Author Q&A: Polly Clark

(River run, £14.99/Audible, £24.99)

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Primatologist Frieda, battling addiction and her fears, starts a new job at a zoo about to welcome a Siberian tiger. Russian conservationist Tomas is a steward of one of the world’s harshest environments, where a tiger has been killed by poachers and a tigress now prowls. Toronto-born Clark is a prize-winning poet and novelist but has also worked as a volunteer ranger for the Wildlife Trust and a zookeeper. The third and fourth narratives of her novel concern the lives of two indigenous people in the area, and the world of the tigress herself.

Tell us about your real-life experience with Siberian tigers.
In 2017 I travelled to the Russian Far East in winter to learn how to track Siberian tigers. In this remote area of Russian taiga (forest) about 500 tigers live wild. Tourists do not go there. It is not a normal safari destination. It’s extremely cold (-35C); there are no concessions to human comfort and you are not going to see a tiger in the flesh. This is a good thing – an encounter with a Siberian tiger in the wild is mortally dangerous for all. We observed the tigers via camera trap and our encounters were with their often shocking physical manifestations: gruesome kill sites, and their tracks, which told us so much about their lives. My experience with them is with these manifestations. The tiger is thought of as the presiding spirit of the forest, and this is my experience of it. Their presence is powerfully felt but invisible. This made the trip feel less of a research trip in the normal sense and more akin to a pilgrimage.

You were also a zookeeper. With so much real-life experience, why did you decide to write a book of fiction abut tigers rather than non-fiction?
All my research, all my life experience, is in service to the task of creating an imagined world which is greater, more meaningful and complete than the real world of facts. Tiger contains characters with lives that seem irretrievably separated, as in real life: east and west, man and woman, human and animal. By following and exploring their stories I demonstrate how interconnected they are. This is the magic of fiction – connection through imagination. Non-fiction is a different task: two brilliant examples of non-fiction about Siberian tigers are The Tiger by John Vaillant and The Great Soul of Siberia by Sooyong Park. I recommend them wholeheartedly.

Tomas and his father were hunters and loggers before conservationists – does theirs reflect a real career path in the taiga?
There are opportunities now for Russians to purchase areas of the taiga on a lease and to manage them in a way that preserves them, whilst allowing a livelihood. Eco-tourism is a fledgling industry now. Before this, the whole Far East was crippled by the death of state industry in the area, and the taiga threatened by logging by foreign companies. In the 1990s, people were forced into the forest simply to survive by whatever means. It’s not a career path, but it is a development, a growing understanding that the forest is a resource that can be shared and managed.

Can Putin be celebrated for his conservation efforts and why do you think people sometimes have more concern for animal rights than they do human rights?
The Siberian tiger is lucky – it will be saved because its perceived characteristics of courage, strength and the masculine ideal correspond to the ambitions of a powerful ruler. Putin wants to be known as the “Tiger President” and he has made it his mission to save the tiger. It will be saved, because he has the unilateral power to do this. The Siberian tiger is an apex predator: only a healthy forest can support a viable population. By saving the tiger, Putin is, perhaps inadvertently, conserving one of the last great wildernesses on earth. The fact of this is certainly worth celebrating. To contrast this with the bonobo, an animal equally rare and completely opposite in habitat and social structure to the Amur tiger: no one in power identifies with these matriarchal, peace-loving creatures who exist without hierarchy. The future is bleak for the bonobo. The problem of the Siberian tiger is one of conservation, not animal rights. Conservation of the natural world is the greatest problem facing humanity.

Can you explain the interdependence of indigenous people and tigers and what can we learn from them?
The Udeghe people, who are indigenous to the area, are traditionally shamanistic. This means that the spirit world and the natural world coexist alongside each other, with the shaman communicating between them. The membrane of the shaman drum represents the thinness of the boundary. Also, the Udeghe believe in animism, whereby every thing in the world, whether natural or manmade, is animated by its own spiritual force, alive in a way. The tiger is the presiding spirit of the forest. What all these beliefs together produce is a profound respect for the forest and everything in it, which allows the Udeghe to live alongside ruthless predators and share the very scarce resources. Having been to the forest myself, and experienced the tiger as an invisible “spirit” that one can feel but probably never see, this explanation of the way things are is profoundly sensible. “In the forest, intuition is science,” as Sooyoung Park tells us in The Great Soul of Siberia. However, shamanism was, and still is, ruthlessly repressed under communism, and the Udeghe as a distinct tribe are under threat.

Tell us about some of the themes of the novel, such as female power and addiction, and how and why they emerged.
I was very interested in the example of extreme patriarchy that the social structure of the Amur tiger presents, and how that contrasts with the opposite matriarchal structure of the bonobo. I wondered what it was that was preventing a female from being the “king”, with a territory of 500 square miles. It seemed two things reinforced the structure: physical size and the fact that the female is left in sole charge of the cubs. She has to leave them to hunt, and cannot patrol a vast area. In the novel I explore this idea – what if a truly enormous female is driven to take over the territory, and how will she do this and protect her cubs? In the novel I explore female existence from all kinds of angles, and, yes, the female relationship to power. The novel is also very concerned with what “wild” and “captive” really mean, and the characters seem often to be trying to make themselves captive, as much as free themselves. Addiction is a kind of prison imposed on the self; opiate addiction in particular is about a need for safety, warmth and enclosure. My character Frieda is at an extreme interface of these states; they play out upon her body. Her journey in the book is finding a way to her own freedom, and integrating that somehow with love and belonging.

Why is the tiger such a good literary symbol?
In Tiger I have deliberately not symbolised the tigers. They are as real as I can make them. Symbolising something distances it, and I wanted the tigers in my novel to devour the reader, to make the reader feel, see and empathise. Everything the tigers do in the book has been researched, and there is no behaviour they exhibit which is beyond the realms of reported fact. I wanted to take you into their world and for you to experience another creature and its environment fully. That’s my job, my duty to you, and my greatest hope is that I have fulfilled it.

Tiger is out now (Riverrun, £14.99, Audible £21.77)

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