In a follow up to Vegan & Vegetarian Authors of Classic Literature: 20th Century Edition, we’re going back in time and exploring the work of a few notable animal activists from the 19th century! Though the term “vegan” was not coined until 1944, many activists were still abstaining from animal products well before the 20th century. Let’s take a look at just a handful of these early advocates!
Famous for his monumental literary works, including Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Tolstoy spent approximately 25 years of his life as a devout vegetarian. Tolstoy even went so far as to subsist entirely off of oatmeal porridge at one point in his life. Lesser known of Tolstoy’s works is his essay “The First Step”, in which he shares his eyewitness account of the operations in a Russian slaughterhouse.
Known for his existentialist writing and surrealism, Kafka was a strict vegetarian. Kafka once famously visited a Berlin aquarium, looked into a fish tank and said, “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you any more”. Given the philosophical nature of much of Kafka’s work, it is easy to view his stories through the lens of animal rights. How might this lens change one’s interpretation of The Trial or The Metamorphosis?
Percy Bysshe Shelley
A giant of the Romanticism movement, Percy Shelley was an avid vegetarian. In fact, Shelley wrote multiple essays related to his opinions of animal agriculture which are notably modern. Shelley often reflected on animal agriculture being both morally absurd and a waste of arable land.
Mary Shelley was also a practicing vegetarian. In fact, Dr. Frankenstein’s creature abstains from meat in Shelley’s endlessly influential Frankenstein: as the creature explains, “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment”.
George Bernard Shaw
Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw was inspired to become a vegetarian by his idol, Percy Bysshe Shelly. Shaw once wrote, in reference to his meat consumption, “I was a cannibal”.
Queer + Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression is a project based on a simple premise: what does it mean to be an LGBTQIA+ vegan? Editors J. Feliz Brueck and Z. McNeill seek to answer this question by compiling this series of essays by LGBTQIA+ members of the vegan community. The essayists in Queer + Trans Voices span a wide range of identities, providing a plethora of valuable opinions on anti-oppression in the vegan community.
The vegan community is often criticized for its perceived lack of diversity. The mainstream animal rights movement is often seen as a vanity project of the white, upper middle class. Queer + Trans Voices highlights this perception, and many other topical issues, by promoting the voices of queer vegans, trans vegans, and vegans of color. Queer + Trans Voices is one of the few, if only, collections of its kind. Though all the essays approach the same prompt, there is a clear, independent voice of each writer. In no other essay collection will you both find the personal narrative of a Black Queer person comparing their social status to that of a mouse, as in Ikora Rey’s A Tale of Vermin, and a chronicle of the activist work of a Mizrahi living in Israel/Occupied Palestine, as in Shiri Eisner’s Queer Vegan Politics and Consistent Anti-Oppression.
As with all anthologies, some writing is stronger than others. However, collectively, as one element, Queer + Trans Voices is a solid piece of work and a comprehensive starter for those interested in expanding their knowledge of the links between the LGBTQIA+ community, anti-oppression, and veganism. Of particular note are the essays of Leah Kirts, who makes a compelling argument for the need to create an anti-carceral state, and Karla Galvez, who provides a beautifully personal narrative of the relationship between their Guatemalan heritage and veganism.
Queer + Trans Voices ends with an interview section in which current, influential vegan activists are asked one-on-one questions related to their veganism. Jasmin Singer is asked about her identity as a vegan and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, Z. Griffler is asked about the relationship between nonhuman rescue and the social justice movement, and so forth. Despite its brevity, this final section proves to be a nice cap to the anthology. Well reasoned and timely, Queer + Trans Voices is a unique and worthy addition to any collection of vegan literature.
You’ve written and published two novels: The Tourist Trail and Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead. How long did you work on these books?
John Yunker:The Tourist Trail began as a short story that I wrote back in 2008. It won the Phoebe Fiction Prize and this inspired me to keep going because I had a feeling that there was a novel there. The novel came out in 2010 and [Where theOceans Hide Their Dead] came out about eight years later.
What is your writing process like?
