Monday, September 27, 2010

Ape becomes human; humans go ape

Reviewed by Erika Ritter

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Sep. 24, 2010

There is something particularly poignant in the plight of captive primates. Yet their similarity to us has never guaranteed them our compassion or respect – especially our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Mostly, we view them as human surrogates for cognitive studies, aeronautical experiments, invasive medical research and drug-testing, which we undertake solely for our benefit but would flinch from inflicting on ourselves. That’s when we’re not dressing these animals up as humans and laughing as they “ape” us in the circus ring or on TV.

Indeed, apart from the fortunate few who still live unmolested in the wild, chimpanzees inhabit a uniquely tragic in-between realm neither human nor strictly animal. Clearly, Kenneth Oppel gets that, right from the title of his latest young-adult novel, Half Brother, to the sober-sweet conclusion.

In previous works, such as the Silverwing and Matt Cruse series, Oppel has specialized in creating alternative realities for humans and animals. Half Brother, however, is set in a factually correct recreation of the early 1970s and modelled on real-life events. Nim Chimpsky was a chimpanzee raised from infancy in a human household and taught American Sign Language. The hope was that treating him like a human and giving him means to communicate with humans would determine that a non-human could acquire and employ language meaningfully. Ultimately, Project Nim was deemed a failure, and the poor chimp, stripped of his human clothes and celebrity status, was nearly sold to a research lab before animal advocates intervened to get him to a sanctuary.

Like Nim, Oppel’s fictional ape, Zan, comes to his human family as an infant, slated to be treated like a new baby. Unlike Nim, Zan is lucky that one member of his household becomes aware of how equivocal, perilous and ultimately untenable the position of a half-brother “adopted” for experimental purposes can be.

Ben Tomlin, our teenage narrator, is an only child initially upset because his father uprooted the family from Toronto to take up a university teaching and research post in Victoria. Rapidly, Ben’s upset turns to dismay when his mother (her husband’s research assistant) arrives at their new home with a week-old baby chimpanzee in her arms. With no more prior consultation than the animal himself received, Ben is expected to accept Zan as a sibling and to participate in the experiment of raising him and teaching him to sign.

Ben comes to love Zan and to view him as a fellow resister of adult tyranny. As both young males develop, Oppel draws comparisons between the means each finds to assert individuality and oppose authority. Ben adopts the posture of a “dominant male” in order to survive at his new school, as well as cope with his controlling father. Meanwhile, Zan begins to bristle, bare teeth and lash out when thwarted or challenged.

Despite his father’s scientific assertions and his mother’s tortured rationales, it’s clear to Ben that the chimp isn’t actually being treated like a human – not when he’s kept in a basement suite, drilled in ASL by brigades of grad students and strapped into a restraining chair if he misbehaves. It also becomes apparent that none of this is being done for the animal’s benefit. When Project Zan is shut down – for more or less the same reasons as real-life Project Nim – Ben is threatened with losing Zan to a prison-like primate facility.

Ben’s dilemma comes to parallel Jody’s in the classic novel The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Like Jody, Ben must deal with a cuddly baby creature turned destructive adolescent, no longer able to be returned to the wild, yet no longer capable of being controlled like a domestic animal.

Oppel explores the limited options available, from the brutalities of research, to the exploitations of zoos, to the comparative humaneness of a primate sanctuary. Without ever becoming preachy, he makes the point that the initial dislocation of Zan and other members of wild species cannot ever lead to truly good outcomes.

Half Brother is fast-moving, engagingly told and smart. I hope today’s teen readers won’t be put off by its antediluvian setting in a period pre-text messages,

Facebook and cellphones, with a soundtrack by ABBA and Elton John. Actually, not much has changed for apes in North American research facilities over the past four decades, and, come to think of it, ABBA and Elton are still with us, along with Planet of the Apes movies and heated debates on animal rights.

Beyond Ben’s unique preoccupation with Zan, Oppel takes pains to give his protagonist more typically adolescent concerns. As an adult, I confess I found the teenage-angst aspects of the novel fairly run-of-the-mill. That might be the limitation of a young narrator’s perspective on his own standard-issue anxieties – as compared to his vivid accounts of his extraordinary relationship with an animal through sign language.

Ultimately, this novel is about much more than an abandoned experiment in interspecies communication. Through Ben, Oppel gracefully underscores the true value in reaching Zan: Not to profit from teaching him to perform tasks, but to grasp the world as a non-human perceives it.

Erika Ritter is the author most recently of The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, now available in paperback.

My Books My Place

Kenneth Oppel plays the library card
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Sep. 24, 2010

I don’t actually spend much time here, but I really should. The book-lined room has an incredibly comfortable chair that I picked myself, a scholarly refectory table, beautiful ceiling mouldings and even an antique globe. Any self-respecting writer should be permanently ensconced here with a pipe and a glass of port.

