Real Writing

It wasn't any of these little pigs.
It wasn't any of these little pigs.

I watched a pig die. There are proponents for this event, mainly foodies like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay who believe that you should actually witness the death of the animal you’re so fond of eating so that you fully appreciate the origins of that succulent meat dish. It wasn’t gastronimic ethics that sent me to the pig farm, but literary authenticity and I am afraid that I will now have to include a note in my novel that says, One Animal Died in the Writing of this Book. One of the main settings in my novel is a pig abattoir in Spain. Since I’ve never been to Spain and I’ve never been to a pig abattoir, authenticity concerned me somewhat. I wanted to visit a pig farm or an abattoir, but just hadn’t managed to find one.

If there is a national dish in Bali, then it’s Babi Guling – roast suckling pig. Nasi goreng’s there too, but that’s a more generalised Indonesian national dish. Suckling pig is what most Balinese regard as their best food. It struck me that a Balinese restaurateur friend of mine might know where there was a pig farm for me to visit. So on a recent visit to the small island, I asked Budi if he could point me in the right direction. He looked at me, his eyes narrowed as he contemplated my motivation. His English is good, and my Balinese is non-existent. “My father killed a pig for my wedding, my Japanese wife trembled and wept at the sound of the pig screaming as it died. She had nightmares for months,” he said. Perhaps I would have been less inclined to persist if Budi didn’t say ‘fig’ instead of ‘pig’, so while he was remembering the slaughter of a pig, I had the image of a fig. When he was convinced that I might be less sensitive than his wife, he nodded. “I will escort you,” he said and made a phone call. I love having friends who just have to make a phone call.

The following day we were escorted to “Kak Nagi” in Jimbaran, where the pig farmer and Budi’s chef awaited us. The farm was situated in a grove of ramshackle houses; the shed and outbuildings appeared to be in the same dishevelled state as the house to which they were attached; this farm certainly didn’t have an Old McDonald’s vibe about it, even with the rooster who scratched about in the dirt.

I was invited to choose the pig. As I was led over to the low walled pens, the smell hit me; the pigsties were spotless but the smell is embedded in the place. A pigsty smells like concentrated lime-green acid shit; it is the most curdling onslaught against one’s olfactory sense. Huddled in the first dark cement sty were the four-month old pigs, in the second sty the cutest pink piglets snuffled about happily and I pointed at a sweet little pig then quickly withdrew my hand, forgetting that my pointed finger relegated one of the friendly fellows to their death.  We returned to the four-month olds. It was a moral- and existential-challenging moment; choosing an animal that I knew would die. As the pig owner and his daughter climbed into the sty to remove the pig I pointed at, I looked at each one of the other piglets trying to hide behind the other, and then one looked at me as he darted behind the rest of his brothers and sisters. I knew in the moment when the young woman grabbed hold of the shiny eyed little fellow that every single human being is capable of killing, myself included. My husband had tried to assure me that each of the pigs at the farm were destined for the spit, that they would all die irrespective of whether I backed down or not. I haven’t yet come to terms with my decision not to back down.

As soon as the pig was grabbed up by its back leg it began to scream. The girl was swift; she slung it over the low wall and onto the cement floor…. The process from start – removing the pig from the pen – to finish – putting the pig on to the stake – takes no more than twenty minutes. It is possible to discern the time of death – light leaves the eyes.

Is it necessary to have had the experience before writing about it? Many writers write some scenes sight-unseen, such as our own Nobel laureate J M Coetzee; he admitted that he had never visited St Petersburg prior to writing about it, and would not have been able to do so if he had! Prior to writing the pig farm scene, I had vague recollections of watching rams being castrated on a farm in KZN and the closest death experiences I had were seeing my late father shortly after his death, and more recently watching the cremation of a stranger. I didn’t really want to experience anything more disturbing than those two incidents; the cremation is a visual memory that persists and I will never be able to erase the dead woman’s name from my mind. Describing the mechanics of a disturbing sight is do-able, but describing the emotions requires first accessing them in their raw state.

What responsibility does a writer have, to really know what they’re writing about? When one visits a place one gets an overall impression of a place – is this overall impression enough or does the writer (and reader) require more? Can you write about what it feels like to be strangled if you’ve never experienced it?

Through my own experience at the abattoir I discovered that shit is a chemical smell, that eyes are, indisputably, the window of life, that pig skin is white not pink, that it is possible to do things you never, ever imagined yourself capable of, and, that I will never again write without knowing.



2 thoughts on “Real Writing

  1. Challenging one, all the ways of viewing it. I don’t know what it’s like to be homeless – I can observe the homeless, interview them on all practical/emotional aspects, but how much further do I go – join them, become homeless? For how long? Only I’m still not actually homeless, so how can I really know?
    Anyway, when we’re talking fiction, isn’t it largely about empathy and imagination?
    Research is no substitute for experience, but damn, it’s satisfying – so far I’ve only set novels in countries I’ve visited – any excuse to travel – but the one of my romance novels of which I’m proudest required most research, since I’ve never climbed Everest, the Himalayan foothills in Nepal the nearest I’ve come (wanted to call it The Everest Experience but my editor said it sounded like a thesis so it ended up as A Dangerous Passion).

  2. You’re right, there’s no way of really knowing. My experience from the pig taught me a lot – unless I’d been there, I’d never have known how that scream just obliterates all other sound, how the smell is so assaulting, and really to give a ‘sensational’ account one does need to have experienced it in order to convey it. As you say, imagination is a huge element of fiction, and i think authentic details add to the ability of the reader to imagine the scene the writer is trying to paint.

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