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.  

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