I’m writing an allegorical novel about alpaca herders and democracy
Critics of public funding for the arts during the Covid crisis have asked about a grant for a novel about alpaca breeders in recent weeks. We invited its author, Duncan Sarkies, to give us an overview of his work.
That’s it, are you ready? An allegorical novel about the collapse of democracy in an organization of alpaca herders.
Each Creative New Zealand application includes a one-liner which has the task of expressing the whole project in a single sentence. I often find these shorter descriptions, which become public when projects are funded, fragmentary and unrepresentative, unworthy of the enormous amounts of thought, complexity, care and mahi that go into making the work they describe. But in this case, I really like the line. To me, it shows the enormous potential of what a story like this could accomplish, if executed well. When people ask me what I’m working on and tell them an allegorical novel about the collapse of democracy in an organization of alpaca herders I encounter a mixture of deep enthusiasm, questionable questioning, occasional withered eye rolls and, more often than not, sheer unfiltered curiosity.
We live in worrying times. Over the past 20 years, Vladimir Putin has transformed Russia from a democracy to a dictatorship masquerading as a democracy. It’s been so successful that it’s hard to see when and how it can come down to one person, one vote. In the United States, democracy has been under serious threat over the past eight years. What existed before this assault was already grotesque. The rules have been rigged by people with special interests for a long time. Archaic systems that deprive many of a voice continue to serve a privileged status quo. These are two examples, but all over the world, in times of division, the foundations of democracy are being tested.
What could be going on here in Aotearoa? We live in a country so small that some billionaires in Silicon Valley have called it a Petri dish. Are we a Petri dish? Should we take the freedoms we currently have for granted? How has New Zealand largely avoided the extent of corruption we see in other countries? (This is not the case – just think about how the first PÄkehÄ came to ‘own’ land in the first place.) How could anyone make Aotearoa a country where one prospered? larger scale corruption? Who are democracies supposed to serve and why do democracies routinely fail to serve these people? Who wins in the battle between the individual and the collective? What is the end product of a relentless pursuit of insane and endless growth? I have so many questions, so many speculations, all ripe to be explored through allegory and other forms of storytelling.
So why did I choose to write about alpaca breeders? Of all the vocations and communities in the world, why choose this one? Let me explain myself. My allegory requires a microcosm, a smaller society that I can use to explore the forces and pressures faced by organizations, democracies, and the media. I could have chosen optometrists rather than alpaca breeders. Optometrists are indeed a fascinating bunch. I could have chosen tramping clubs; I certainly did some research on tramps in hopes of finding some dirt, but the best I got was a disagreement over whether a tramp club had the right to make by-laws on tramps. shoes that people wore. I could have chosen choirs or historians, two communities that I researched, discovering this little zinger along the way: Why are academic quarrels so bitter? Because the stakes are so low.
I could have chosen a ceramics club, a source from which I have collected entertaining stories involving an argument over male anatomy and what should be considered proper decorum. I will tell you more, but it is a family chronicle.
After exploring a wide range of options, I chose Alpaca Breeders.
In telling you this, I’m trying to stick to Bob Dylan’s rule of not explaining your work. If you explain something too much, it leaves nothing to unravel and, after all, much of a writer’s unconscious psyche can never be explained. But, yes, there are many elements of an alpaca herder organization that fit perfectly with a history of democracy. The alpacas themselves, having little to say about their future. Small ranchers who do it as a hobby, which can so easily be misrepresented. Larger scale breeders, all with their own ideals and / or special interests. An alpaca magazine, whose function is to inform and promote – two verbs that can easily be at odds. The business sector whose interest in selling products will always try to influence the way things are done. Decision-makers, who have the responsibility to achieve the best results for all, but can be easily influenced by these vested interests.
I have been researching alpaca breeders for two years now. I looked into eyes that melted my soul. (The alpacas’ eyes were pretty cute too.) I admired the updos and sighed audibly as I watched the younger ones proverb. I went to farms and waved my arms rounding the cattle in an inefficient way only a city kid could think of. I narrowly avoided the fierce chest of a Berserk male (yes, that’s one thing, in alpacas as well as in humans). I listened to a recording of the revolting orgling sound that a male alpaca makes when ready to do a deed (keeping it PG) and saw alpaca breeders take pleasure in imitating that call in front of me for their own entertainment. I have attended competitions and seen people use microphones in environments where a microphone is clearly not needed. I posed for a photo with an alpaca the same color as my beard. That same alpaca won the best color, which technically means my beard is the best color as well.
And, yes, I discovered some brilliant real stories, things that challenged me. I’m not writing a presentation. This is purely allegorical, so anything I hear that is remotely juicy has to be pieced together and become a fictional form again. I have a bigger goal in mind. I write about alpaca breeders, but I write about New Zealand, I write about a world at a crossroads. I am writing about the conflict that exists between us as humans, and also within us – the internal conflict between selfishness and altruism, between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere.
Alpacas are fluffy. Alpacas are funny. Alpacas are stoic (yes, I was surprised to learn that too). Alpacas are cute. Alpacas are a Trojan horse – a vehicle I can use to step into a reader’s shoes, to surprise them, to entertain and entice with all their perfect madness, and then, once you’ve laughed, once you’ve laughed. you fell in love, ah, maybe we can really come to some truths.
I’m excited. I have written a huge amount of material, so many scenes that I find vital, ridiculous, heartbreaking, overwhelming, scary. I can feel the power in this material. Now I have had the opportunity to do this idea justice, to devote the time, profession and love that this idea deserves to it.
I am grateful that I had the chance to do this job full time, to do it right. I have enormous empathy for the other artists who applied for project funding and were unsuccessful. This has happened to me many times, and I know all too well the struggle artists face in trying to produce their best work and pay the bills at the same time. I am Armenian and Scottish so I will say kanadz and slang and toast all those other artists who are fighting the good fight.
A mini-furore erupted last week when a reporter interrogates whether a project like this should receive public funding. Of course, the attack is not really about this particular project. This is part of a larger campaign against the validity of art in general. It was just my turn. My project made a great sound clip, the same sound clip that will hopefully get people to read it.
I don’t want to be caught in a culture of justification or excuse; I’ll leave that to the others. I am so glad that we live in a place where we are all free to share our views, including denouncing projects like mine.
When regimes seek to become more autocratic, the first people they try to silence are journalists and artists, for these kinds of truth tellers have an important role in any free society. When you have a culture where dissent is expressed regularly, it is a sign that it is a healthy society.
But artists have a function, they have it! They have a huge role to play in a larger conversation. Any society looking to stay healthy needs to think about it. The role of the artist is to hold the mirror.
Duncan Sarkies hopes to publish his novel via Penguin Random House in early 2023.
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