A conversation between Chiara Ambrosio, co-founder of independent childrens’ book publishing house Child Be Strange, and Oliver R. Cheetham, author of Roger The Elephant.
Roger the elephant was a buffalo: Or at least that’s what his parents told him, and he’d never known them to be wrong…
Chiara: Your book is about a more innocent way of looking and connecting to the world as a place to protect, rather than to extract from. How would you introduce it to readers?
Oliver: It’s the story of an elephant who is orphaned and is brought up by a family of buffaloes. To begin with he thinks that he is a buffalo, so the book follows a story of discovery in terms of who he is, but also an adventure story set along the classic narratives of Homeric epics: the animals lose their home and have to venture into the wilderness to find a new one. There they discover how much the world has changed: the forest has now turned into desert, the animals have all gone, and there are signs that something is terribly wrong with human civilization, although you never meet a human in the book – this reference to climate change remains from the animals’ perspective only. I made a particular point of there being no nations or borders mentioned. That was a key element.
Chiara: Humans exist as a quasi-mythological spectre that has this terrible destructive force on the world and is obviously responsible for its devastation. It’s particularly resonant to me at a time when everyone is trying to decline direct responsibility for what is happening.
Oliver: There’s a point in the book where the animals see a human city burning in the distance; all they know about humans is that they can do almost anything that they choose to, and therefore they must have chosen to set this place on fire and bring this crisis upon themselves. It all seems to come down to a question of choice.
Chiara: I’ve jokingly referred to your book as an animal version of “The Road”, but while Cormac McCarthy’s novel is full of the horror of a deranged humanity that has turned on itself when it reached the end of its resources, your story posits a natural world maintaining an equilibrium: despite the decline in resources, the animals interact with honour and humanity, in the best sense of the word. What’s your take on that?
Oliver: The animals in the book have problems very familiar to humans: they constantly argue, undermine each other, struggle for dominance, are preyed upon and are fearful at times. They are portrayed as recognisably human emotionally, and they are intentionally anthropomorphised. I wanted children to see themselves reflected back in the characters of the story and identify with them. But of course, buffalo don’t have technology. Or geo-politics. A herd of buffalo will never have to negotiate with, say, another herd of buffalo across the other side of the world armed with weapons of mass destruction. In other words, they live simply – according to their daily needs. The consistency of their behaviour means they can live harmoniously within their environment, whether they fight or not. They’re part of an ecosystem that effectively self-regulates and maintains balance. Of course humans, with our cleverness and technology, have been able to spread to every corner of the planet and gobble up ever more resources by finding ways around that self-regulating system. Or at least, we think we have. In the book, although we never meet a single ‘upright’ (the name for humans), it is made clear that human society is undergoing some kind of catastrophe ‘off-stage’. I imagine this as the tipping point being reached, where it turns out that we are vulnerable to ecological self-regulation after all.
Chiara: Like your animals, children too retain that innocence, moving and acting because of need and instinct. And in addressing children I guess your book is talking to the portion of our society that is perhaps the best able to still act in harmony with their beliefs, like Greta Thunberg does, for example, with a view towards a collective good. Are your children aware of the problems of the world they live in?
Oliver: Absolutely, very much so, and it affects them deeply. My eldest daughters, who are now 15 and 12, live in a constant state of anxiety because of the climate. Although they’ve become vegetarian, the worst part of it is that they don’t feel like they have any real agency: they’ve seen the adults messing everything up and feel incredibly frustrated and disappointed by their sustained denial. It will be interesting to see, when they grow up and get to a position where they can do something about it, whether their generation will act differently.
Chiara: There’s a transgression at the heart of your book – a transgression of order, gender, even species – of anything that is supposed to give you an idea of stability and safety. And this is always a very meaningful way to encounter any reality: you have to accept some truths about the world in order to recalibrate your own sense of yourself.
Oliver: Roger is a young elephant whose own sense of self has been thrown up in the air as he discovers he isn’t what he always thought he was. Moreover, he discovers his parents aren’t his biological parents, so the whole book, in some sense, is about him having to learn what it means to be an elephant without a role model, since he’s never met an elephant before – could he be the last elephant left on earth? And that brings upon a great sense of loneliness, which flows through the entire book.