JY: Sporadic. I tend to write in bursts, which is probably better suited for short stories and short plays. Novels are brutal, particularly the rewriting stage, which I am awful at. I walked away from [Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead] several times over the years, but finally saw it through, thanks in great part to my partner Midge Raymond who edited the book. She’s an amazing editor and writer and has also written an amazing novel inspired by penguin research: My Last Continent.
The Tourist Trail includes several incredibly detailed passages regarding penguin research in Patagonia. What sort of research did you do on this topic while writing the book?
JY: Midge and I were fortunate to have spent time volunteering at a Magellanic penguin research station down in Argentina. Spending time with the researchers was invaluable and inspiring. If I had not made that trip there would be no Tourist Trail. I remember we took a lunch break and were seated on a sand berm overlooking the Atlantic. And that’s when the idea of an anti-whaling activist washing ashore came to me (as I had been following Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Society). To learn more about the penguin research these folks are doing, check out the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels.
But I will add that you don’t necessarily have to travel the world to write about the world. For instance, in [Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead] I write about activists who are defending the seals in Namibia and I’ve never set foot there. But I have spent years following the people who have devoted their lives to the effort, as well as poring over news reports, email conversations, scientific papers, Wikipedia searches and Google Maps. Don’t let limited travel stop you from writing about issues and animals you are passionate about!
Are you working on any new novels currently?
JY: I am working on book 3 in this series, though very, very slowly. I am working on other books and stories. Midge and I also write books together, a lot more quickly I might add, and I hope to have announcements about these books in the next year.
You’ve also written several plays and short stories. How do you determine in what format a story will be told?
JY: Great question and I wish I had an easy answer. Because I’ve found myself trying to rewrite plays as novels and vice versa. But by going through this process of writing and rewriting, I generally figure out which format is best suited to the story. I love to read and write all formats and I encourage writers to try to tell the same story through different mediums; it’s a great way to better understand your characters, setting and what you’re trying to say.
You co-founded Ashland Creek Press in 2011. Why did you decide to begin this company?
JY: Ashland Creek Press came about shortly after self-publishing The Tourist Trail. I had an agent for The Tourist Trail but she was unable to find a home for it. There wasn’t exactly an “eco-thriller” category at the time and I’m not entirely sure if there is one now. Big publishers like books that cleanly fit into categories and this book did not. Midge and I had both worked in publishing so we had some idea of what we were getting into. We had a feeling there were other writers out there facing similar obstacles.
As time went on we began to focus more explicitly on animal rights as well as connecting animal protection with environmentalism. We launched a book prize, The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, with this goal in mind. It’s been an uphill battle because conventional environmental literature treats animals as food, objects for hunting and/or set pieces. It’s time for a new wave of environmental literature and Ashland Creek Press is on the leading edge of this movement.
What has your experience been like co-founding and operating a boutique publishing company?
JY: This year marks 10 years of publishing, which is hard to believe as it still feels like we’re just getting started. I love introducing these books to the world. Absolutely love it. And I encourage everyone to visit our website where you can download free PDF samples of all of our books.
The only thing challenging about being a small press is that, well, we’re small. Everything we make goes back into the press and we have to be creative about book publicity. And we ask our authors to do the same – and never give up on promoting their books. We have books that are several years old and are selling better now than they did during year one. And I think much of this is because these books are tackling issues that most readers are only now becoming aware of.
Any advice for fellow vegan writers?
JY: Find other vegan writers and read their books, see their plays. Ask your library to stock their books. Just as vegans will request vegan food from restaurants and grocery stories, we all need to do the same with our publishers and bookstores. And don’t just demand cookbooks!
Check out our book Writing for Animals (we also teach a program around it). There are some great words of wisdom and inspiration from the contributors to this book.
And subscribe to our newsletter at AshlandCreekPress.com and our sister book review site EcoLitBooks.com. EcoLit Books reviews books from all publishers and also provides a list of publishers and journals that are looking for environmental and animal literature.
Finally and most importantly, don’t give up. Rejections are a part of being a writer. I’ve got two short stories and several plays out on submission and have received nothing but rejections over the past three years. But I’m still submitting, damnit.
Visit the Ashland Creek Press website for more information on upcoming releases, available titles, and programming.
