A transcript of a conversation with Barbara and a British journalist about The White Bone

Were you consciously looking to do something different when you began writing this novel?

barbara: Only insofar as I thought I was entering the mainstream. The White Bone is a classical quest story, and the language is certainly more formal than the language of my previous books. I think that the tone and style of a book should match its subject, and the subject of a herd of endangered elephants on a deadly serious quest in Africa calls for a style that has longer sentences, more metaphor, less black humour, more poetry, more sensuousness.

I’ve always written about characters who are considered to be abnormal, and I’ve always tried to take on the pernicious concept of normal; “pernicious” because there is no such thing as “normal,” despite how hard most people try to adhere to certain physical and moral states of normalcy. I like to write what I call “leap of imagination fiction;” fiction that imagines the lives of characters who are not me but who are—it can’t be helped—invested with emotions and lessons from my own life.

One of my great passions is natural history. Researching The White Bone—reading the books, watching the documentaries, traveling to Africa—was pure indulgence. But I have been speculating about animals all my life, wondering about their inner lives, studying the ones I could get close to. You look into the eye of a mammal or a bird and you see that alien intelligence sizing you up. It’s thrilling.

And why elephants? What inspired you to write about them?

barbara: In 1994 I saw a documentary narrated by Cynthia Moss, an elephant researcher living in Kenya. The documentary follows a particular herd, and at one point, they come across the bones of another elephant. They seem not to know not only that these are elephant bones but to recognize the individual. They get very quiet. They fondle and sniff the bones, pick them up, gently put them back down. They ceremoniously cover them with sticks and dirt. And then—here’s the marvelous part—they turn and pass one hind foot over them. Cynthia says that she has seen this behavior countless times and can’t figure out what it signifies unless the elephants are sensing some emanation.

This was just so tremendously evocative because it indicates an awareness and a reverence, a recognition that they themselves dies. It points to consciousness on a par with our own.

I started reading about African elephants, and I discovered how much likes us they truly are in terms of life span, family love, big complex brains. In terms of language. Scientists call elephant sounds “vocalization,” but call it language, it’s so complex. Two-thirds of elephant communications are infrasonic, that is, at a frequency beneath human hearing, and this was only discovered in 1989. It makes you wonder how much else we don’t know, how much we can’t even begin to guess.

When did you get a clear idea of how you could best portray elephants and their experience in novel form?

barbara: At some point in the midst of all my reading it dawned on me that a story could be told that attempts to see the world strictly from the elephants’ point of view rather than a story that sets out to illuminate human nature through the vehicle of the elephant. Of course, it behooved me to learn as much about elephants as I could, and about their environment, the flora and fauna they walk through, and then, given the scientific evidence, to grant them high-intensity neurological functioning and complicated emotions. I took great license. Nobody knows what goes on in the brain of another person let alone a member of another species. But this is fiction, it is not a zoological text, and readers either surrender to my approach or they don’t. If they do surrender, I hope they experience a reality that is both alien and oddly familiar.

You spent time in Africa, following a particular family of elephants. Can you tell us a little more about what you describe in The White Bone as “the inescapable attachment” of elephant family members to one another?

barbara: One of the wonderful things about elephant families is the great kindness and sympathy that binds the whole. Elephants are matriarchal, so a family consists of the oldest female, her daughters, her daughters’ young, and a sister or two. The females stay in the herd their entire lives, unless the family grows so large that they splinter off to form a family of their own, but with all the culls and hunting and poaching, few families have the chance to expand…quite the opposite is the case, tragically. Males are encouraged to leave at adolescence, which occurs when they are around twelve years old. They start getting quite obstreperous: charging anything that moves, mounting females, being generally annoying in the way of human adolescent males. They tend to linger behind the herd, rather heartbroken, for a year or two, and then they go off to form bachelor herds or to become solitary individuals.

The matriarch is likely to be the largest member of the family, the one with the largest tusks, and, therefore, the first to be picked off by hunters and poachers. Elephants need many, many years to mature physically and psychologically. On average an elephant brain gets 67% bigger from infancy to adulthood. Our brains get 70% bigger. In other words, just like us, elephants learn as they grow; they are dependent on their elders to teach them life strategies. So when you slaughter the adults you deprive the young of a crucial education. What’s more you traumatize them. Daphne Sheldrick, who has an elephant orphanage outside Nairobi, reports that the babies wake up screaming, unable to forget the slaughter they have witnessed.

What led you to give the elephants in The White Bone telepathic and visionary powers?

barbara: It opens up the narrative and makes for more interesting fiction, I think. Anyway, how do we know that elephants don’t possess such powers? Humans have this inkling of extrasensory perceptions existing in the world, and yet there is no empirical evidence to support it. Perhaps we are just receptive enough to feel the presence of something other species exercise as a matter of course.

I made a very deliberate decision to attach to elephant behavior the most intelligent, most emotional, most conscious intention. I chose to give elephants the benefit of the doubt. Clearly, I’ve gone beyond the pale: I have them singing, philosophizing, believing in their own cosmology. But this is fiction! This is a fable!

Is it really true that elephants never forget?

barbara: It is. There is overwhelming evidence of this.  An example: a baby elephant, having been led only once across hundreds of miles of featureless terrain to get to a waterhole will, if necessary, remember exactly how to return to that water hole forty years later, when she is the matriarch.

But what does it mean to have a perfect memory? Imagine, never forgetting, never being able to forget! I don’t think we humans could bear it. Of course, we need memory; it gives us moral context, for one thing. In fact, I would say that the extreme violence and cruelty of present-day humans can be ascribed to our lack of spiritual and cultural memory. We are lost souls, striving to inhabit an eternal present. I would also say, therefore, that elephants, because they do remember who they are and what they have always valued, are our moral superiors. By far!

How hard was it to find the right linguistic balance between writing credibly from the perspective of animals for a human audience.

barbara: I had to write in English, obviously, but when I was writing from the narrative, authorial voice I never used so-called “elephant” words: words that would arise from the elephant experience. Only in dialogue would I use such words (“humans” are “hindleggers,” for instance; snakes are “flow sticks”) and then only when I was referring to flora and fauna. To get too “elephant” about the language would have shaded the prose into incomprehensibility.

The other thing, which I hope is invisible, is that I avoided metaphors, similes, turns of phrase and even certain words that don’t make sense outside of the human environment. You won’t find the word “personality” in this book. Or “mechanical.” Or “sure-fire,” or “skyrocketing,” or “clothed.” You get the picture. You won’t find “You get the picture.”

The last question has to be, to what extent are wild elephants still in danger?

barbara: They’re on their way to extinction. The appetite for ivory, especially from the Chinese, is enormous, unstoppable. The Chinese are building highways in Africa to transport the ivory out. And let’s not forget that you have to kill an elephant to extract its ivory; or that the ivory is used to make trinkets: chopsticks, combs, decorative carvings. I have no hope. But I did not write a book without hope.