Chaira: This extreme sense of loneliness haunts me greatly, particularly when I think of the world that my young daughter is just getting to know now; with the extinction of so many species rampant, her world is bound to keep shrinking bit by bit, and I wonder what will be lost in that shrinkage – not just one species after another, but also our ability to empathise and accommodate for a variety of gloriously different existences that all have equal right to the spaces that we inhabit. A shrinkage of tenderness, and curiosity. But what I find hopeful about your book is that, in the face of destruction, there is a real curiosity that pushes Roger to continue onwards with hope. What place does existential threat take in your book?
Oliver: My book, which is set in the near future, never points out directly to what’s going on, but you can see the effects of it: burnt out cars, abandoned cities on fire, collapsed electricity pylons, tales of human mass-migration across the plains. So we know that things are falling apart, and for me that’s just a logical consequence of the crisis we’re going through now; whether through the scarcity of food supplies, or war that’s created fighting over diminishing resources, there’s a sense that we are cutting the branch of the tree of life that we are sitting on. Climate crisis is a multi-pronged assault on the earth: microplastics in the waters, the denuding of the animal kingdom, no fish left in the seas, toxic chemicals and pollution. It’s a massive issue that requires us to recalibrate our whole approach on both an individual and societal level.
Chiara: At the end of the book hope comes, albeit with a measure of menace, which feels very much in tune with our times.
Oliver: Yes; it’s a paradise that can be stamped out in a moment. But the animals encounter many small havens throughout the book, which is a way to think that however terrible the mass destruction, there might always be the hope that a seed of life could continue to flower somewhere.
Chiara: A culture of resistance, or of lucky survivors biding their time?
Oliver: There is a scene where Roger and his friend meet the last survivor of a species of monkey, a tragicomic figure of great wisdom that has had to adapt to dramatic change, and now lives amongst a community of parrots that assist him, feed him, and carry him through the air since he is too old to walk. So there is a sense that everything has changed, but there is still life, and hope, just in a different way.
Chiara: Your book is a wonderful reminder of that which is extremely precious and cannot be replaced because its value has accrued in time: a species, an ecosystem, you can’t just replace those. And yet – I read that they have just discovered a new, untouched coral reef! And there’s a side of me that’s jubilant, and a side of me that is terrified by the thought of what we might do to it…
Oliver: The earth is a different place for animals. We’ve humanised land, divided it up into little parcels that we can choose to cover in asphalt, simply because we own them. We need to ask what right we have to do that, because that little square is actually teeming with life. Why shouldn’t we worry about respecting and taking care of it, rather than owning it? That applies both to nation states and individuals.
Chiara: That’s why I appreciate the shift in perception that occurs in your book. Ever since I discovered that a bee produces just one spoonful of honey in its entire lifetime, I’ve become deeply mindful of each drop of honey that I eat. It’s a staggering equivalence, that image of one buzzing bee, and a teaspoon of honey: a real measure of the labour of a life.
Oliver: And the labour that goes into everything in fact. If you think about how much it costs to make a cup of tea – where does the teacup come from, where does the power come from, and the tea-leaves? All the life and the effort that has gone into that. But we live in a culture of waste and excessive consumerism, and that’s the first thing that has to change, because we don’t understand the real value of anything any more.
Chiara: Also the idea of a collective consciousness, that we are all wired together across species. Anything that makes you understand that the atoms that form you are the same that form the earth, or the stars, is very powerful. I guess books like yours make you able to embody a different perspective and feel what another person, or species feel. In children’s stories in particular the world is alive, coral sings, and when you become alert to this fact, you will think twice before stamping on an ant.
Oliver: Yes, it’s an exercise in radical empathy, because we’re subverting both capitalistic ideals and Judaeo-Christian ideals, both of which place us above the animals whether though ownership, privilege or essence.
We are – all of us – the consciousness of the planet. We are able to think and feel remarkable things but who are we doing that for? Is it for ourselves or rather for existence, or the planet itself?
Roger the Elephant is available here.
Oliver R. Cheetham has worked in film and television, documentaries, theatre and books. He lives in south east London with his wife, four young daughters, Elsa the cat and Io the tortoise.
Chiara Ambrosio is a London-based filmmaker and visual artist, working across moving image, photography, printmaking and radio broadcast. She is the co-founder of Child Be Strange, a new children’s press that introduces children to the incendiary power of independent thought through idiosyncratic adventures that celebrate dream, dissonance and otherness.