Writing An Ethics Beyond: Posthumanist Animal Encounters and Variable Kindness in the Fiction of George Saunders

I first met American author George Saunders while living in Dallas, Texas. He was in town promoting Tenth of December, the short story collection that would solidify him as one of the greatest living short fiction authors and, arguably, the greatest living American short fiction author. He signed a copy of the book for me and asked if I was also a writer. A bit bashfully, I responded yes. He said that the writing world is small and that he was sure our paths would cross again.

A couple years after meeting Saunders, after having spent the past five years working two adjunct faculty positions at two colleges spread out over four campuses while also tutoring on the side, I made the decision to pursue the most woeful of degrees, a PhD in Humanities. At the time, I had assumed it help me land a full-time position, but that’s another topic. What I did do—and which has been a bit of a double-edged sword (Spoiler Alert: as of this writing, I have a published book but still teach as an adjunct)—was decide to pursue my PhD abroad, specifically at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.

Moving to Barcelona fulfilled a dream of living in Spain that I’d held since I’d first visited nine years earlier. Although I now consider myself as having been a resident of Catalonia (again, another topic, and a rather political one), I eventually encountered Dr. Pere Gifra, who served as my advisor and, in many ways, my first editor, as he guided me through the crafting of what would become a publishable thesis. When I met Pere, I had not yet settled on a specific thesis but had delivered a paper on a short story by Saunders, “93990,” at an MLA conference in Atlanta. I was interested in exploring how nonhuman animals appear in fiction, but it was at Pere’s urging that I chose to focus strictly on the fiction of Saunders.

It may seem strange to move to Barcelona to write a book about an American author, but I believe this experience also helped me to gain a sense of how it feels to be an Other, or at least an outsider, while also providing me enough distance from the culture I was born into and enough difference from the culture I was born into that I was able to observe American culture in a sort of distilled way. Also, during this time, a very controversial man became president of the United States, which imparted a bit more urgency to my writing, along with the violence I witnessed being condoned by the Spanish government against the Catalonian citizens who turned out to cast “illegal” votes to determine Catalan independence.

After a year’s preparation, which included writing the proposal, it took about two years to write the thesis (I’ve been working on my own collection of short stories for about a decade, so I’m not sure what this proves). During what would have been my final year in Barcelona, I had to return to the United States, as I could no longer afford to live abroad, due to the difficulty of obtaining a job that wasn’t a grant, which I got through the university to mentor undergrads in English but only lasted two semesters, or “under the table,” which I did by offering a Meetup called “Reading for Creative Writing” and which got me published in RHNK (thank you, Nazlī). Aside from what made my spouse earned as an editor for a Russian website, my parents had been supporting me.

I moved back in with them and ended up writing the rest of the thesis in my old bedroom, at the same desk where I’d once avoided my homework in high school by writing poetry. Meanwhile, I tutored in the afternoons at a tutoring center where I also taught Spanish on Saturdays, after spending the rest of the day working for my half-brother at a Christmas tree farm. When the Christmas tree farm closed for the season, I began substitute teaching for an elementary school district, a job I had held over a decade before and which brought me to the same elementary school I had gone to as a child. My usual schedule was to work all day and then come home and write in the evening for two to four hours. I applied to dozens of full-time positions and only received one interview, which was conducted virtually with no actual person on the other end. Someone, I assumed, would view it later, and I thought I had a sporting chance, since I’d once taught there as an adjunct. I never heard back. Also, my spouse and I had discovered we were pregnant. It would become the first of three miscarriages that year, the final one ending in a traumatic hospitalization. Through it all, I continued writing. I had a deadline to meet, after all.

My tribunal was scheduled for 4 July, 2018, an auspicious day considering the topic of my thesis. My spouse and I had already been in Barcelona for a few days, as I had needed to arrive early to meet with Pere and finish some paperwork. Being back in Barcelona felt like being back home. Both of us would live there if we could; we have many good friends there and the people tend to appreciate living over working. Still, we would have to be able to support ourselves to live there, which is not an easy task if you are from outside the Schengen area and want to do things legally. I half-joked with my spouse that morning about how I would be offered a publishing deal and a job. As it turns, I was offered one of the two, and although it wasn’t a job, I am more proud to have now fulfilled a long-term dream: to publish a book. Granted, I thought it would be a fiction, but a first book is a first book.

