Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Q&A with Lynne Hugo

Photo by Alan deCourcy



Lynne Hugo is the author of the new novel The Language of Kin. Her other books include The Testament of Harold's Wife. She lives in Ohio.


Q: What inspired you to write The Language of Kin, and how did you create your characters Eve, Kate, and Marc?


A: Like most of my novels, The Language of Kin was inspired by something that seemed wrong to me. In this case, it was taking my very young grandchildren to the zoo and seeing primates in cages.


At the time, I knew just enough about their intelligence and how they live in their rainforest habitat to be upset by seeing people staring at them through glass, by how limited their space was, and that there were no young with them. I guessed that they'd been sterilized.


A dear friend is not only in my own book club, but she’s also a Ph.D. anthropologist with a lot of fieldwork in Africa, and I began asking her questions.


As she responded to my interest and offered more explanations, I became aware of how and why western African chimpanzees have been purposely orphaned, captured, and sold--many to American companies--and the idea for a new novel was born. Especially when she introduced me to a colleague who told me there's a controversy among professionals over whether it's ethical to have primates in zoos at all. 


So, for Eve, I created a young chimp with a typical story. Orphaned by trackers who killed her mother and other mothers as were they were nursing together in the Ugandan rainforest in order to poach the babies and sell them at the village marketplace to middlemen.


The middlemen, in turn, sold them variously to American and European medical labs to be experimental subjects, as well as a circus, and to wealthy people abroad who made the terrible mistake of thinking a baby chimp would make a good pet for their children.


In Eve's case, after eight years of isolation in a small cage, subjected to many painful medical experiments, when that was too-slowly stopped by rules finally put in place by the National Institute of Health enforcing the Endangered Species Act, she was finally placed in a zoo.


For Kate's character, I created a renowned Ph.D. primatologist who's the assistant curator at the (fictitious) Dayton Zoo.


Kate is no longer able to support the mission of the zoo, having come to believe that certain species should not be confined because it is simply too incompatible with their intelligence with how they live in the wild, and that it's incumbent on humans to stop destroying their habitats. She argues that it's a moral obligation to put a stop to poaching by dealing with the problems that lead to it.


An only child, she's had a conflicted relationship with her mother in the past, but now her mother has primary aphasia and Kate would give anything to be able to communicate with her. 


For Marc, I created a well-trained vet tech who also has a master's degree in anthropology with a specialty in primatology. Until recently, Kate was his supervisor. His mother is deaf, and, for reasons that have to do with their family history, overly dependent on him. He's fluent in American Sign Language.


He believes that zoos can be safe, humane and good for animals, that stopping the human greed behind habitat destruction isn't possible, and therefore zoos are the only alternative to the extinction of certain endangered species like chimpanzees. 


While these characters do represent the conflicting points of view about zoos, I didn't want them to be stock characters or simple antagonists so there are areas of solid respect and cooperation between them, such as their mutual caring for Bruce, a mid-level autistic teenager who's at the zoo in a city-initiative job training program, as well as their distaste for the zoo's executive director, Thurston. But, of course, their differences must come to a head, and they do.


Q: How did you conduct your research for the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The research for this novel was lengthy! I started with my friend, Dr. Linda Marchant, who loaned me stacks of books, articles, and videos, and shared her field experience in Uganda and other African nations with me as it pertained to her research with chimps.


She invited me to her home for lunch with her colleague, Linda Koebner, M.A., who has experience working with captive chimps in both laboratories and sanctuaries. Dr. Marchant also put me in touch with Samantha Russak, Ph.D., who, at the time, was working in a zoo and is also very experienced with chimps in the wild as well as in captivity.

Dr. Russak provided consultation on the manuscript itself, reading a draft thoroughly and providing very helpful input as to exactly how things are done in a zoo, suggesting corrections where I had something wrong, and corroborating the places where it was accurate. AND she felt the story represented the world of a zoo and that of zookeepers really well--that meant so much!


I also received help from Dr. Kathy McMahon-Klosterman, who is a disabilities specialist (or, as many professionals call rightly call that population, differently-abled). She gave me help and information about the deaf community that was invaluable; where to read more, and what to read, and what videos to watch.


And yes, much was surprising. I didn't know that chimps use tools. I hadn't known how they share parenting, how they communicate with each other. I hadn't known that we humans have nearly 99 percent the same DNA as chimps. Truly, humans and chimps are close kin.


Q: The author Katrina Kittle said of the book, “Hugo’s words are beautiful, but this riveting story shows us how words can often fail and forces us to see the many other ways we communicate.” What do you think of that description, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: I think it's both accurate and helpful that Ms. Kittle noted that the novel's important underlying theme has to do with communication. Studying how chimps in the wild communicate with each other brought me to think more deeply about communication in general, verbal and non-verbal. That led me to think about sign language, too. 


In this novel, I have a secondary character who is deaf, another with primary aphasia (meaning she's lost the ability to process words--but does not have dementia) and a third who has mid-level autism, meaning that while he has deep feelings, expressing them effectively in words is difficult for him. I had a lot to learn. 


But this is what I was exploring in The Language of Kin. I wanted to create a dramatic story that would, through characters and action, show how we all struggle to communicate in different ways—how dismally we sometimes fail, how brilliantly we sometimes devise ways to succeed.


About the title: I always try to take the title of a novel from part of a significant line in the text, and The Language of Kin is no different. I think every family develops their own "language"--and as we expand our definition of family in ever-widening circles to include, perhaps, our work, our generation, our tribe, our culture, etc., there is some language by which we connect.


Marc works diligently to create a shared language with Eve. How do we connect ourselves? How do we recognize or create a mutual language? That's what the title is pointing toward.


There's also the question of what language do we use when there's a life-threatening crisis and we don't have an immediately usable common one?


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Oh, it definitely changed several times. I've never been a "tie it all up in a neat red bow" endings novelist, but on the other hand, I always want there to be hope in the ending and some open question to let the reader think ahead about what may or may not happen in the future.


I usually find that after I have a complete draft, as I'm revising, I find ways to deepen the story and that includes the ending. I want it to be as layered as human life really is--because so little in our lives is actually one-dimensionally simple, particularly when it comes to emotions and relationships.


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: My next novel, scheduled for the fall of 2024, is titled The Sparks From Different Stars


The reverberating effects of personal history on decisions is explored​ in my next novel​, ​The Sparks From Different Stars, ​and the major thematic concern is whether we control our own fates or there is such a thing as destiny​.


The Sparks From Different Stars​ also looks at the reverberating effects of sexism and power dynamics in the workplace, as well as their lingering psychological wounds and how those affected may choose to indefinitely nurse them or to find their way to healing.


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: Yes! Deborah Kalb asks good questions! Thank you so very much!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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