When reading a new book about veganism, I always feel compelled to ask “What new light on veganism does this author have to shed?”. While reading Once Upon A Time We Ate Animals by Roanne van Voorst, I found myself returning to this question. The book provides a nonfiction account of vegan living while interspersed with scenes from a fictitious vegan future. The concept of a vegan future has been imagined by many already. Similarly, overviews of why a vegan future is necessary to address ever-present social and environmental issues are standard talking points of the vegan activist. Yes, animals do feel pain. Yes, ditching factory farming is an essential step to address climate change. These are facts that vegans are familiar with. Once again, when asking myself what new light Once Upon A Time We Ate Animals has to shed on veganism, it appears the answer is none.
Voorst’s work does not contribute anything new to the field of vegan writing while repeatedly falling into the trappings of vegan toxicity. Voorst’s repeated body shaming is particularly notable. There is no vegan body type. Vegans come in all shapes and sizes. And yet, Voorst both uses the turn of phrase “fat as a whale” when referring to “unhealthy” vegan diets and (in an embarrassingly titled chapter) refers to individuals living Voorst-approved lifestyles as “…Sexy as Fuck”. With that said, I struggle to determine who Once Upon a Time We Ate Animals is for. Prospective vegans will be turned off by Voorst’s sarcastic condescension and current vegans will find little information they do not already have.
By far the worst chapters of Once Upon A Time We Ate Animals are those that portray a theoretical vegan future. A future in which schoolchildren are taught about the inhumanity of factory farming and elders must answer for their past animal consumption. Though this is an interesting concept, Voorst’s narrative falls victim to a poor execution. Scenes of this imagined future are forced, filled with awkward dialogue, and so glaring that they border on parody. Any self-aware, reflective vegan is sure to feel at least a little embarrassment reading Voorst’s imagined future. And, with this said, any self-aware, reflective vegan should look elsewhere for vegan literature.
Justin Barker discovered his love for animals and knack for animal activism as a middle schooler living in the suburbs of Northern California. Despite school bullying, family strife, and an ongoing identity crisis, Barker was motivated to advocate for animals after picking up a copy of Ingrid Newkirk’s Kids Can Save the Animals! 101 Easy Things to Do at a used bookstore. Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to be Free is a young adult work that encapsulates Barker’s coming-of-age as both a queer teen boy and an animal activist.
Deemed “Bear Boy” by local media, Barker shares the story of how he fought to release two black bears, Brutus and Ursula, from cruel living conditions at a local zoo. Barker is as passionate in his activism as he is in his storytelling. Bear Boy is a thoughtful, honest portrayal of life as a young teen. Barker does not shy away from sharing family disputes, dismissal from adults in his life, or his experience coming out. The accessible, personable nature of Barker’s writing makes his story all the more engaging.
What makes Bear Boy perhaps most notable is the unapologetic nature of Barker’s perspective. So often vegan writers, understandably, feel the need to evidence their beliefs with facts about climate change, animal cognition, and the economic value of pursuing animal rights. Though there is absolutely value in adding these perspectives, Barker instead focuses on one issue: right versus wrong. Is it right to hold wild animals in captivity? Is it right to force bears to eat food that is not supportive of their dietary needs? Is it right to watch animals suffer and stand idly by? Rather than debate, Barker writes purely from emotion, a tactic that is sure to captivate readers.
Though written as a memoir for young adults, the story of Justin Barker and his persona “Bear Boy” is one for all ages. There is some relatable aspect of Barker’s story for everyone, both vegan and nonvegan alike. In addition to animal rights, Bear Boy artfully encapsulates themes of social isolation, identity, search for purpose, and parent/child conflict. Barker has a strong narrative voice and a powerful story to share. Ultimately, Bear Boy is a beautifully told, welcome addition to any bookshelf.
Click here to read our interview with Justin Barker.
Animal activist Justin Barker discovered his passion for saving animals as a young teenager. Faced with routine bullying at school, dismissive adults, and an unyielding desire to rescue animals from confinement, Barker set out to free two black bears named Brutus and Ursula from a defunct zoo in Northern California, deeming him “Bear Boy”. Now, 25 years later, Barker is sharing his story in Bear Boy: The True Story of A Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to be Free.