Pere had strategically brought in Carme Manuel, the director of la Biblioteca Javier Coy d’estudis nord-americans (Javier Coy Library of North American Studies), a series published by one of the top university presses in Spain, Publicacions de la Universitat de València. After the tribunal’s decision to pass me “Excellent Cum Laude”—yes, I have a document that states that I passed “Excellent Cum Laude”—, Carme asked if she might publish, with some revision, the thesis. I spent the next several months revising the text, and although we had hoped to have it out by the end of 2018—and might have, had the contract not got lost in the mail—it is available in time for 23 April, el Día de Sant Jordi (St. George’s Day), a day on which the tradition holds that a man gives a woman a rose and a woman gives a man a book, although the sexism of that tradition has now fallen by the wayside, as women also purchase books from the many booksellers that line la Rambla. The date also marks the deaths of Miguel Cervantes and William Shakespeare, who both died on the same date in the year 1616.

As I’ve been writing this post, reflecting back on the years that led to this book, I am filled with many emotions: sadness, joy, anger, longing. My spouse and I are living in Kansas now. The year has not gone so well. My spouse ended up staying a week in a mental facility due to PTSD triggered by her job as a dance therapist in a state hospital. I am happy to be teaching in a college again, but I’m an adjunct teaching one class, looking for a full-time job—or at least something that can help us support ourselves. I’m trying to finish my collection of stories, and although I published one last year and have one forthcoming, I have trouble carving out the time to work on them. I could have been doing that the past few hours, but instead I’ve written this. Maybe this is what I needed to say right now. It brings me comfort, if not hope.

Although writing has eluded me (or vice-versa) too often since I finished the book, in some ways it’s what’s helped me through the past few years. I know it’s helped my spouse too, who, in addition to being a choreographer and dancer, has two books of poetry lined up for publication with FutureCycle Press. Earlier tonight, I was reading a draft of what should be her third collection. I know she hopes that her writing can help others think differently. I hope mine does as well. I hope the fiction of Saunders does the same—which brings me back to Saunders.

Saunders was right in that our paths did cross again; it just hadn’t happened in a way I had expected. In the book, I included an exclusive interview with him. He was generous enough to grant me the time to respond to a barrage of questions while in the midst of promoting his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The novel’s debut coincided with the first published collection of critical essays on the fiction of Saunders, both of which were published while I was in the midst of writing my thesis and which I had to work frantically to include in my final draft. My book is the first monograph on the fiction of George Saunders, which I employ as a means to entertain some ideas about ethics and how we treat nonhuman animals. I feel that how we think about and how we relate to them has a lot to do with how we also relate to each other as human beings. I believe they have a lot to teach us. Rather than end with Saunders, as I do in my book, I prefer to end here with someone else who I came to know.

In Barcelona, the university I attended was directly across from the zoo. As a student, I was able to obtain an annual pass for a few euros. Sometimes, after a meeting or on a weekend joined by spouse and a friend or relative, I would go there and visit those who I thought of, in a sense, as inmates. There was a particular monkey, a male Barbary macaque, who lived behind glass and would often show his teeth as a threat or warning, at least the first few times I approached. He lived with a couple of females, and I believe he felt it was his duty to protect them from me, as he would often run to one of them and hump her, not in a strictly sexual way but a way that demonstrated that any advances on my part would be dealt with by him. He would pace about for a while, but I would stay and watch him, and he would watch me in turn. Finally, he would usually calm down and decide I was not a threat at the moment.

I could swear that eventually he came to recognize me, if not altogether giving me up as entirely non-threatening or undeserving of a warning. However, I remember how once he came to the glass that separated us, how his face was so close to the glass, and how he gazed at me. I want to say that he pressed a hand to the glass and that I pressed my hand over his, although that sounds a bit too poignant for me to be certain that it happened. If you look closely at the cover of the book, the head of a monkey is peeking down from beneath the title. I like to think that’s him, the macaque I met in Barcelona, peeking in to remind me that for all the humans in the world for whom this book was written, and which I’m sure is a minuscule audience, it’s also for him.

If you read the book, I hope you’ll come away not just thinking that Saunders is a pretty good human animal and author but that there are many human and nonhuman animals on this planet who are great in their own ways, yet are often subjected to the cruelty of men. When it comes to nonhuman animals, whether it be laboratory testing or pest control or abandonment or gustatory satisfaction or just plain hatred, I believe we need to rethink how we think about the other beings with whom we share the planet. I’ll start with my friend the macaque.

An Ethics Beyond is available from PUV.
It can also be found on Amazon.es.

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