Author of Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted novel ‘The Bees’ Laline Paul shares her thoughts on zoomorphism, ice, and how stories open new worlds of possibility.
You are one of the few writers who has written for adults from the perspective of non-human creatures. What led to you make that leap of the imagination, and how do people feel when they read a novel with no human characters in it?
It feels natural to zoomorphise myself into a variety of creatures. Perhaps imaginatively inhabiting another creature’s being, is a psychic filament that has somehow sustained from childhood.
An early memory is lying on a hot pavement studying the two-way passage of a line of ants, until my parents forced me to get up and do something less weird. I noticed how the ants would pause and so very obviously communicate with each other. How if one was accidentally damaged, by my crude and curious blade of grass, there would be a guilt-inducing commotion around the wounded one.
When I was slightly older and visiting relatives in India, I would be given many young animals to keep me occupied. I overheard the instruction to take them to market on the day we were leaving, and I was so ashamed that the animals had trusted me but I had failed to protect them.
The natural world is in our keeping – but ‘natural capital’ is a phrase that makes my heart sink. We need to recognise what ‘man’s dominion’ has led to, and turn that knowledge into political energy for change. ‘Endless growth’ is the modus operandi favoured by short-sighted shareholders, capitalism, colonialism, and cancer. It leads to collapse and death.
I’m not sure what I want readers to experience or think if they read me, except to enjoy the story. But I do know it is vital that I myself believe the truth in what I’m writing, and so my research is crucial to the energy that sustains and propels the work. If I can tell a psychologically truthful story that is anchored in fact, that’s as much as I can hope for.
How did your childhood shape your relationship with the natural world?
I have a postcard on my study wall that says “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. While I don’t actually believe that, I like the idealism. My earliest best friends, nurses, shrinks, playmates and confidantes, had fur, feathers, claws, tails, wings, hooves – and my early and subsequent reading of the mythologies of different cultures confirms the normality of this. Perhaps introverts meet more psychopomps.
What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?
We should take care not to fetishize the natural world, nor to exalt ‘nature writing’ to a place where it gives the impression that certain people are innately more sensitive to nature than others. We are all human animals: the natural world is our first country and no one has more claim to it than anyone else. We are becoming increasingly aware of our connection to our primal home and each day I notice the natural world featuring more prominently in the media. I am still very hopeful we can arrest the catastrophic plunge toward extinction of so many species, because we are realising at the very last moment what we are losing. We must be prepared to look at what causes pain, and to bear that knowledge, if we are to change how we live for the better. And we can celebrate victories large and small. Writers, artists, film-makers, sculptors and musicians, can all fan that empathic fire.
At September’s XR Writers Rebel event in London, when we gathered outside 55 Tufton Street in public protest at the climate-change denial of the influential and secretive think-tanks within, Caroline Lucas spoke with characteristic precision and candour. One of her most compelling points was that writers and artists are important now as never before, because the way we treat this world is at its root, a fundamental failure of the imagination.
So let us generate empathy for the natural world, with the best stories we can tell.
Readers of my novel The Bees reported their astonishment that they came to not only identify with a bee, but wept at the end, and they now look at these essential pollinators in a whole new light. Yet some readers commented that events in its follow-up, The Ice, are too far-fetched. That governments “don’t behave like that,” and such situations don’t exist outside James Bond. It is still strange to me that it can be easier to identify with a bee than to accept the documented facts, that humans are prepared to ruin the Arctic in pursuit of profit.
Fiction has its vital place at the table of public discourse. But right now what I find myself consuming most avidly is tough, brave, persistent journalism. Tell the truth straight, and we can get round to telling it slant once we know the facts. And can bear to accept them.
And here’s what all of us can do: pay for the truth while it’s still an option. If you use Wikipedia, contribute. If you go to sources of good journalism that are struggling to balance the books, subscribe to them while they still exist.
Is there a specific thought or idea that motivates you into taking action over the climate and ecological emergency?