Why did you decide to share your story now?
Justin Barker: I started writing Bear Boy 10 years ago because a book about animal rights changed my life when I was thirteen. I wanted to pay that forward with a book for young people who either already know how powerful they are or for ones who need a nudge to discover their strength.
I think animal rights is a great entry point into all sorts of activism. For me, my activism started with animal rights and over time expanded into the social and environmental justice movements. My hope is that young people who read this book see that with some determination and persistence, change is possible. Plus, Brutus and Ursula’s plight perfectly highlights the struggles animals face in captivity and I wanted to write a book that inspires a new generation to take a hard look at zoos.
You share a lot about your treatment at school and dealing with bullies in “Bear Boy”. Do you think these experiences helped you empathize with the poor treatment of the animals you encountered?
JB: I don’t think I realized that at the time, but as I was writing this book, it became very clear to me that the bullying that so many young people experience is no different than the lack of empathy animals face — particularly ones locked behind bars. You don’t have to be at any zoo long before you witness the same taunting, teasing, laughter, and mockery that runs rampant in school hallways.
Only when I discovered my compassion for animals and the tools to stand up for them was I able to find compassion for myself. That’s when everything changed in my life.
You’ve been an activist for years now. How do you avoid burnout?
JB: Sometimes this work can be overwhelming and pretty daunting. Witnessing animal abuse can take a real toll. Finding mentors and allies is critical to sustaining this work. We need people we can lean on both emotionally and strategically.
We know real lasting change takes years and even decades. Just count how many years and local protests it took to close down Ringling Brother Circus. It’s so important to keep your eyes on the ultimate outcome while celebrating small successes in the direction of change.
Plus, we have to harness our creativity and never forget to have fun. What’s that Emma Goldman quote? “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”.
And don’t forget to drink water!
When your story first went to the national media you received an outpouring of support. Did you receive any negative feedback or antagonism? If so, how did you deal with it?
JB: This story happened long before social media, so I never had to deal with trolls or anything like that. The support I received was all via mail or phone calls — and it was overwhelmingly positive. Oh the ‘90s! Kids at school always had those hypothetical questions they love asking vegans, which I always tried to turn into teaching opportunities.
The biggest challenge I faced was from all of the adults who tried to dismiss my work. If I made a dollar for every “no” I heard over those years, I could have been rich. But that was the secret to the campaign. I was determined to prove all those adults wrong — for the animals.
I’m sure “Bear Boy” will be very inspiring for a lot of young activists. What advice do you have for young activists just starting out?
JB: My biggest advice for young activists is to find global issues they are passionate about and focus on local solutions. There is so much that we can do locally to solve big problems.
For me, the tragedy of keeping animals in cages was something I wanted to do something about, so I went to my local zoo to see what I could do to help the animals there. That activism eventually led to my work standing up for Brutus and Ursula. That very local story allowed me to share my message of compassion and condemnation of captivity to a global audience.
Do you have any other books in the works?
JB: The children’s publishing industry is an unabashed supporter of the zoo industry. It wasn’t until I became a Dad that I realized how many children’s books celebrate keeping animals in cages. All of these children’s stories normalize the incarceration of animals and prime children to go to the zoo. What are we actually teaching children about animals and how might this early exposure to captivity impact our views of the imprisonment of people? I’d like my next book to be geared towards younger kids and for it to be a story that celebrates animals with lighthearted and playful critiques of zoos.
Any advice for fellow vegan writers?
JB: Stop waiting for permission. Agents, traditional publishing deals, and all of those typical gatekeepers so many writers turn to are way overrated. We need to hear more stories about compassion towards all living things and we can’t depend on big, corporate entities to tell or publish our stories. And honestly, I’d encourage any writers who need support to reach out to me. It’s also worth looking for a community. I am part of Sentient Media’s Writer Collective which is a fabulous network of writers and animal allies.
And don’t ever forget …. Your writing is activism.
Justin Barker wants you to stand up for yourself and your fellow earthlings. He loves the Spice Girls and he thinks zoos are the worst. He is a San Francisco-based TV producer, writer, and activist. Justin and his wife, Bridget, are parents to Noah and their rescued pup, Beatrice, and are queer AF. They believe #LoveisLove, #BlackLivesMatter, and thirst for a more just and equitable world.
