Q&A: Novelist Tania James talks rogue elephants, India and conservation
A rogue elephant named the Gravedigger is the main narrator of “The Tusk That Did the Damage” (Alfred A. Knopf: 240 pp., $24.95), Tania James’ imaginative novel exploring the ivory trade in the forests of south India. Orphaned at birth by a poacher, the Gravedigger seeks revenge for his mother’s death, killing humans he encounters in his attacks and then tenderly burying them.
James, author of the acclaimed “Aerogrammes” and “Atlas of Unknowns,” discovered the intriguing subject of her second novel after reading a book describing a real-life man-killing elephant, driven by deforestation to hunger and madness. Delving into further research, she discovered two other voices: Manu, the younger brother of poacher Jayan, and Emma, a 23-year-old documentary filmmaker, whose narration of the novel weaves in with those of the Gravedigger.
Although the stories are fictional, the subject of poaching and corruption in India’s forests and conservation efforts is topical. During her research, James spent extended periods in India talking to farmers whose land and livelihoods had been terrorized by elephants as well as to conservationists working to both preserve and profit from India’s forests. She also drew upon her own experience studying documentary filmmaking at Harvard before turning to writing fiction.
Speaking by phone from her home in Washington, D.C., she talked candidly about these experiences and how film and fiction attempt to cut close to the truth.
“The Tusk That Did the Damage” delves into the unusual world of the ivory trade, corruption and conservation within south India. How did the idea come to you?
I was reading a nonfiction book called “To the Elephant Graveyard” by Tarquin Hall, and it makes mention of a real-life elephant that used to bury its victims. The elephant would carry the body for miles beforehand, and in some cases, if people tried to take the body away, he would bring it back. Or he would guard the burial site. ... There was something kind of human in its madness, I guess, and I know this is kind of a human-centric way of thinking about it, but there was something recognizable about that madness that made me want to know where that elephant had come from. I wanted to know the tipping point that led to a life as a violent rogue elephant.
How did you decide on how the novel would be told?
It really began with the elephant. I knew I was writing this kind of man versus nature archetype and also, I was interested in human-elephant conflict, so in addition to the elephant I knew there was obviously going to be the poacher. I also started getting into the present-day story of conservation and the way in which American filmmakers often bring fixed ideas about conservation to a place, while on-the-ground conservationists have to contend with a landscape that’s shifting all the time.
How did you find the voice of the Gravedigger?
I read a lot. There was one particular book that was really crucial for me, “Elephants on the Edge” by Gay Bradshaw. She’s an elephant ethologist, and she builds this argument about how elephants’ trauma embeds itself in the psyche. Traumatized elephants can suffer from PTSD the same way people who’ve been through war or abuse can suffer from post-traumatic stress. So I just tried to collect elements about how elephants express themselves and what tends to disturb them, what they tend to enjoy.
Also, I didn’t want to write an elephant that stands in for all elephants. Like with any character, I was trying to write about someone who’s formed by their particular experiences. But you know, I don’t have a trunk [laughs], and I don’t know anyone who’s had a trunk explain to me what having a trunk feels like, so I tried to aim for a level of psychological realism, but within certain limits.
Like Emma, you studied documentary filmmaking. What made you change from making films to writing novels?
Well, I quickly learned that I’m not the best collaborator. ... I find it easier to work on my own in a hermetic sort of way. Also, I have this innate discomfort when making documentary films of feeling exploitative, or that I’m bothering people, and that doesn’t make for great documentary filmmaking. My films would just be shots of inanimate objects that wouldn’t find my presence offensive.
There’s a lovely line that one of the characters says about documentary making: ‘All film is manipulated to some degree. It’s a way of cutting closer to the truth.’
The idea of trying to cut close to the truth is something that comes up a lot when you’re making a documentary film. You have a lot of footage and you’re always trying to pare it down, pare it down, so you’re always trying to cut as close to the truth as possible, but it’s also a constructed truth.
In fiction, I’m trying to present something that has an emotional truth to it, and I think that emotional truth only comes when I, as the writer, am taking certain risks, even though the work itself may not be autobiographical in any overt way. ... I like to think that my novels, or fiction that I love, although there are manipulations or little machinations happening, there’s still this organic sense of things unfolding in a natural way.
You often write about family and siblings and connections, and in this novel again a pair of brothers is a key relationship. What draws you to writing about family?
I’m always trying to write outside of my experience, but I guess there are certain relationships that I return to. Sibling relationships are fascinating to me. I have two siblings, and I find that relationship to be profound but also fraught with these kind of competing and complicated emotions. I think family relationships have such long histories behind them, so it’s just a naturally dynamic relationship for me to explore no matter what backdrop I’m using.
What do you think of poaching and conservation these days? Has the landscape changed?
I actually am somewhat hopeful. The book takes place around 2000, and at the time poaching in south India was a much bigger problem than it is today. That is partly due to the efforts of the forest department and the conservationists, but it’s also due to the reduction of tuskers (bull elephants with the capacity to grow large tusks). Now the greater problem is this human-elephant complex. I actually think that the Indian government has been pretty proactive in that sense: they’ve organized an elephant task force — it literally is called the Elephant Task Force! — and they came up with a plan of how to better take care of India’s elephants in both the wild and captivity. There’s lots of talk about preserving elephant habitats and building corridors between their habitats so that elephants can have migratory routes. Where the story is darker is in Africa, where it’s something like three elephants killed per hour — but from where I stand, it’s more hopeful in India.
Lee is a writer who lives in New York.
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