The truth is, I read mostly on my bed, where I can sprawl out and easily go unconscious. But I hereby resolve to spend more time in my library and finish the last pages of my current read, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

As a teenager, I read Updike’s first short-story collection, The Same Door. A Hemingway devotee, I’d marvelled at his crystalline prose and the authenticity of his characters and scenes. Wanting more, I got a second-hand copy of Rabbit Redux, not realizing it had a predecessor (and later would have a successor). It didn’t matter: Although Updike’s prose had become more jewelled and a bit less lithe, my 16-year-old self still loved reading about Rabbit Angstrom and his incredibly weird and smutty life.

But for some reason, though I’ve read and admired many of Updike’s other works, I never got around to reading the first Rabbit until now. Just before this, I devoured Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz – another grievous omission in my reading life. Like Rabbit, Run, it was written in the late fifties, by a writer in his mid-20s – but the heroes, though both careening, are polar opposites. Duddy is all manic action; Rabbit, a study in passivity. Richler’s novel bursts with energy; Updike’s offers a more sedate, penetrating character study.

I love Updike, but I’ve got to say, Duddy Kravitz wins my vote: I like heroes with restless hearts and big passions, who make things happen.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing Half Brother

Published in the Huffington Post

Writing Half Brother: Love, Control, and Talking Animals

I only recently realized how fitting (and possibly ironic) it was that, after writing four bestselling “talking animal” fantasies featuring bats (the Silverwing series), I’d go on to write a realistic novel about an animal who truly did talk.

The seed for my novel Half Brother was planted in my mind over twenty years ago, but didn’t germinate until late 2007 when I came across the obituary for Washoe, an extraordinary chimpanzee who had learned over 250 words of American Sign Language.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard about Washoe, or the radical language experiments performed on chimps in the 1960s and 70’s. As a first year undergrad at the University of Toronto, I’d read with fascination about Project Nim, in which a baby chimp was raised as a human child to determine whether chimps were capable of learning human language. Nim was dressed in diapers and clothes, he ate at a high chair, had books and toys -- and a very large surrogate human family.

At first blush, the experiment had a beguiling Doctor Dolittle charm to it – an attempt to communicate with another species in a truly meaningful way. Not nearly so charming was what happened when the experiment ended two years later – after being deemed a failure. Nim was abruptly stripped of his human identity, his clothes and toys and favourite foods, separated from the people he’d come to think of as mothers and fathers and siblings, and shipped off to another primate research institute. I found the image of Nim, looking out through the bars of a cage, incredibly sad – and I’d never considered myself someone who was sentimental about animals.

When, years later, I read Washoe’s obituary, I wondered what it would be like to write a story from a chimpanzee’s perspective. When I’d written my Silverwing series -- I’d imbued the bats with full human awareness and vocabulary. But what would it be like to try to tell a story with only the words Nim or Washoe had learned? The idea had a powerful appeal, but I decided that limiting myself to a two-hundred-and-fifty-word vocabulary – heavy on nouns, and light on verbs – would probably create something that might generously be called brave and avante-garde; or ungenerously, an unreadable mess.

Any attempt to write from an animal’s perspective inevitably involves anthropomorphization, and with Half Brother I wanted to steer clear of that. In the end I chose to tell the story through human eyes – those of Ben, a teenager whose father is a hotshot behavioural psychologist conducting a language study with a baby chimpanzee called Zan, in the family home.

Certainly I was interested in the controversial animal rights issues inherent in the story – chimps have been used and abused by humans in the entertainment industry, the US Space Program, and, perhaps most upsetting, the biomedical research industry. But equally fascinating to me were the human dynamics of the story. Imagine, as a teenager, being told to treat a chimp like a baby brother, while never forgetting that it was also a lab specimen. Imagine watching your mother and father indulge in a bizarre form of parenting – one in which the baby was nurtured, but also emotionally manipulated, and ultimately coerced into performing. To the father, the baby is only of value as long as it gives him what he needs.

But is human parenting -- or human relationships in general -- so very different? The more I worked on Half Brother, the more it seemed to me the story was really about love in all its possible forms – how and why we decide to bestow it, or withdraw it; how we decide what is more worthy of being loved, and what is less. We are masters of conditional love.

During my research for Half Brother I read numerous accounts of people who had worked with chimps and many of them, I believe, truly did love the animals, and were heart-broken when they were separated from them. One of the most moving experiences I had was visiting the Fauna Foundation, a chimp sanctuary outside Montreal, which is home to thirteen chimpanzees who have been “retired” from zoos, the entertainment industry, and biomedical research facilities. These chimps, no longer deemed “useful” by their previous owners, now have a wonderful home where they are cared for by director Gloria Grow and her staff. Some are old and ill, some are HIV positive as the result of medical research. But they no longer have to perform or deliver, and it was clear to me that they were truly and unconditionally loved.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Half Brother Interview

Exclusive Q&A with Kenneth Oppel
By Teen Editor at Indigo Books

"I am so excited to bring you this exclusive Q&A with one of my personal favourites, Canada's own Kenneth Oppel in which he talks about writing his new novel, Half Brother."

