A chance encounter with a scarlet tanager, a migratory songbird that travels from North to South America on a yearly basis, prompted Associate Professor of Spanish María Ospina to consider the larger topics of what animals think and feel and, ultimately, how human beings define their own concept of home.
Ospina has recently released a novel written in Spanish entitled “Solo un poco aquí,” published by Random House in Latin America, where she explores how animals move across the landscapes that humans transform. Ospina’s novel has been reviewed in Spain’s most important newspaper, El País, by the renown Mexican author Emiliano Monge. Monge’s raving review states that it’s “written in a language of notable beauty”, “has the rhythm of a plant that sprouts and germinates little by little,” and “it explodes in a musicality that seems to come from the lungs of a small and fragile bird.”
“I’ve always been curious about the lives of non-human animals and have wondered about our responsibility to examine how they witness the world. This book allowed me to investigate that. I am deeply interested in history and in addressing how the histories we tell have mostly left out those beings that are not human. How can we be curious enough to think about other species and to consider how we exist with them, how we affect them and how they transform us?” Ospina said in a recent interview.
Ospina, a scholar of contemporary Latin American culture, has recently found that fiction has been the most potent way to examine her intellectual concerns. She grew up with a love of animals, having a dog and other pets.
“I spent a lot of time growing up in the countryside, in a farm in the Colombian Andes that had cows, sheep, lamas, and many dogs. My mom and grandmother were hikers, and I grew up hiking through these mountains, which was a crucial inspiration for me in this novel,” Ospina said.
It was a single chance interaction with a scarlet tanager two decades ago that provided a long gestating artistic impulse. “Around 2007, I was doing research in Colombia for my Ph.D. and I found a scarlet tanager in the balcony of the apartment where I was living. I had never seen such a striking bird so close to me in my life. It was very still, alive, but almost paralyzed on the floor,” Ospina recalled.
She gave the stricken bird some water and seeds and after a short period of time, it left. “I never saw it leaving, but I realized it was a migratory bird that I had in my hand for a moment … We go on about our lives ignoring the birds that cross the hemisphere twice a year on these amazing, heroic voyages. How can we address that heroism, that act of witnessing the world and that radical act of dwelling everywhere?” Ospina said.
The image of the bird stayed with her. She asked ornithologists what they think might have happened—they thought the bird was likely stunned from flying into a window. She first tried to immortalize the bird in a children’s story, but the storytelling grew deeper and more complex, beginning to include the perspectives of other species, including the story of the movement of two abandoned dogs, a porcupine, and a beetle. “How can adult fiction tell the stories of animal voyages and interspecies relations in a way that considers but also decenters the human?” Ospina said.
As it turns out, the stories the bird inspired delved into topics like people’s views of what constitutes home, which should lead us to think about other species “What does it mean to belong to a place? How can we rethink this question in the face of non-human animal migrations and movements?” Ospina said.
At one point in her novel, the scarlet tanager and other migratory birds fly over Florida as they head south. They pass freely through an area where the American government housed children separated from their parents as they attempted to enter the United States. “How can we examine these two very different types of movements across the continent that briefly coincide at the same place?” Ospina said. “Considering them together allows us to see the arbitrariness and the violence of what was recently done to those migrant children while the birds are able to ignore these borders. At the same time, a migratory bird also encounters human violence in so many places, in the form of razed forests and toxic waters, for example, and this transforms his life and journey.”
In writing the book, Ospina set for herself a daunting task—telling animals’ stories without anthropomorphizing them. By taking this approach, Ospina hoped to offer a different sense of the relationship between people and animals. “I did not want to project human emotions onto animals. I want to respect the sovereignty of the animals and the notion that these being feel and fully experience the world in intelligent and complex ways, shaped by different ontologies of space and time, and we as humans don’t understand that entirely,” Ospina said.
She sees this kind of engagement as a profound act of empathy, a model based on companionship. “In the case of this novel, the act of empathy is not putting oneself in the shoes of somebody else, but rather being next to that being and recognizing your limitations in what you can know about them” Ospina said.
An excerpt from the novel shows Ospina’s deft and sensitive way of handling animals’ experiences. She focuses on a scarlet tanager that migrates from Connecticut to the Colombian Andes. After the bird passes through the Darien jungle, he flies through a rural area where the Andes begin to rise, where army airplanes are spraying herbicides on coca plants to kill the crop, until recently a crucial way the war on drugs was waged in some parts of the country. Machine guns fire nearby. A helicopter passes.
“Despite the disarray of his feathers, perhaps he feels relief when he hears the clamor of the forest again, that the cicadas and the crickets are still there, though the gunfire continues on a neighboring mountain. Then a small place arrives to interrupt his breakfast with its din and its drizzle of fine, white rain. Most of the poison falls on the crops but some also reaches the tress that survived the logging, where the tanager is resting. It’s a toxic dew that burns his flesh and clouds his eyes. A spray that leaves his wings sticky, covers the berries, changes the flavor of things, and hurts his tongue. An acrid puddle staining the iron that has for ages mingled gently with the water. A cutting bitterness. Pain, maybe?” Ospina wrote, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary.