I am sitting quietly in my home office this evening and feeling a bit emotional. I just heard some news that at first glance won’t seem related to writing: Air France has canceled a planned Feb. 1 shipment of monkeys from Mauritius to a lab called Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories (SNBL) in the United States. The lab, which was waiting to use the monkeys in experiments, has been accused of terrible animal abuse by a whistle blower who worked there and who documented the abuse. Because I am particularly sensitive about animals (and, I suppose, a number of other things) I could only glance at the headlines related to the abuse — the details would have likely given me nightmares.
According to PETA, the announcement of the shipment cancellation “comes after tens of thousands of e-mails, thousands of social media posts, and hundreds of phone calls” from people who had heard about the planned shipment. I first learned about the shipment myself from the Facebook page of author Jessica Keener, who was upset by the news and couldn’t ignore it. Equally upset, I attempted to call the number that had been listed for Air France’s Cargo Department, but the airline had closed down the number. Then, based on additional advice Jessica posted, I sent emails to every executive at Air France and KLM who might have any power to stop the shipment. It was all I could do, and when I finished, I was left with the sinking feeling that my actions probably wouldn’t make any difference.
In the world of non-profits that care about wildlife and animal rights, it is rare to gain a victory against an abuser. When I learned a short while ago that the shipment of monkeys had been stopped, I was a little shocked…and then deeply grateful and relieved. Something good had happened in this fight for once. Thousands of voices had cried out against an egregious deed, and someone had listened and stopped it. What a feeling!
So what does any of this have to do with writing? Certainly penning a few emails doesn’t qualify as literary fodder. But last night I thought about those emails, and I considered what it meant to me to speak up.
So many writers have addressed the basic question: “Why Do I Write?” For me, I believe the answer lies in something that was expressed beautifully by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I understand the price that is paid when onlookers remain silent in the face of injustice. Understanding this, I feel compelled to speak even when I am afraid, or tired, or when it would be so much easier to simply hope that someone else might pick up what I could simply choose to let go. I don’t consider this compulsion to speak to be anything heroic; in fact, there have been times when I haven’t spoken up when I should have, and likely times when I have lost a friend due to a lack of tact in speaking my mind. I remember an incident when I was walking around a large reservoir at a park with a friend and I saw a boy encouraging his dog to chase some terrified geese. His father was standing nearby smiling, doing nothing. Without thinking I rushed over and said, “What are you doing? Stop that!”
My friend, who happened to be a rather tough-looking martial arts instructor, had to pull me back and tell me to be quiet. “I don’t want to have to beat anybody up!” he said. My message was just, but let’s face it: it’s not the most intelligent thing in the world to criticize a child’s actions in front of his father, or vice versa, at least not without a little forethought or tact. Thankfully, they were so startled that they just stared at me, the dog stopped barking, and the geese made their escape.
Of course no one can speak to every just battle, as much as we might wish we could. And there are circumstances when I have had to remain quiet, or at least have learned to think carefully before I speak. But the beauty is that I never, ever have to keep quiet on the page. And I realize, now, that even when I record the smallest or simplest moments in writing and examine what they might mean, I am using something we are given that maybe can make a difference: a voice.