TE: How did this idea of a family adopting a chimpanzee develop for you? Were you inspired by a particular story or study that you’ve read?

KO: As a first year undergrad at the University of Toronto, I read about Project Nim, in which a baby chimp was raised as a human child to determine whether chimps were capable of learning human sign language. Nim was dressed in diapers and clothes, he ate at a high chair, had books and toys -- and a very large surrogate human family. But when the experiment ended two years later – after being deemed a failure, Nim was stripped of his human identity, his clothes and toys and favourite foods, separated from the people he’d come to think of as mothers and fathers and siblings, and shipped off to another primate research institute. I found the image of Nim, looking out through the bars of a cage, incredibly sad. It stayed with me for over twenty years.

TE: Half Brother is a bit of a departure for you from your other books, such as Airborn and Silverwing. What were some of the challenges you encountered writing it?

KO: Ironically, the subject matter of Half Brother is even more fantastical and strange than that of my earlier books, so I was quite at home! But certainly it’s a much more realistic book, and a more intimate one, so the characters and their relationships are more intricate. So I found it both challenging and invigorating, after so many fantasies in alternate worlds, to be grounded in our own.

TE: You set the novel in the early 1970s Victoria. What made you chose that particular time and place? Were you interested in pursuing some of the popular ideas around behavioural science and psychology?

KO: The real chimp language experiments that inspired Half Brother took place in the late 60s and 70s so I wanted to stay true to that time period. They were some of the first attempts to teach another species our language. Followers of the psychologist BF Skinner thought any behaviour – including language -- could be taught; followers of the linguist Noam Chomsky believed that language was intrinsic to human beings only. So these experiments were quite radical, and still controversial to this day. Also, there seemed to be such a fascination with chimps in popular culture at the time. They were everywhere on TV and in movies – namely the Planet of the Apes franchise which imagined a world in which chimps and the other great apes had evolved beyond humans. As for setting the story in Victoria, I mostly grew up there in the mid 70s to mid 80s, and I found it just gave me another way of entering tangibly into Ben’s world.

TE: I noticed that family dynamics continue to play an integral part in all of your novels, from Matt’s devotion to his mother and loss of his father in Airborne, to Dusk’s complicated relationship with his father in Darkwing. In this novel, it really all about that isn’t it? Who is the Alpha Male in the family and outside of it and what that means for Zan and Ben’s relationships?

KO: All drama is really about the dynamics between the characters – whether they’re bats, aeronauts in an alternate past, or the members of a uniquely dysfunctional family in 1970s Canada. Father-son relationships fascinate me, how a boy inevitably moves from seeing his father as impervious and all-knowing, to fallible and frail – simply human, in other words. But I think that all kids seek reassurance in dominance and power and control – boys in a more physical manifestation than girls – but every kid wants to be an alpha. Despite his ambivalence towards his father, Ben models himself after him by trying to control his environment and relationships – and the results are far from triumphant in some cases
TE: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Did you learn American Sign Language?

KO: I’d learned a bit of sign language to use with my youngest daughter, and it was amazing to see how it helped her communicate with us before words came. Then we used it simultaneous with speaking, and then the sign language just faded away as spoken language took over. My other research included reading up on all the famous chimp studies – Project Nim, Project Washoe, as well as some other accounts – including one of a scientist who lived with a chimp and truly thought of her as his daughter. I tried to learn as much as I could about chimp behaviour, especially baby chimps, and was fortunate enough to visit an amazing chimp sanctuary outside of Montreal.

TE: What do you think of the evolution of Teen/YA literature in the last five years and your place within it? Do you think that there are things you have to do differently now?

KO: Teen/YA literature definitely experiences trends like any form of literary and popular culture. Harry Potter gave us a good decade of wizardry and magic that spurred a huge general interest in fantasy which included period gothic fiction and steampunk. About five years ago the trend took a turn into contemporary gothic with Twilight, and now the shelves are groaning with books about hot vampires and werewolves and fallen angels and any other kind of paranormal creature you could wish for. I would say that trends rule the marketplace as never before – and it’s probably harder to launch books that are not considered trendy. But almost inevitably, the next great big doesn’t belong to the clique: it bravely charts its own course. No one really knows what’s going to take off, so as a writer all you can do is write the story that you fall in love in, and have to tell.

TE: Do you hope that this book raises awareness around animal cruelty and what kids can do about it?

KO: Certainly I hope that kids will take an interest in chimpanzees and the way they’ve been used and abused by humans. But the more I worked on Half Brother, the more it seemed to me the story was really about love in all its possible forms – how and why we decide to bestow it, or withdraw it; what’s worthy of being loved, and what isn’t? We are masters of conditional love. As the dominant species on the planet we have incredible power, and an incredible responsibility to treat our planet and all the creatures on it with respect and care.

TE: Abba or Zepplin?

KO: My feet say Abba, but my heart says Zeppelin.