow back in 1992. These were my first steps into animal advocating, and this book made me go vegetarian then. I can say that the story of an adorable seal pup, Danny and the Rainbow Warrior activist and environmentalist, Helen, who went on a mission to save the animals before the seal hunt began set me on this path.
Your Amazon bio mentions that you translated Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust by Charles Patterson into Croatian. What was that experience like?
BJ: Translating Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust by Charles Patterson was both amazing and a challenging experience. Charles was great and full of understanding when he was explaining to me some terms and words I didn’t meet with before. It was also a very educational and emotional experience because of the content of the book and true stories I was translating. I learned a lot; I cried a lot over the things and experiences that both shocked me and deeply moved me. Even today, after many animal rights books I’ve read since then, I could say that Eternal Treblinka left the deepest impact on me. It is still among my favorite animal rights books, if not the book. Not because I worked on its Croatian translation, but because it portrays the history of animal (and human) exploitation and abuse in a unique way, with many historical facts you cannot argue or contradict. It was a true honor working on this book, and I am grateful to Charles Patterson for having faith in me.
I just finished reading January River. Though you are based in Croatia, you do a great job of capturing the essence of small town America. What sort of research did you do for the novel?
BJ: Thank you, Olivia! I am glad you think so and like January River. This American small town, Greenfield, has lived in me for some time before I brought it to life on the pages of my book. I watched many movies and read books that helped me portray such a town. But I also did research, visiting the American Library in the US General Consulate in Zagreb, browsing books and articles which helped me feel the spirit of Greenfield. And, of course, I used a lot of my imagination. I wanted to create a paradise place, a place where everyone felt welcomed and safe, where people lead fulfilled and happy lives, despite personal tragedies that happen to all of us and which we cannot escape. I wanted to portray and give a place to my readers I would love to visit and find my peace there. And maybe stay for a while, or longer than that.
Are there any autobiographical aspects of January River?
BJ: There are no autobiographical aspects of January River except my two wishes, which were my motivational force to write this novel: one of them was to have a dog like Riv, and the other one that bordered with obsession was to visit New York City. I never had a golden retriever, though I was blessed for having an amazing cat for almost 15 years before we had to put Marcel to sleep because of his deteriorating health condition and old age. But my biggest wish came true, and on September 11, 2000, I visited New York, three years after writing January River and seven years before publishing it in Croatian. Staying in New York and Jersey City, and exploring Manhattan up and down for twelve days, visiting all the places I described in my two novels, January River and Cruel Summer, was a dream come true. If I had any doubts before, I was sure I was in love with that city when I was in NYC. My heart bloomed with love for New York there. I will never forget that small part of my life and will always be grateful to my friend Lidija and my parents for making it happen.
Your latest book, Cruel Summer, focuses more on themes of human rights. Do you believe there is a connection between human and animal rights?
BJ: That is correct. Cruel Summer is a YA cross-genre novel about an abused teenage boy from NYC who had two passions: skateboarding and poetry. Both were his escape from the reality and all the bad things that were happening to him, things he had been hiding for years until everything went wrong when he stood up for himself.
I do not believe there is a connection between human and animal rights; I am certain of that. The way we live and treat other living creatures and our planet cannot exclude our treatment of humans, or human animals, if we want to put it that way. Yes, humans are responsible for the plight of animals and extinction of animal species and devastation of our planet. But treating animals and humans alike with kindness, empathy, and compassion is our moral obligation. We don’t have to condone all human acts, but we have to be a good example and show that compassion, tolerance and care for each other is the best way to change things for the better. Abuse knows no difference and has no limits or borders. Everyone has a potential to be abused either mentally or physically, we are living in such a world, such a society. And victims are victims, no matter the species. All victims need our help, all of them who are abused, raped, abducted, torn from their families, tortured and murdered. If I want to be honest, I don’t see any other way out of this mess we have created.
Any other books currently in the works?
BJ: I have one more book I plan to release, hopefully late 2021 or early 2022. I will say only two keywords and phrases as hints: Cruel Summer + poetry.
Any advice for fellow vegan writers?
BJ: My advice for fellow vegan writers would be to use your compassion, talent, and the power of the written word. Give the best of yourself and put it to the best use. Change the world in a kind way, show your readers that we can create our small universes of compassion, tolerance, acceptance and love for all creatures. Teach them that every little thing counts, explaining to them that the change won’t happen overnight. Maybe not even during our lifetime. But that’s not a reason not to pave the way for new generations that will walk this earth after us and treat animals and humans as equals, with respect and acceptance. With kindness and love. And I am not talking about utopia here. I am talking about the only way of survival on this planet.