A Conversation with Colin Dayan

December 8, 2020   •   By Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo

“IN ALL MY WORK, early and late,” writes Colin Dayan, “I have known that reason is a problem, not a privilege, that lives lived close to the soil and in the flesh have much to offer, and not just for anthropologists (or nostalgics), but for anyone who longs to know another kind of politics beyond the wrack and ruin of humankind.” These words introduce us to the world of Dayan’s new memoir, Animal Quintet — a world of visceral and fleshy human-animal relations, and the histories they divulge. Animal Quintet encompasses five vignettes that delve into the socialities of specific animals — racehorses, bullfighting bulls, possums, crop-destroying beetles, and white leghorn chickens — and relate them to Dayan’s personal life. Each vignette fleshes out the human rituals and ceremonies that enact both cruel and loving relationships with animals. While the scholarly scope of Dayan’s many published writings is vast and varied, threaded throughout is the theme of how cruelty helps enact an unnatural separation of spirit from flesh or “mind pressing down over the body.” This is particularly true of Animal Quintet.

My own relationship with Dayan’s writing is marked by an ancestral intellectual lineage, or what she would call perhaps a “haunt.” Back in graduate school, my advisor, Sara E. Johnson, gave me a box of precious books that had belonged to the influential scholar VèVè Clark, who had just passed. Among them was Dayan’s A Rainbow for the Christian West (1977), which she had gifted and dedicated to Clark. Her work has since made a huge mark on my own writing, especially her study of “the seepage between entities assumed to be distinct, whether dead or living, animate or inanimate, commonplace or extraordinary.” Her relationships with animals, informed as they are by her “getting down to their level,” remind me of my own lifelong visceral attunement to the sensoria of various animals. Her childhood memories of no-nonsense relations with animals transported me to my family’s backyard in Santo Domingo, where my grandmother killed the chickens we would eat by grabbing them by their heads and swinging them around until their necks cracked. I would watch in horror and awe while I shelled peas or picked out dirt from rice. Animal Quintet’s explorations of how visceral pain and terror are woven into our loving attachments conjured my own nostalgia for my grandmother and her cruelties necessary to our nourishment.

As if orchestrated by Dayan herself from her home in Tennessee, our email exchange took place on a day when I had to brush a spider off a basil plant and discovered two skins of the snakes living under the front entrance of my New England house.

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DIXA RAMÍREZ D’OLEO: Your musings about animals refuse “the veneer of enlightenment” that obscures the core of cruelty evident in animal rights discourse and, I would add, sentimentalism in general. In Animal Quintet, you write that “lives lived close to the soil and in the flesh have much to offer.” How does this perspective intersect with the argument that a focus on animals perpetuates the denial of justice to racialized people? How do you approach this seeming impasse? Is it an impasse at all?

COLIN DAYAN: An impasse? Though pro-slavery apologists and natural historians used animals as touchstones to debase blacks, they also gave us ways to overturn racist taxonomies by overturning their categories and reinventing a form of rebellion and reversal that we need now more than ever. Two recent books that take up and reinvigorate the challenge I faced in writing my 2015 book With Dogs at the Edge of Life are Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man (2020) and Bénédicte Boisseron’s Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question (2018).

Much of your work has indeed focused on what you call “negative personhood,” or animals and people “disabled by law.” I really look forward to reading Bennett’s and Boisseron’s books. I just started reading Zakiyyah Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (2020), which also engages some of these questions. I want to turn to your Southern upbringing. In Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing (2000), Patricia Yaeger argues that white Southern women’s literature is defined in part by what she calls the “unthought known” of violent antiblack racism — what you call the visceral racism of the South. Animal Quintet gave me the sense that you failed to become a good white Southern girl of a certain class because you could not properly push into some unused corner of your mind all the violence that felt so visceral to you. Would you agree with this? And if so, what do you think prevented you from fully embodying Southern whiteness? 

A good white girl. Goodness and whiteness. The words never meant a thing except trouble. My mother wanted me to be like the other girls, but she wasn’t like the other women. They looked at her, even when she got old, and compared her to Cyd Charisse or Dorothy Dandridge or Carmen Miranda. She was anything but white. They held on tight to their husbands when she walked into the room, but my mother wasn’t interested in those men, though she sure knew how to flirt.

I’m glad you mentioned Yaeger’s Dirt and Desire. I’ve been meaning to read it. You ask what stopped me from “embodying” whatever was required by Southern whiteness. I felt so outside that world and still do. I’m glad you’ve brought dirt into our discussion, since the only thing I’ve started writing in the midst of the catastrophe we’re now living through is a meditation on me and the South that I could never publish. It begins: “Drinking and fucking: That’s all I can think about now that I’ve reached the third month of the Coronavirus lockdown.” It’s a piece about longing, longing to be out in the country. If I hadn’t got married, I wrote, “I would have had horses and men and women and bourbon. I would have heard the coyotes and crickets at night. I could have lain down in the dirt with someone I’d been lusting after. So close I was to what I had probably missed without knowing it all my life.”

So back to your question. We, my mother and me, I now realize, lived somewhere else all that time, a place that wasn’t with the Southern whites or with Southern blacks. But I had the chance to get out that she didn’t. As she got older, she shared things that she’d hidden: stories about her childhood in Haiti, about her passion for the radical side of revolution, her songs for Dessalines and her memories of sitting bare-assed under her dress smack on the dirt that felt so good.