Bear Boy will be released on June 22, 2021. Preorder your copy here!
Tessa Altman joins Tofu Reader with her favorite titles from Vegan Book Club, the online community dedicated to vegan-related and animal-friendly literature and discussion. Check out Tessa’s book picks and commentary below!
Tessa Altman:As a vegan, it’s almost impossible to pick up a book – especially a novel – and see yourself represented in a positive light. Enter Vegan Book Club, where plant-based bookworms read a variety of fiction and non-fiction that is all vegan-related or animal-friendly and have the chance to discuss those books (and more) with like-minded people. Since Vegan Book Club’s formation nearly two years ago, I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of books – genres and authors that I would have never bothered to pick up previously. Of course, I rate some of these books higher than others, so here are a few books we’ve read that I think are absolute must-reads!
My Year of Meatsby Ruth Ozeki
TA: Ruth Ozeki’s debut may have been published in 1998, but it’s still wildly relevant today, forcing readers to take a hard look at our plates. What are we eating? How exactly was it produced? How do the hormones given to livestock impact us as humans? These are important questions to ask, and My Year of Meats does so while analyzing the differences between Japanese and American culture, with a vegetarian couple featured as a bonus.
Esther the Wonder Pig by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter with Caprice Crane
TA: Is there a more heartwarming presence on social media than Esther the Wonder Pig? Take a look at Esther’s Instagram and tell me you don’t want to learn more about her. Esther the Wonder Pig is filled with equal parts wit and heart and provides an excellent primer on compassion.
Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
TA: Like a Love Story isn’t the norm, as far as Vegan Book Club picks go – it takes no particular stance on animal rights, but one of the main characters happens to be a vegetarian – but I’d argue that this YA novel is essential reading. Set in 1989, Abdi Nazemian’s debut novel tackles some heavy issues: homophobia, sexuality, AIDS, first love, first heartbreak…Like a Love Story is, in a word, powerful.
Always Too Much and Never Enough by Jasmin Singer
TA: Always Too Much and Never Enough details vegan writer, podcaster, and activist Jasmin Singer’s efforts to find herself. When Singer first went vegan, she defied the “skinny vegan” stereotypes and eventually realized that, for as much compassion she had for animals, she didn’t have a whole lot of that for herself. At its core, Always Too Much and Never Enough is, all at once, witty, painful, and inspiring.
Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
TA: Octavia E. Butler pulls no punches in Dawn, the first novel in her Xenogenesis trilogy, and certainly doesn’t shy away from the anti-meat attitudes. Butler exposes us to a unique brand of aliens, who, despite having livestock, refuse to eat animals and won’t let the humans eat them either. It’s fascinating really, as the entire series explores themes of sexuality, gender, and race as well – all essential for an intersectional approach to veganism.
Sistah Vegan by A. Breeze Harper
TA: Veganism is often perceived as a rich, white person thing, and it’s no surprise why: more often than not white people are at the center of the movement. That’s why it’s important for books like Sistah Vegan to exist. Here, A. Breeze Harper provides a space for Black-identified female vegans to discuss their personal experiences and thoughts on health, animal rights, and liberation for all.
Tessa Altman is a reader, writer, and vegan who loves an animal-friendly protagonist. After reading one too many novels portraying vegans/vegetarians in a negative light, she founded Vegan Book Club, an online community for plant-based bookworms.
Will Staples, the screenwriter perhaps best known for his work on the videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and the upcoming Amazon Original Without Remorse, makes his first foray into novel writing with Animals. Clearly a passion project for Staples, Animals revolves around a rotating narrative of characters impacted by and participating in exotic animal exploitation. Animals is a gritty, dark, well-researched exposé of global animal trafficking that would appease any John Grisham fan. And, yet, despite the detailed attention paid to the logistics of animal trafficking, Staples’ portrayal of women, and particularly Chinese women, leaves something to be desired.
