The Stella Interview: Hayley Singer – 2024 Stella Prize shortlist

In the Stella Prize Interview, we chat with Hayley Singer, shortlisted for the 2024 Stella Prize for her debut book Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead.

Hayley Singer

How did you come about writing Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead?

This book was drafted out of my PhD, which I completed in 2016. I spent years re-writing the document into a work that could speak beyond academic environments.  

My PhD focused on an idea called the fleischgeist, which is a pun on Hegel’s concept of the zeitgeist. Fleischgeist is a German compound term I found in the early days of my research as I was reading a boutique magazine called this is meatpaper. ‘Fleisch’ means meat and ‘geist’ can be translated into English as ghost or spirit, or mind or intellect.

In the first issue of this is meatpaper, the editors announced that they would explore global meat cultures from meat glue to offal, meat hats to DIY slaughter. For them, meat production and consumption encapsulated the spirit of our times. They were exploring the fleischgeist.

Throughout my PhD I focussed on developing the potential meanings of this term. I spent years looking for examples that embodied the fleischgeist within my lived contexts. I started to understand meat as a storied substance via philosophers and cultural theorists like Val Plumwood and Jane Bennett. I also saw meat as a wild storyteller, with special thanks to Deborah Levys severely underrated, genre-breaking novella Diary of a Steak. Diary performs a mind-twisting unravelling of human exceptionalism, misogynistic medicine, and it disrupts dominant understandings of multispecies cultures by bringing a feral creaturely poetics to the page. I do not use the term ‘feral’ with any negative multispecies connotations. I use it to point to Levy’s undomesticated creative practice.

Within the fleischgeist there is a tension between diverse and divergent feelings and ethics in relation to meat produce and consumption. Meat love and disgust, meat eating and avoidance clash and pull and snag on each. There is a sense of haunting that hangs over all of this. I see it as an ethical haunting that occurs when the realities of meat production, artificial insemination, multispecies eugenics, family separation, brutal death, life-long confinement, de-beaking, tail docking, ear tagging, stun-gunning, live transport (I could go on) are brought onto the cultural scene.

Often narratives that speak the realities of animal slaughter and meat production are kept ‘out of bounds’. They are swept off the cultural scene and held in a liminal space of knowledge against which the culture I live in defines itself as kind or ethical or empathetic or even ‘civilised’. Narratives that speak the realities of the industrial meat complex are relentlessly policed.

There are socially acceptable stories of meat, and meat production. But they can only be told according to very narrow generic conventions, and the stories are often truncated. The gore is washed away. As I wrote Abandon Every Hope, I worked to find ways to transgress what is culturally acceptable to say within my lived context. I needed to haul the gore back onto the cultural scene, and I needed to do it in a way that would still invite readers into the text. Abandon Every Hope is trying to write a version of the fleischgeist. The ghostly, tabooed version.

In your Stella Prize longlist video, you mentioned that this book is a ‘essentially a lamentation’. Why lamentations and how much did poetry influence your writing process?

Lamentation allows a person to speculatively and performatively recreate pain, horror, distress and grief, publicly. Lamentation speaks grief while holding onto horror. This seemed like the only way I could approach the world-sickening world of the slaughterhouse.

I read poetry. Absolutely. I am astonished by poets. I am astonished by the ways they show me the world as it is, as it might be. The poets I read are political and uncompromising. Even though I do not write poetry, I try to write towards the potency I find in the poets I adore.

Describing pain and suffering is not easy or straightforward. Language must be precise to clearly manifest the experience on the page. How did you go about this in Abandon Every Hope?

I am not sure I have been effective at manifesting pain and suffering on the page. Sometimes I think about a head smacked against concrete. I think about my head smacked against concrete and I feel that precise description is impossible, at least for me. There is so much pain and suffering I had to leave out of this book because my mind collapsed when I tried to describe it. I wanted to bring in the fear, the smells, the confusion, the boredom but it was too much for me. I faltered under the weight of it all. So there are many things missing from this work. I wrote several versions of the book: a scholarly monograph, a book-length prose-poem, a series of more conventional essays. From each version I only carried over what felt vital.

“I want this book to be transformational. Writing can be a form of activism. Literature is transformational because we each come to books when it is possible for us. I can put a book down when it is too much. You can pick one up when you have the capacity to move through it.”

How did you practice self-care during the writing and editing process of Abandon Every Hope?

I did not practice self-care. I didn’t realise it was a possibility while I was writing the book. As I worked on the book, I was alert to the fact that nothing I was doing came close to the pain of animals who are born and killed as product.

Since the book has been published, I have learned that there is a way to practice self-care while reading Abandon Every Hope. A friend told me they were micro-dosing it. They open it, read a fragment or an essay, close the book and walk away. The book might take a month or a year to read. Or maybe they won’t finish it. But they’ve found a way in. 

Rebecca Giggs said about your book: ‘Hayley Singer is a modern-day mermaid, a writer with extraordinary sensitivity to the junctions of human and animal life. This book does not shy from the depths — a glittering achievement on a profoundly murky subject. Abandon Every Hope is an otherworldly book of animal innerness and moral regard: a transformational guide to how we think about the creatures we consume.’ Do you hope this book will transform readers? Is there a way to regain hope?

Yes, I want this book to be transformational. Writing can be a form of activism. Literature is transformational because we each come to books when it is possible for us. I can put a book down when it is too much. You can pick one up when you have the capacity to move through it. In writing, there is time to say things carefully and be heard fully. In my experience, this is rare in conversations but not in books. While reading, there is time to walk away (or throw the book across the room) think, return, re-read … Same goes for writing. As I draft, I imagine and re-imagine what is possible for the distanced conversation I hope to have with others. In this way, writing and reading can be about participating in a great, but slow, unravelling of a toxic status quo.

Is there a way to regain hope? I really don’t know. The world is getting worse, far worse, for multispecies beings. Meat consumption and extinction rates are rising. This is no coincidence. I sit firmly in the camp that hope comes from action.

Out of the research you did, what other philosophical meditations on human-animal relations would you recommend reading?

There are so many … this is a heavily edited (but very very good) list:

  • The War Against Animals by Dinesh Wadiwel
  • Summertime: Notes from a Vanishing Future by Danielle Celermajer
  • Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals by Lori Gruen
  • Chicken by Annie Potts
  • Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with other Animals and the Earth edited by Carol J. Adams and Lori Gruen
  • Afro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism and Black veganism from Two Sisters by Aph and Syl Ko

There is also a podcast called Knowing Animals, created by political scientist and theorist Siobhan O’Sullivan. Siobhan has been a vital thinker of multispecies justice in political, legal and advocacy terms. Tragically, Siobhan passed away in 2023. Her work still sits right in my guts. Siobhan and her work have been fundamental to my development in the world of critical animal studies. Knowing Animals is on iRoar, the animals podcasting network created by Siobhan. The pod is now hosted by animal studies scholar Josh Milburn. It continues to explore the world of animals and ethics, the law, politics and advocacy.

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