Why Animal Rights Needs to Read and Write Fiction


Animal liberation is fiction.
It is the stuff of fairy tales, of make-believe, of magical fantasies.
It is wishful thinking, daydreaming.
It is a fabricated concept.
It is an invented premise.
It is an imaginary future.
Animal liberation does not exist.

Sure, there are many happy, safe animals living with us today. Even as I write these words, there are three content animals sleeping beside me. But none of this translates to “animal liberation,” at least in the grander scheme of lived reality, which is what I think many of us dream about when we talk and organize for a future beyond speciesism.

To me, “animal liberation” on a broader, collective level would be a future where our humyn species can live communally with other earthling species, and do so outside systems of domination and exploitation.
So whether we focus our efforts on cultivating a liberated existence first from within us, or instead in our environments through empowering community organizing, both paths lead us into the wild unknown.

This wild unknown of “animal liberation” means looking for something that you have never, ever seen before. Perhaps we don’t know where it is or when we will come upon it, but we trust that we will know it when we do meet it. Or maybe we have already passed it by, and in our hurry to find the obvious solution to speciesism, we have neglected the simple, basic answers that require no special gifts or talents to receive and put into practice?

Either way, the point remains that we all share the burden of having absolutely no template of experience, of memory, or of historical knowledge to draw upon when we advocate for the “liberation” of ourselves, of others, and for all the animals.

All speculation about the liberation of animals revolves around imagining what animal liberation might look like, and the ways in which we might manifest that vision.

What does animal liberation look like?

What does a world look like without zoos, rodeos and marine parks? How different would things be in a future where animals are not “farmed” for their fur, their muscle meat or their breast milk?

Animal liberation is fiction because imagining a world without cages is as fantastical as anything you might read in science fiction and fantasy. How so?

not too distant future.jpg
Artwork credit to Hartmut Kiewert.

Well, I don’t mean to sound facetious when I say animal liberation is the stuff of fantasy. I mean that both fiction and animal liberation rely upon our capacities to imagine and speculate something that is not (yet) here, not already existing, not a “fact” that can be proven. And both follow the simple formula of sampling from existing situations and familiar struggles in humyn existence.

Science fiction projects a potential future available given current technology and research – and then it weaves together a story from there. For example, it might show how the exponential growth of artificial intelligence suggests a near future where sentient super-intelligence revolts against humyn civilization.

Fantasy fiction is a broader projection of the things we assume cannot ever happen. It weaves together a story from there, like how the core of the planet is so terribly hot because there are fire-breathing dragons hibernating inside who may wake up tomorrow.

Radical animal fiction, whether situated in science fiction or fantasy fiction, weaves together stories about non-humyns finding identity, community, purpose, love and hope, outside of oppressive, anthropocentric ideals.

What that all means is that animal liberation looks like fiction. It looks like science fiction. It looks like fantasy.

The very act of speculating and imagining radical ideas is liberating.

So it follows: speculative fiction can look like animal liberation.

What are ways to manifest this vision of animal liberation?

To write and read radical fiction is to manifest visions of animal liberation because whether we are author or reader, we are asking the question:
“What does the world we want to live in actually look like?”

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The radical power of speculative fiction. Illustration by Michelle Leigh.

When we campaign in the streets, or produce content to share, or when we organize online, we are making efforts towards a version of reality that we deem more accountable, loving and anti-oppressive.
But again – all these efforts are attempts to manifest something not yet existing, something speculative, something fictional.

Walidah Imarisha, the educator, writer, organizer and spoken word artist who coined the term visionary fiction (to describe how we can use science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres to envision alternatives to unjust and oppressive systems), explained how:

“All organizing is science fiction. When organizers imagine a world without poverty, without war, without borders or prisons—that’s science fiction. They’re moving beyond the boundaries of what is possible or realistic, into the realm of what we are told is impossible.”

Octavia Butler. Image credit Nikolas Coukouma, CC BY-SA 2.5.