Staples tells the intertwined stories of a park ranger-turned-vigilante, an insurance agent profiting in the world of zoos, a government agent determined to make the connection between foreign terrorism and animal trafficking, and a mother who turns to alternative medicine to treat her dying son. Staples creates a fascinating, terrifying illustration of the underground crime world of animal trafficking and exploitation. Details of the trade are artfully interwoven without becoming dry or tiresome. One debate on endangered species between two main characters, held over a serving of bluefin, is particularly poignant. Staples is clearly passionate about the subject of animal exploitation. Unfortunately, he is not nearly as impassioned about the representation of women in Animals.
Though the representation of female characters in Animals is certainly no reason to disavow an otherwise competent work, it is an important note to keep in mind. Audrey, a mother whose sense of normalcy has degraded along with the health of her son, is notably the most hollow of the four primary perspectives in Animals. Her character shift is extreme and never seems fully justified. Perhaps she would be more believable if more time was dedicated to her development and less to the multiple descriptions of pubescent teenage girls. In one particularly uncomfortable passage Staples writes of a character, “…struck by the juxtaposition of the attractive, mature-looking teen and her room with its toy-themed bedding”. In another Staples describes a brothel where “skinny teenage girls [linger] in their shrink-wrapped cocktail dresses and ice pick heels”. And yet, despite a few descriptive pitfalls, Animals is, admittedly, a pretty great read.
Animals is the perfect introduction to the ins and outs of the animal trafficking industry. Staples provides great insight and is able to effectively capture the perspectives of the many players in the business. Animals is an intense, fast-paced thriller that is sure to leave readers with a better understanding of animal trafficking and, ideally, a new motivation to fight this horrific industry.
The term “animal rights advocate” tends to conjure a very specific image in most people’s minds; an outspoken, overbearing, argumentative and often affluent caricature. Though this image may not apply to the vast majority of advocates, it does describe Henry Bergh, the godfather of the animal rights movement in the United States. Author Ernest Freeberg’s depiction of Henry Bergh in A Traitor to His Species:Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement is one of a complex, eccentric man dedicated to making the lives of animals just slightly more tolerable.
Bergh was by no means a perfect advocate. Freeberg clearly outlines Bergh’s misogyny, classism, and view of meat consumption as a “necessary evil”. And yet, without Bergh’s tenacity, an alternate future for the animal rights movement is difficult to imagine. Freeberg’s vivid writing tells us the story of a stubborn man determined to lead with moral authority. Comprehensive research paired with great storytelling weaves a fascinating narrative of the various public trials and feuds in which Bergh seemed to compulsively engage. Each chapter of A Traitor to His Species covers one piece of the puzzle for animal rights. From dog fighting to methods of transporting turtles to the treatment of carriage horses, A Traitor to His Species flawlessly encompasses the life and work of Henry Bergh.
Freeberg artfully toes the line between critical reflection and admiration that every biographist must manage. In one section, Freeberg traces the linear journey from Bergh’s advocacy for removing animal slaughter from public view to increased meat consumption and a lack of empathy for animals deemed “livestock”. In another chapter, Freeberg discusses Bergh’s brief work as an advocate against cruelty to children for, in Bergh’s mind, “children are animals”. No advocate for any cause will ever be perfect and that is okay. Freeberg’s portrayal of Bergh’s imperfection is wholly honest and his insight is fascinating. A Traitor to His Species is a must-read for animal rights advocates and history buffs alike.
Poet, educator, and indie book seller Gretchen Primack has spent years advocating for the rights and welfare of non-human animals. Primack’s latest release, Kind, is a beautiful, absolutely necessary collection of poetry exploring the relationship between humans, the environment, and animals.
You currently teach poetry workshops to incarcerated persons. Do you find that there is any connection between our food system and our prison system?
Gretchen Primack: Absolutely. I think both systems are very much about power and hubris–and how dangerous the two are when combined. As soon as we see some as lesser and some as greater, some as more worthy and some as less worthy, we’re in dangerous territory. Our prison system is the result of people thinking black, brown, and poor people are lesser; our food system is the result of people thinking (other) animals are lesser. The justice system and food system we would create without these huge power differentials would be completely different. If we have inherent respect, we don’t exploit the same way.
The new release of Kind is a reprint, including several new poems and added artwork. What was it like to return to this book after several years?
