Leslie Thatcher | What Are We? Kelpie Wilson's "Primal Tears" Offers One Response

Thursday, 02 August 2007 07:14 by: Anonymous

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Leslie Thatcher | An Interview With Kelpie Wilson    [

    What Are We? Kelpie Wilson's "Primal Tears" Offers One Response
    By Leslie Thatcher
    t r u t h o u t | Book Review

    Thursday 02 August 2007

    Not long after 9/11, I found I had a sudden intense hunger to know what was irreducibly human, to know exactly what we are, described with the precision, detail and accuracy of science. My archaeologist husband suggested lists of anthropology texts. My colleague, Truthout Environment Editor Kelpie Wilson, sent me to Steven Mithin's wonderful "After the Ice." But for all these books' inherent interest, I did not find any answers there. On vacation this summer, I reread Kelpie's intriguing first novel, "Primal Tears." While Wilson also does not offer "answers" to the what-is-a-human question, she takes her readers down a suggestive and intriguing line of inquiry.

    The central conceit of "Primal Tears" - the existence of Sage, a human-bonobo hybrid - might be expected to produce an extended meditation on human essence. As some have pointed out, humans share as much genetic material with bonobos - the "peaceful" apes - as we do with the more aggressive chimpanzees. But while Wilson's heroine, Sage, is a charming and convincing character, it is not her nature that suggests some human "essence," but rather how the book's human characters respond to her.

    Sage is accidentally conceived, born and nurtured to adolescence in a supportive family and community. She and the people of the community are led to believe she is a human suffering from an unusual "syndrome" until the local "Kristian Kommand" suspects her existence and turns her in. After escaping with her parents once, she is subsequently captured by federal agents. She succeeds in escaping on her own. In the woods, Sage exercises the survival skills she learned from her human father. Later she joins a group trying to save old growth forests from logging. She acquires a rich and powerful patron who arranges a media introduction. She meets her biological father and regularly spends time with the bonobos as she becomes a celebrity and tries - with the help of parents, patron and friends - to save the world. But there is no fairy-tale ending....

    Those familiar with Wilson's nonfiction writing at Truthout and elsewhere will rediscover its many virtues in "Primal Tears": clean, clear sentences that carry the narrative with apparent effortlessness; precise and yet evocative - even lyrical - descriptions, particularly of the Northwest wildernesses; an eclecticism of interests spanning primate behavior and biology, feminism, religion, varieties of human culture, the vast nonhuman world, politics, economics, human and nonhuman sexuality, fashion, semiotics, activism, media, and finally - what I consider the hallmark of all of Wilson's work - the ability to synthesize and tease out the connections between all of these apparently disparate phenomena.

    The theme of tears - as biological substance, essential prop, emotional marker, symbolic referent - is one of the deep poetic devices Wilson uses to make those connections. More frequently, however, it is her characters who - sometimes riding their individual hobby horses - articulate them to one another. Yet "Primal Tears" - unlike some of the "fiction" coming from progressive authors - is effective as a novel and its polemic features never swamp the story, which is briskly plotted around and carried by the central conceit.

    Wilson's experience as a nonfiction writer contribute to that effectiveness: there is, for example, a precision to the novel's descriptions and explanations that many fiction writers would do well to emulate. At the same time, technical issues relating to character development and delineation are suggestive of a first effort at fiction. Internal dialogues too often tell rather than show. The omniscient narrator's global "objective" perspective is perhaps less intimate - and ultimately less eloquent - than any first-person narrator's might have been.

    None of that prevents the characters from coming convincingly to life or their ensemble from suggesting a response to that question about what is most essentially human, for they all - with the possible exception of Sage's adoptive human father - see in this unique and charming heroine the means to further their specific and individual agendas. Many of those agendas are "disinterested" and worthy - even noble - and the human characters have real emotional attachment to Sage and to one another, but what drives each of them, nonetheless, is realization of their goals, and everything and everyone - Sage most of all - may be opportunistically wielded as a tool in furtherance of those goals. Wilson's humans are unremitting engineers and their world an endless toolbox.