What frightens me most is my knee-jerk reaction to turn away from the truth when it’s too painful, when I am overwhelmed with ‘environmental grief’. Sometimes I have to look away, because I just can’t bear to take in any more petitions, terrible videos, awful statistics, and the last living white rhinos. So I try to focus on a few things I can cope with, and support them. Writing a book about honeybees took me into the pollination crisis, which took me to climate change, which took me to the Arctic, which took me to the oceans, which made me have to write my third novel. And ‘have to’ is not an exaggeration.
What is the most powerful piece of writing that you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?
In the mosaic of writings that have moved me, educated me, or enraged me with naked statistics of inequality, injustice and indifference, I would include in the first category Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez; in the second This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (with particular reference to her theory of the Sacrifice Zone); and in the third: military and business reports which assert the lack of evidence between cetacean strandings, and war games and/or prospecting for gas and oil in the sea bed.
When researching The Ice, I was invited into or gatecrashed many different worlds that were operating in the Arctic. One extremely powerful moment was sitting in a marine re-reinsurance conference, in which there was neither surprise nor dismay about the statistically inevitable shipping disasters that will occur along the new and ice-free Arctic trade route. Instead of horror over these predicted ecological disasters, there was energetic debate about how to minimize the enormous insurance claims that would follow. Then we all went to the bar and these bloodless profit-generating professionals turned back into charming intelligent people, each with a plausible reason to remain involved in the degradation of the Arctic.
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?
The pandemic has added a new perspective to the climate change crisis. Lockdown forced me to recognise some obsessive–compulsive behaviours to do with consumerism and social media, both of which I felt a sudden aversion to. That aversion has lasted.
This might be a terrible sexist generalisation so I won’t say ‘women think about food a lot’ but only that I do. And the spectre of food scarcity and panic buying caused me to reconsider every mouthful. The experience of trying to grow a few vegetables, let alone fantasise about self-sufficiency, was a wonderful and also humbling experience. A lot of people I know were trying to do the same and we were talking about food a lot. There are some wonderful food writers around, and I read them – Hattie Ellis is one I recommend. My quest to understand more of the economics and practicalities of food is a work in progress.
My vision for a regenerative future is one of more sharing of resources, with less philanthropy from on high, and an enhanced sense of mutual obligation, even though that road (in its worst incarnation) can also lead to Animal Farm. Empathy is the quality our society needs to develop. It should be a quality we vote for in our politicians. I envy New Zealanders a leader like Jacinta Ardern.
We hear ‘the economy’ mentioned countless times a day – but whose economy, and for what? The Greek root of the word comes from the compound of both oikos meaning house, and nemein, manage. Our house is this world – the natural as well as man-made and man-destroyed. We have grown dulled and inured to the misuse of so much language. As writers, we have a responsibility to reinstate subtlety and nuance through our use of it.
How can stories and poems help us better understand the emergency?
Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. Keeping up to date, and if you suffer from dyscalculia i.e. the numerical version of dyslexia (my hand is up) then it can be hard to have a cogent and robust debate with someone determined to use figures to bludgeon you to your snowflaky knees. So I rely on keeping track of those writers who can digest and represent the truth to me – no small act of faith. The brilliant George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, are two of those I turn to. I’m not sure any stories or poems can help me more than the sight of a butterfly drying its wings, or the presence of a beautiful tree. But then Shakespeare, so…
“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” (As You Like It)
Can you tell us a personal story that changed the way you think about the world?
This will sound solipsistic but it is the true answer: the success of The Bees gave me the confidence to believe that my passionate care for the natural world had a place in story and in the man-made world. I realised it is possible to fill up on facts until the story floats. And then a new world of possibility opened up to me.
CALL TO ACTION: I will only say what I try to do, which is to eat less meat and cook delicious plant-based meals for the carnivores in my life. As soon as I can afford it, I will be changing to an electric car. And last but not least, support good journalism and Wikipedia, with a donation or subscription. Free speech, freedom of the press, and access to information at the click of a button, is under threat. It is worth paying to defend it.
Laline Paull is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Her first novel The Bees, an adult animal fantasy based in sound science, is published in 26 languages and has been optioned by the National Theatre. Her second novel The Ice is set in the surreal contemporary world of Arctic geopolitics, once again based in fact but strangely, considered fantastical. Her new novel, Pod, is set in the Indian Ocean and is another adult animal fantasy with science DNA.