Dr Laura Jean McKay published an award-winning story about human and animal understanding entwined with a pandemic, as Covid-19 swept the nation.
Lost for words is how writer Dr Laura Jean McKay described her reaction to winning two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards.
Her debut novel, The Animals in That Country, has won the 2021 Victorian Prize for Literature and The Sunday Times Book of The Year, nabbing $100,000 in prize money.
Released last year as the Covid-19 pandemic began, the novel follows Jean, a middle-aged drunkard, grandmother and wildlife ranger in Australia, who becomes infected with a strange flu that allows humans to communicate with animals.
“It’s really two novels: it’s a gritty realist novel about someone whose life is falling apart, and it’s a speculative science fiction novel where animals can talk,” McKay said.
During the writing process, she would often evade questions about the pandemic storyline, as people would assume it was too unrealistic.
But, that all went out the window following Covid-19, she said.
“That’s been the really strange thing about the timing of the publication.”
She was bitten by a mosquito when writing her novel and contracted Chikungunya, a virus that causes aches and a fever.
This sparked her idea for a pandemic that could infect humans, giving them the ability to understand animals.
McKay has studied the representation of animals in contemporary literature across the fields such as creative writing, cross-cultural narratives and postcolonial and precolonial studies.
An animal-lover by heart and by education, she became interested in the narrative humans give to animals, exploring themes of superiority between characters such as Jean the ranger and Sue the dingo.
“The whole book is told through Jean’s eyes, so when she starts to understand what Sue is saying, she thinks she’s calling her a queen. It’s very imperialists, very colonising.”
It is somewhat a mirror McKay is holding up to a human perspective of animals, their position within society and the way humans have treated the planet.
It is also reflective of the racism and dismissive colonial mindset that continues to linger against Aboriginal culture and knowledge, she said.
“You’re writing to create a conversation and open up a door and ask questions.”