GP: An utter pleasure! I’ve been doing readings from Kind all along, so the poems were still alive for me, but the opportunity to transform the collection through new poems and new art gave me real joy. Lantern Publishing did a gorgeous job with it, and gave me freedom to create work and welcome artists that would add so much.
There are so many wonderful poems in this collection. One of my personal favorites is “God’s Glory”, which emphasizes the need to recognize the value of all creatures – regardless of size. Where do you find inspiration?
GP: I’m so glad you love “God’s Glory”! It’s actually the cornerstone of the collection, the first one I wrote for this book! I found inspiration for it in a sad true story. I was doing a month-long residency at an artists’ colony, tucked away in Vermont with several other artists and writers, when I overheard a fellow resident talking about the fact that he’d killed a mouse in “his” room the night before. I thought, your room? This was much more that mouse’s house than yours, seeing as you’ll be packing to go soon from this temporary residency; the other mice will be here after, down a family member because of your hubris and domination. (There’s the power I was talking about above.) I sat down to write and ended up with “God’s Glory.”
When I write, I’m trying to explore a situation’s dynamics through art. In that case, I was moved by frustration and anger. Sometimes I’m propelled by other feelings: love, loneliness, grief, impotence, awe. Really looking at a leaf or a bird, thinking about the death of a beloved pet, brimming over with love for my beloved: all can lead to poems.
The artwork throughout the book is beautiful. How did you select these art pieces to accompany your poetry?
GP: Because I’m drawn to other genres as much as poetry, I’ve had the honor of knowing several vegan artists and having their art on my walls. I knew Dana Ellyn’s and Jane O’hara’s visions would make sense in conversation with these poems. The third artist, Gus Mueller, is…well…my husband! So in his case I commissioned pieces for specific poems (for the other artists, I chose existing pieces that harmonized).
What do you hope for readers to take away from Kind, particularly those that may be completely new to animal rights and veganism?
GP: I very much want people to think about what their choices around animals mean—where they come from, who they serve, how well they do or don’t reflect their values. We’re taught over and over, directly and indirectly, that other species are below us, that we deserve to dominate. That’s not true, it’s just what we’re fed, and for very good reason if we’re lazy thinkers or if we’re part of the power structures that rely on that premise (circuses, clothing companies, food companies, restaurants, grocery stores, pharmaceutical companies, I could go on).
Imagine a world where we’re kind. Where we care about what our choices mean for other species. Where we put our energy into finding alternatives for the cruelty and environmental destruction that we consider normal. The world would be utterly and beautifully changed.
These poems yearn for that world. They undermine hubris and reach for humility and kindness. They envision that world, they illuminate it, they challenge the reader to imagine it, too, and be part of a transformation.
Do you find catharsis in using your writing to promote animal rights?
GP: Caring about animals can feel so overwhelming. I feel most at peace when I’m working toward a different world. Being vegan helps me in this regard, but so does writing and getting the poems into the world where they can be a small part of change, of an arc bent toward justice.
Any other books currently in the works?
GP: I’m so busy concentrating on this one, I haven’t turned my attention to new projects! But hopefully soon….
Any advice for fellow vegan poets?
GP: Write vegan poems! All of us in the animal activism world need to use our skills, tools, and talents. If you’re a filmmaker, make vegan films. If you’re a plumber, give free plumbing to animal organizations. If you’re a PR person, do PR around animal issues. If you’re a poet, write vegan poems! Humans are complicated, so we don’t know what’s going to move a particular person and spur change. A documentary? A speech? A cooking class? A poem? We need all options readily available so that we can reach as many people as possible.
Gretchen Primack is a poet, educator, and indie bookseller living in New York’s Hudson Valley. She has taught and/or administrated with prison education programs (mostly college) since 2006.
She’s the author of three poetry collections: Kind (Lantern Publishing), which explores the dynamic between humans and other animals in our time and place; Visiting Days (Willow Books), which imagines a maximum-security men’s NYS prison like the ones where she’s taught; and Doris’ Red Spaces (Mayapple Press), a more personal collection; along with a chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets (Finishing Line). She co-wrote The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animalswith Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary co-founder Jenny Brown (Penguin Avery).