 Walidah, along with adrienne maree brown, collected and edited a radical anthology of short stories that explore the connections between speculative fiction and movements for social change. They called it Octavia’s Brood, in commemoration of the incredible wisdom and talent and love that was Octavia Butler. The book is available now for purchase through the rad folks at AK Press. 

Both Walidah and adrienne have emphasized, in writings and spoken word, that “there are as many ways to exist as we can imagine.”

In using speculative fiction to reach and inspire wider audiences, we can nurture our collective imagination to make the stories of radical fiction more alive, more feasible and more real.

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From left to right, co-editors Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha at the 2015 INCITE! Color of Violence conference. Image via ELK.

adrienne explained further how visionary fiction is:

“A perfect testing ground to explore the countless alternatives that could exist to policing and institutions like prisons.

It’s incredibly important that we begin to shift our thinking away from the state keeping us safe, given that that has never been the purpose of the state—it’s never been the purpose of the police or the prison system—and instead begin to ask, how do we keep each other safe?

How do we prevent harm from happening?

How do we address harm when it does happen in our communities in ways that are about healing, and about wholeness, rather than about punishment and retribution?”

And further, adrienne says how visionary fiction is political because:

“Being able to create and imagine bigger is a process of decolonization of our dreams. Our dreams have gotten smaller and smaller, but as we engage sci-fi in reading and in dreams, our imaginations can grow and decolonize.”

My intention here is to apply their emotional labor and wisdom to the issue of animal politics. This means liberating ourselves to imagine and then re-imagine what the liberation of animals could look like.

Writing radical fiction for animal liberation

“We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”

Ursula Le Guin

Radical fiction is a tool, an art form, available to all of us wishing to explore social-political issues through a new lens or perspective. If you feel inspired to write radical fiction, or at least inclined to try reading some of it, then remember that the intention of this art is to communicate deep themes outside the narratives of the mainstream.

This means fiction that focuses attention on marginalized identities, and not the typical cis-hetero white able-minded-bodied male. This means fiction that focuses on relevant problems in all its varied complexities, and not the trope of evil faceless tyrants wishing to conquer all that is “white and pure and free.” This means fiction that is both realistic and honest, but remains empowering and hopeful.

So, not stories about collective change coming from the top of the political hierarchies, nor stories about token heroes and animal characters used as anthropomorphic instruments to validate the human ego. So, think about how stories can be told in ways that center the animal experience, and validate their own existence for reasons outside that of validating humanity.

Instead, by weaving the struggles towards liberation into an engaging story, and by creating characters who are not victims of the system but survivors and grounded leaders, all of this can become a real lesson for us all to learn from and be inspired by.

Whether you are writing or reading it to expand your imagination personally or for the sake of anti-oppressive community organizing, remember that the core of the story always needs to be about hope. A new hope for things to come, for what we choose to do today, for choosing to not relent but to endure.

“In April we cannot see sunflowers in France, so we say the sunflowers do not exist.

But the local farmers have already planted thousands of seeds and when they look at the bare hills they may be able to see the sunflowers already.

The sunflowers are there.

They lack only the conditions of sun, heat, rain, and July. Just because we cannot see them does not mean they do not exist.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

By using fiction as a platform for exploring new alternatives to anti-speciesism strategies, perhaps we can discover answers that have been buried and hidden by the systems of oppression?

Perhaps the system depends on us all continuing to feel trapped and lost and hopeless?

“Remember this: we be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Arundhati Roy

Perhaps in the smallest hints of hope, in hoping for hope, in finding meaning and purpose in existing however we dare to imagine, perhaps that is where we will find the liberation of animals.

Featured image: fiction allows us to imagine and inhabit other worlds. Image via Pixabay.

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Earthling Liberation Kollective is a radical resource for species-inclusive liberation. We advocate transformative justice & anti-oppressive politics for humyns, animals & the Earth. Click to see author's profile.

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