One morning, some years ago, the instructor of this course awoke to find herself transformed into a clam. This event triggered an extended survey into all varieties of animal tales as she sought understand what happened to her. Why had others before her assumed animal forms? What precipitated their enchantment or disenchantment? Was there some hidden poetic logic at play?
It seems any exploration into metamorphosis must begin with Franz Kafka and his canonical story—“Metamorphosis”—about a man who turns into a cockroach. However, Kafka also wrote several other stories featuring non-human narrators, including “A Report to the Academy,” narrated by a cultivated monkey exhausted by the arbitrary cruelty of human society, to “The Burrow” about a fearful, paranoid animal enclosed in his own elaborate tunnels of reason. Over the course of three weeks, we will read and discuss five of these stories and look at the various cultural works these animal stories have since inspired.
As Donna Haraway has said: We polish an animal mirror to look at ourselves. This course offers a postscript: We become animal to become ourselves. What can we learn from becoming our animal kin? Moments of metamorphosis are risky and often violent, but in the aftermath, wondrous new shapes emerge. Perhaps at the conclusion of this course, we can begin to imagine our way into new paradigms, new bodies, and new ways of being, more fitting for the challenging times ahead.
-- Instructor --
Anelise Chen is the author of So Many Olympic Exertions (Kaya Press, 2017), a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. She is currently at work on a memoir, Clam Down (One World Random House), based on her mollusk column for the Paris Review. Chen’s essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, such as the NY Times, New Republic, Village Voice, and BOMB Magazine. She has received residencies and fellowships from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Blue Mountain Center, Banff Centre, the Wurlitzer Foundation, and she is currently a 2019-2020 Literature Fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University.