We are all of us animals

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s debut collection roars, screeches and stuns.

 

On the first page of Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s debut story collection, What We Fed to the Manticore, I fell in love with the donkey in Gaza City, who, much to his embarrassment, finds himself being painted by his beloved owner, Hafiz, to resemble a zebra. Hafiz is building a zoo to bring joy to the city, he explains, because “children are still children, you know. Even in times like this.” But he cannot afford a real zebra, let alone get one through the checkpoints. So the good donkey sacrifices his own identity and endures the painted stripes, the strange new enclosure and the children reaching through the bars. 

Next, I fell for a tiger roving through looking-glass mangrove trees in the Sundarbans, searching for something, anything, to eat as the water turns saltier and the prey disappears. So palpable is his hunger, which grows by the day, that I can feel his ribs, can taste the dust through the pages. 

One by one, I fell in love with each of Kolluri’s nine animal narrators as they soared, hunted, screeched and dove through their stories, experiencing joy and loss, contemplating identity and confronting the realities of a changing world. Throughout the collection, Kolluri’s vivid prose has the precision of a tuning fork, and each animal narrator offers the reader a rare intimacy with a slice of transforming earth. Human beings appear, too — occasionally offering friendship and kindness, and at other times haunting the edges of the wild with their cities, boats, missiles and traps. Climate change is ever-present: Ice melts, storms surge, bombs fall, viruses spread and drought creeps. 

Each animal seems to exist in a space between loss and adaptation, between grief and survival. And by now, who among us isn’t familiar with this space, as Europe endures an unprecedented heatwave, as cellphone footage shows another coastal house buckling into the ocean, the Colorado River reservoirs falling to new lows, and the pandemic rears its head and strikes again? 

A lifelong Californian, Kolluri says she often thinks about adaptation as the West grows hotter and drier. She was 6 years old when she first she saw the mountains burning from her childhood home in the Bay Area. She remembers the dramatic smoky sunsets over the Santa Cruz Mountains, her mother worrying, the family driving up to see the scars of the fire after it finally went out. “It loomed really large in my memory,” says Kolluri. “But when I went back to look it up later, I was astonished by how small it was relatively.” Nowadays, she spends nine months each year studying the California fire maps from her home in Fresno, keeping tabs on family members who are spread throughout the state. And always she worries for the animals — mountain lions, deer, birds — who can’t get out in time. 

“How would a wolf describe a truck or a gun if she’s never seen one before? How would a bird who’s never left the city she lives in describe an elevated rail line?” 

Fire doesn’t appear in What We Fed to the Manticore, however. It just felt “too close to the bone,” explains Kolluri. Instead, she has unleashed a host of other catastrophes that demonstrate our planet’s increasing precariousness. Kolluri deliberately transports us around the world, from the bustling streets of Delhi to the grasslands of a Kenyan wildlife sanctuary, from the Arctic tundra to the open ocean. Global linkages matter, she explains: “The fires in the American West will affect the air quality in New York. Warming ocean temperatures can change the makeup of sea life in a completely different ocean.” She pauses. “It’s no longer possible to behave as though we can make decisions in our local communities and that they don’t have any impact on anybody else.” 

Ultimately, Kolluri’s decision to inhabit the minds and bodies of animals feels courageous and new, not at all cheesy or two-dimensional like the talking animals in so many children’s cartoons. Rather, each of Kolluri’s animals is a fully realized individual, driven by instinct, intellect and love, standing at the precipice of events that challenge their understanding of self and the world. And, somehow, they are able to say what human narrators cannot. 

When she began writing from animal perspectives, Kolluri says she experienced a kind of liberation. Suddenly, emotional honesty unfurled on the page, in sharp contrast with the vulnerability she felt when writing from the human perspective. Through animals, she could say anything she’d ever thought or felt before — about joy, belonging, grief, identity — however messy or complicated. 

What We Fed to the Manticore took 10 years to write, Kolluri says, largely because she kept getting sucked into research, deepening her understanding of tiger communities or bird behavior. As an avid documentary watcher and consumer of science journalism, Kolluri says many of the stories were inspired by reports of real events: An Atlantic article about the deaths of 200,000 saiga antelope in Central Asia, reporting from the Guardian about the last male northern white rhinoceros, a National Geographic profile of a military dog sled team in the Arctic. 

Kate Samworth/High Country News

Kolluri has always been intensely curious about the inner lives of animals, and though she admits that some readers might take issue with anthropomorphizing, she says, “I just can’t accept the idea that they don’t have complex emotions, that they don’t have rich inner lives. And so, since I can’t ask them how they feel, I’m answering that question for myself.” 

In her author’s note, Kolluri writes, “How would a wolf describe a truck or a gun if she’s never seen one before? How would a bird who’s never left the city she lives in describe an elevated rail line? What does a devastating cyclone feel like to a tiger? What does the noise of a container ship do to the underwater world of a blue whale?” 

Let us return to the good donkey, paint dripping down his legs, humiliation blooming in his chest as he is transformed into a fake zebra. One painted donkey can bring some joy to children who have been plagued by war, but he cannot keep the war away. “Let me tell you a thing about tragedy,” the donkey laments. “At first, every one of the missiles is shocking. You don’t know if you will survive. If you can lose anyone else without losing yourself. And then it becomes ordinary.” 

Perhaps the most surprising member of Kolluri’s animal cast is the deeply spiritual vulture, who is tasked with cleaning the bones of the dead to ensure their safe passage to the next world. On the day we meet him, the vulture is overwhelmed by an entire herd of saiga antelope, all suffering from a mysterious illness. As far as the eye can see, the animals are lying dead across the steppe — “Thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Perhaps all the saiga in the world.” There are far too many for the vultures to clean. As a result, many of the saiga will not go to the beyond, a horrifying thought for our vulture. When he picks away their flesh, he tastes their stories — the story of the illness that devastated the herd, the story of each individual life. 

What We Fed to the Manticore allows readers to glimpse the many animals in ourselves. “In the end, I did what I hope my readers will do,” Kolluri writes in her author’s note. “I dissolved the distance in my mind between myself and the wild world, which helped me understand that the story of my life includes the story of all the life that surrounds us.” 

We are all of us pigeons, dogs, donkeys, polar bears and whales trying to find our way. We are all of us humans haunting the edges of a story. Like the vulture, this is a book that picks us clean so that we may go beyond.  

Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.  

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...