The Language of Kin Behind The Scenes
When I was a new teenager with caring but clueless parents, I used to ride my bike to crazy places on Connecticut’s hilly back roads. Certain natives, especially older teen boys reckless with their shiny licenses, considered those narrow roads their personal racetracks, small wildlife be damned. (I was positive they had cheated on their driver’s tests.) It would upset me so much to come upon a small animal that had been killed that I felt compelled to dismount, to find the fallen branches I’d need to gently move the little body to the woods that edged the road. There, I’d make a soft bed in the undergrowth then cover the animal carefully with leaves and other vegetation, saying how sorry I was and nothing else would hurt it now. I cried often back then.
Now, my family all think I’m a ridiculously conservative driver. It’s probably true. I’ve never said how the habit got started. No, I don’t stop my car in the middle of a road to move an animal’s body, but I still silently mouth how sorry I am when I see an animal that’s been killed, and I’ll happily block traffic to let a live one cross safely. I don’t want animals hurt or suffering, it’s really that simple. If you’ve read my blog or my only nonfiction book (Where The Trail Grows Faint: A Year In the Life Of A Therapy Dog Team), you know how I am about my dogs, always rescues. I’ve always had a great interest in the human/animal connection, the meaningful bond between species and the healing power of that love.
But now, I also want to understand and respect the bonds other animals have within their own species that we humans often seem to disregard. This led me to think more deeply about communication in general, verbal and non-verbal. That, of course, brought me to sign language, too. I had a lot to learn. These were the questions that led me to write The Language of Kin. I wanted to create a dramatic story that would, through characters and action, show how we all struggle to communicate in different ways—how brilliantly we devise ways to succeed, how dismally we sometimes fail.
First, though, writing The Language of Kin meant spending time mentally and emotionally in the world of chimpanzees, learning how they live in the wild and in captivity, what they need, how they communicate with us and each other. It meant facing what many endured as laboratory test subjects and what has followed legislation in the United States to stop the medical testing on chimps. Captured, often as nursing babies, drugged, flown here, isolated in cramped, barren cages, subjected to painful experiments, often expressing their distress in self-harming ways: lab chimps spent years suffering. Legislation contained within the endangered species act put a halt to it—and left the labs scrambling with the question of what to do with the now traumatized and scarred chimps they’d experimented on for years.
And then there are zoo chimps. I have always been personally bothered by seeing them—most especially the primates, with whom we share over 98% of the same DNA--in cages in zoos. But I am also aware that conservation of species is a role that zoos increasingly play and that zookeepers focus intently on the well-being of the animals. Several primatologists were incredibly generous with research help, sharing their knowledge and resources, educating me. Relentless climate change and deforestation are enormous concerns with regard to wildlife habitat and there are those who credibly argue that the only hope for the survival of certain species (chimpanzees included) is to breed them in zoos as their natural habitat is being inexorably destroyed. Zoos also can play an important role in educating people about animal needs. But it’s not how they live in the wild. They live in social and family groups, share parenting, learn from each other, fashion and use tools. I understand that there’s not an easy answer, and in The Language of Kin I did my best to avoid beating a political drum.
My work as a therapist licensed to diagnose and treat mental disorders has given me an abiding interest in human relationships, and I always try to depict them with sensitivity and awareness. Being trained to listen closely has helped me develop a good ear for dialog and I use multiple points of view to reveal character and show how differently people—even people who love each other—sometimes perceive themselves, each other, or a situation. I have also volunteered in a nursing home as an animal-assisted therapist, and this contributed to my interest in interspecies communication, both verbal and signed. Learning to use hand signals with my dog and researching how some chimps have been taught to use American Sign Language also led me to seek consultation about the perceptions and experience of members of the deaf community in order to include the deaf character in this novel.
In the end, I hope my concern and love for animals is clear. Still, although I did a great deal of research and had invaluable consultation with experts, The Language of Kin is very much about the human characters living their human story, the various ways they communicate and fail to communicate, and what they ultimately come to understand and forgive in themselves and each other.