    I found "Primal Tears" beautiful, ugly, moving, funny, informative and disturbingly mordant. One might not imagine - reading this review - that the novel is also an almost sunnily optimistic tale, but to understand that aspect, you will have to read the book.


    An Interview With Kelpie Wilson
    By Leslie Thatcher
    t r u t h o u t | Interview

    Thursday 02 August 2007

    Leslie Thatcher: Please tell us a little about the genesis of "Primal Tears."

    Kelpie Wilson: "Primal Tears" was born out of an obsession I had with the idea of an ape-human hybrid. I had read Frans DeWaal's book, "Peacemaking Among Primates," and learned two things from it: first, that humans share nearly 99 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees, and that the bonobo chimpanzee in particular resembles us in uncanny ways. Second, that bonobos are the "make love not war chimps" who have a female-dominated society. The existence of these creatures as our closest relatives gave me hope that we humans might actually be capable of living in peaceful, loving societies.

    The other thing that was going on with me when I first started obsessing over great apes in the early '90s was that I was deeply involved in the struggles over the spotted owls and ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest. There was a lot of hostility toward the owl on the part of displaced timber workers. It was really sad to see, but indicative of a long tradition in Western culture that places human needs above those of wildlife and ecosystems, even though science tells us that we have to preserve biodiversity in order to keep the planet healthy for ourselves. Animals are our relatives, not objects to exploit for our convenience. I thought that the birth of a human-chimp hybrid was not only physically possible, but that it would radically shake up society. The mere existence of a hybrid would force humans to recognize that we are not seperate from other animals, but part of a continuum of life.

    Eventually I became so taken with the idea that I started having long fantasies about doing it myself. That's when I knew I had to write a book.

    What made you decide a novel was a better vehicle for the issues you address in "Primal Tears" than a nonfiction book? How was it different for you to write fiction?

    A novel was the only way to go because it had become so personal for me. I had visceral feelings about it that I could never have conveyed in a nonfiction work. There were also ideas I had about human culture and myth that I was pretty sure were true, but that I could never document. Fiction gave me the freedom to follow those paths into dark, obscure territory.

    As far as writing fiction goes, I was lucky enough to have some wonderful mentors. I learned a huge amount from the writer Kate Wilhelm and also had the advantage of an early critique from my father, Robin Wilson, who taught writing for many years and founded a science fiction writing workshop called Clarion. I truly never thought I would write fiction, but when the need arose I was lucky to have the tools available that I needed, along with priceless help from some very dear people.

    Is there anything else about yourself and your experience you'd like to share with Truthout readers?

    Mostly that I have been so thrilled at the positive reaction I've gotten to the book. I've had letters from some very interesting people, including one of my heros, John Robbins, author of "Diet for a New America." Also a two-page fan letter from R. Crumb that was a real crackup. My two favorite science fiction writers of all time have written blurbs for me: Kate Wilhelm and Greg Bear. I've gotten letters from readers urging me to write sequels, including one fellow who outlined a whole trilogy he'd like me to write, as well as several seasons worth of TV shows! There have been a few nibbles from movie producers as well.

    One of the most gratifying results of writing "Primal Tears" has been getting to meet some of the scientists who actually work with bonobos. One thing I've learned is that bonobos are not completely peaceful and lovey-dovey all the time. Like anyone, when they are pushed to extremes, they can be violent. The females are not shy about ganging up on problem males, and they are capable of nipping off appendages when they are angry, Lorena Bobbitt style.

    What lies in the future for your novel?

    Right now I am working with artist Grace Roselli to produce the graphic novel version of "Primal Tears." Grace is the most amazing painter. She contacted me a couple of months ago and we clicked right away. You can see her paintings here. I love her work. She integrates all the feelings I have about women, children and the future of the earth in these eerie, sensuous dreamscapes. I've never collaborated with someone on a creative project like this before. It is incredibly fun and we've already completed 14 pages of the story, which gets us through chapter six of the novel.

    This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is Truthout's French language editor.
Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 16:02