I want to talk about Lucille — and terror. “Terror,” you write in your 1995 book Haiti, History, and the Gods, “is the place of greatest love.” Lucille, the black woman employed by your family to take care of you and the household, made a deep imprint in you. What fascinates me about how Lucille took care of you is the extent to which it was intertwined with terrorizing you. Some of this felt familiar to me, since I grew up with a family whose stories of our kin and ancestors were always cast in the genre of horror — not melodrama or lament. Following your own definition of being ethical as locating “oneself in relation to a world adamantly not one’s own,” I think of these forms of horror storytelling as perhaps an ethical way of relating to the other. Do you think that frightening you with tales about ghosts, as well as tales about her own kin destroyed by various forms of antiblack oppression, was Lucille’s way of having an ethical relationship with you when it was otherwise impossible?

Lucille knew terror. Out there in the country when the white men came out to scare, to cut and string you up in the night. She taught me about black widow spiders that bit so that you didn’t know it, and then you’d be dead two days later. There was a big white man who stayed upright standing in my closet, and if I slept on my back, he’d fall out over me. But once away from humans, out there in the night, we found beauty. Out there in the dirt, with crickets rubbing their legs, and possum playing dead, then we got close. I never knew again a love like that. She warned me never to look out the window on a night with a full moon. If I did, a white lady would be hovering, ready to take me away. I can still see her, so wan and elegant, with her white dress and her head turned around the wrong way so that she could get a good look at me. Lucille knew casual slaughter. She knew the South so well that nothing ever scared her. Morality in her mind was a way to exclude those called “immoral.” Instead, she practiced the ethical life, a way of walking close, keeping faith in proximity, as she touched my neck and looked into my eyes. The idea of romance made her laugh. Real love was nothing less than a reciprocal keeping in tune. It had nothing to do with human language and the ruses of sentiment.

In your writings, including Animal Quintet, you tend to circle around, nudge at, and dwell upon that which is supposed to have been buried (perhaps while still alive) and repressed, including your mother’s Haitian ancestry, various repeated traumas, and forms of cruelty against animals and humans under the guise of entertainment or the law. But I would not describe what you do as exhuming what should have been repressed. Instead, another method emerges — one that has been inspiring to me — of “concentrating on that aspect of the reader’s mind that can perceive but not comprehend […] to sharpen the appetite for seeing and knowing, even while suggesting something indiscernible behind what is seen and known,” as you write in With Dogs at the Edge of Life (2015). Can you talk a little bit about this approach or method to your writings?

Wonderful way of putting your question. Yes, I don’t get at things directly: I nudge and gnaw at a history that, as I wrote back in Haiti, History, and the Gods was “vexed.” I grew up in a certain way, privileged and blind to much that I should have known, sheltered and protected, also hurt and confounded. I found my way through the senses, my truth was in the flesh, but I was educated to write out of the head, thinking thoughts through, relying on abstraction. But my desire for what I once called (describing Melville) “God in a slab of meat” has come through increasingly as I got older, and even more once I moved to the South. But let’s not forget that even St. Paul never ignored the flesh, which he kept tight and inextricable from the spirit. John Locke admitted, “There’s nothing that is in the mind that is not first in the senses.” So, there we have it. The writers I’ve written about all hanker after an absolute or an ideal that is grounded in matter, in the very things that might seem to oppose it. So, to answer your question about my method in this roundabout way: Yes, I have wanted to write prose that could get as close as possible to the experience of viscera and flesh, to prompt us to know, but know in a different way — like the dogs I write about.

I would love to hear you talk a little bit about the ethics of animal-human relations shaped in great part by Lucille (including those adventures with cottonmouths you write about), and how these relations differ from such practices as bullfighting. Do you see forms of entertainment like bullfighting as vehicles of nationalism, grand-scale performances designed to expel the scapegoat from the community?

Bullfighting seems more and more like a ritual that exposes what is at the heart of human life at its worst — the need to dominate, to brutalize, and through the practice of this necessity, arrive at a place distinct from the animals in our midst. But back to your question and to Lucille. She hated sentimentality, especially people who treated their animals — in this case, dogs — like precious pets. She believed this killed their independence, crushed their spirit, since her relation with animals was about getting down to their level. Even when she bashed in the cottonmouth’s head — and she did that only if it threatened me, which once it did — that was an exception, and she made sure I knew it. There are, she taught me, many forms of love, many ways of loving. So, when I began to write about pit bulls and the men who loved them and fought them, Lucille was by my side. She traveled with me to Louisiana, and she must have been the one who kept me distant from some of my comrades in academe who place themselves above the poor and roughhewn who think differently about forms of relation and reciprocity.

Why did you turn to the genre of memoir? For whom did you write In the Belly of Her Ghost (2019) and Animal Quintet?

After my mother died, boxes arrived from Atlanta. Some of them contained photos. I thought I’d write about a doomed marriage that began in a honeymoon in Mexico. But as I wrote, the story became about both of us in the South. It was only when she died that I learned that she and my father had moved to Nashville after their honeymoon. Turns out they lived a block away from me. A real haunt. I wrote In the Belly of Her Ghost for her and Animal Quintet for me and Lucille.

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Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo is assistant professor of English and American Studies at Brown University. Her first book, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present, was published by New York University Press in 2018. Her second book, Blackness in the Hills and the Photographic Negative, is under contract with Duke University Press.