Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Barbara J. King

Barbara J. King has taught Anthropology at the College of William and Mary  since 1988.  Originally focused on primate studies through her observations of wild monkeys in Kenya and captive apes, she now takes up intelligence and emotion in a wide variety of animals. Her books include Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion and the recently released How Animals Grieve.

Recently I asked King about what she was reading.  Her reply:
I’ve just finished reading two grief memoirs. In The Guardians: Elegy For a Friend, Sarah Manguso conveys, in a narrative of fragments and patches, the searing loss of her friend Harris. It was so sudden: Harris walked out (was allowed to walk out) of a psychiatric hospital and later that day jumped in front of a train. Sometimes, the fragments and patches flow along; occasionally one stops my heart. Manguso tells of the habit she fell into after Harris’s death: “I pictured my parents dead, my husband, my best friends, my relatives, everyone I knew, one by one. I started grieving good and early, so that when the deaths happened, I’d have a head start.”

Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave punched right through me in its entirety. On Christmas holiday with her family in Sri Lanka where she was born, Deraniyagala watched from her hotel room as “a white foamy wave” advanced unnaturally far up the beach. When the wave didn’t recede, but became “charging, churning,” Deraniyagala fled with her husband Steve, and their two young sons Vik and Malli. Of the four, only Deraniyagala survived; her parents died in the tsunami as well. Her story is not one of recovery (although over time she no longer vows to kill herself soon), but rather of memory. Gradually, in a process that let her feel “less fractured,” she lets back into her mind and heart the times with Steve and the boys, watching Sri Lankan wildlife or just playing around at home in London.

These books resonate with me because I’ve spent so much time over the last two years researching and writing about grief expressed, in some cases quite deeply, by dolphins, chimpanzees, horses, cats, dogs, and other animals. It's work rooted in the sure knowledge that animals love as well as mourn. While of course I do feel sad reading the grief memoirs, I’m also moved to joy at life and love, and hold my family and friends just that bit closer as a result.

I also read a lot of accessible science, as I cast about for material for my weekly posts at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. I got quite caught up, for example, in the anthropological controversy around Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday and, after reading the book, wrote about that for NPR.

Still, I read novels mostly. After a day writing and reading science, I crave immersion in fictional worlds. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer just soars and I’m pressing it on everyone I know who loves the natural world. Set in southern Appalachia, the alternating and interlocking chapters about two women and one man are as much about the thrumming life of the forest as about the questing human characters. I’ll never look at “the spiraling flights of moths” the same way again.

And Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend made my teeth ache with a yearning to get back to Italy. Ferrante sets her story in a Naples neighborhood of the 1950s and 60s. Two girlfriends, Elena and Lila, both fiercely smart, different from those around them but in heartbreakingly vulnerable ways, anchor the narrative and I came to feel they were of flesh and blood in the room with me. It’s the first of a trilogy. The two girls, Vesuvius, and the sea remain lodged in my head, and I know that Ferrante can’t write fast enough for me.
Learn more about How Animals Grieve at the University of Chicago Press website and visit Barbara J. King's website.

The Page 69 Test: Evolving God.

My Book, The Movie: Evolving God.

--Marshal Zeringue