Novelist Karen Joy Fowler on Our Animal Problem
Show for Jan 26, 2014
So we’re kin to our fellow creatures – cousins, we like to say, to chimpanzees and bonobos. But what sort of family obligations should follow from that, it seems we’re nowhere near to working out. Some people have taken the notion of primate kinship to literal lengths, attempting to raise chimps as children in psychological studies of the animal-human cognitive divide. With their often-sloppy science and often-sorry outcomes (see, for example, Project Nim), most such experiments have done less to limn the inter-species boundary than to highlight our dire confusions about it.
These studies also tell a larger tale of familial dreams and disappointments in general, a point brought achingly to life in Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s the saga of one chimped-up family and its inevitable dissolution. Karen and I talked about the troubled history of chimp cross-fostering experiments, about the splintering of families, of siblings and selves, and storytelling as a source of self-knowledge, real or illusory. We also shared a bit of our own stories, as kids of psychology profs with former lab rats – though thankfully not chimps – as pets.
Update: Several months after we did this interview, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.
Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)