On the first page of The first collection of stories by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, What we gave the Manticore, I fell in love with the Gaza City donkey, who, to his embarrassment, finds himself painted by his beloved owner, Hafiz, to look like a zebra. Hafiz is building a zoo to bring joy to the town, he explains, because “kids are still kids, you know. Even in times like this. But he can’t 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 leaning through the bars.
Then I fell in love with a wandering tiger in the Sundarbans mangroves, looking for something, anything, to eat as the water becomes saltier and the prey disappears. His hunger is so palpable, growing day by day, that I can feel his ribs, taste the dust through the pages.
One by one, I fell in love with each of Kolluri’s nine animal storytellers as they soared, hunted, howled and dived into their stories, experiencing joy and loss, contemplating identity and confronting the realities of a changing world. Throughout the collection, Kolluri’s lively prose has the precision of a tuning fork, and each animal narrator offers the reader a rare intimacy with a slice of land in transformation. Humans also appear – sometimes offering friendship and kindness, and at other times haunting the reaches of nature with their cities, ships, missiles and traps. Climate change is everywhere: melting ice, breaking storms, falling bombs, spreading viruses and creeping drought.
Each animal seems to exist in a space between loss and adaptation, between mourning and survival. And now, who among us isn’t familiar with this space, as Europe experiences an unprecedented heat wave, as cellphone footage shows another coastal home collapsing into the ocean, the Colorado River reservoirs falling to new lows, and the pandemic rearing its ugly head and hitting again?
A lifelong Californian, Kolluri says she often thinks about adapting as the West gets hotter and drier. She was 6 years old when she first saw the mountains burning from her childhood home in the Bay Area. She remembers the spectacular, smoky sunsets over the Santa Cruz Mountains, her worrying mother, the family climbing up to see the scars of the fire after it finally died down. “It held a very important place in my memory,” says Kolluri. “But when I went back to pick it up later, I was amazed at how relatively small it was.” These days, she spends nine months a year studying California fire maps from her home in Fresno, keeping tabs on her family members spread across the state. And she always worries about the animals – cougars, deer, birds – who can’t get out in time.
“How would a wolf describe a truck or a gun if he’s never seen one before?” How would a bird that has never left the town it lives in describe an elevated railway line? »
The fire does not appear in What we gave the Manticore, Nevertheless. It was just “too close to the bone,” says Kolluri. Instead, it unleashed a host of other catastrophes that demonstrate the growing precariousness of our planet. Kolluri deliberately transports us across the world, from the bustling streets of Delhi to the grasslands of a Kenyan wildlife sanctuary, from arctic tundra to the open ocean. Global connections are important, she explains: “The fires in the American West will affect the air quality in New York. Warming ocean temperatures can change the composition of marine life in a completely different ocean. She pauses. “It is no longer possible to behave as if we can make decisions in our local communities and they have no impact on anyone else.”
Ultimately, Kolluri’s decision to inhabit the minds and bodies of animals feels brave and novel, 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 on the edge of events that challenge their understanding of self and the world. And, somehow, they’re able to say what human narrators can’t.
When she started writing from the point of view of animals, Kolluri says she experienced a kind of liberation. Suddenly, emotional honesty unfolded on the page, in stark contrast to the vulnerability she felt when writing from a human perspective. Through animals, she could say anything she had ever thought or felt before—about joy, belonging, grief, identity—however messy or complicated.
What we gave the Manticore took 10 years to write, says Kolluri, largely because she continued to get sucked into research, deepening her understanding of tiger communities or bird behavior. As an avid watcher of documentaries and a consumer of science journalism, Kolluri says many of the stories were inspired by reports of real events: a Atlantic article on the death of 200,000 saiga antelopes in Central Asia, report by Guardian on the last male northern white rhinoceros, a National geographic profile of a military dogsled team in the arctic.
Kolluri has always been intensely curious about the inner lives of animals, and while she admits some readers might object to anthropomorphism, she says, “I just can’t accept the idea that they don’t have no complex emotions, that they have no complex emotions. ‘t have rich inner lives. And so, since I can’t ask them how they feel, I’m answering that question for myself.
In his author’s note, Kolluri writes, “How would a wolf describe a truck or a gun if he’s never seen one before? How would a bird that has never left the town it lives in describe an elevated railway line? What does a devastating cyclone look like to a tiger? What does the sound of a container ship do to the underwater world of a blue whale? »
Back to the good donkey, paint dripping down his legs, humiliation blooming in his chest as he transforms into a faux zebra. A painted donkey can bring joy to children who have been plagued by war, but it cannot ward off war. “Let me tell you one thing about the tragedy,” laments the donkey. “At first, each of the missiles is shocking. You don’t know if you will survive. If you can lose someone else without losing yourself. And then it becomes normal.
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 afterlife. The day we meet him, the vulture is overwhelmed by a whole herd of saiga antelopes, all suffering from a mysterious disease. As far as the eye can see, animals lie dead across the steppe – “Thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Perhaps all the saigas in the world. There are far too many for the vultures to clean up. As a result, many saiga will not go beyond, a horrifying thought for our vulture. When he plucks their flesh, he tastes their stories — the story of the disease that devastated the herd, the story of each individual life.
What we gave the Manticore allows readers to glimpse the many animals within ourselves. “In the end, I did what I hope my readers will do,” Kolluri writes in his author’s note. “I dissolved the distance in my mind between me and the wild world, which helped me realize that my life story includes the story of all life around us.”
We are all pigeons, dogs, donkeys, polar bears and whales trying to find our way. We are all humans haunting the edges of a story. Like the vulture, it’s a book that cleanses us so we can move on.
Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow @cactuswrenwrite
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