National Book Foundation Selects Linda Hogan’s “The Radiant Lives of Animals” for Inaugural Science + Literature Program
By Bev Rivero
In the early evening on the first Thursday in March, an excited crowd of invitees gathered at the Museum of the Moving Image to celebrate the first three titles honored by the new Science + Literature program from the National Book Foundation. In addition to the excitement of chatting in person with book folks, the event was a great start to Women’s History Month, as all three books are authored by women. The inaugural group is also entirely published by independent presses: Linda Hogan’s The Radiant Lives of Animals (Beacon), Daisy Hernández’s The Kissing Bug (Tin House), and Rachel Pastan’s In the Field (Delphinium Books).
The evening’s panel was introduced by Doron Weber, Vice President and Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Science + Literature program partner with NBF. At Sloan, Mr. Weber runs the program for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology & Economics at Sloan, which uses diverse media—books, radio, television, film, theater, and new media—to bridge the culture of science and the humanities. Truly, a perfect partner to uplift literature that helps us understand our place in the world. Science writing is included in the umbrella of eligible books, but it is broadly meant to honor works that deepen our understanding of science and technology. As Weber aptly put it, “We need a better education on how to live in this world.”
As Linda Hogan was unable to be physically present for the ceremony, the evening’s host, Saeed Jones, read from her essay “The Wolves” in The Radiant Lives of Animals:
The day they arrived I first saw the wolves from the window. They walked so silently into my life that the moment I saw the five ghostly presences pass through a storm of snow, I whispered the name, Wolf, as they passed by. Wolf is the forest. Wolf is winter snow, dark night. It is red blood on the frozen shine of lake. An animal creation of golden eyes by daylight, brief green fires at night, and fur rich as the gentle drift of snow as it flies up around them. That day it was a wind with silent feet crossing the snow-blinding whiteness of early spring.
They emerged from the invisible, as if coming from inside the hillside, walking silently across a windblown ridge. The wind blew snow clouds up around them. They seemed calm, as if they’d known all along there would be such protection by the elements.
Like a curious deer behind trees, I went to another window to watch them move across earth the way a constellation of five stars might cross the night sky in darkness. Sharply awake inside the fur valuable to themselves, there was no hesitation in their movement.
I watched carefully and kept track of their direction. On this land I am one of the animals, but I try to be one who cares for and maybe even knows the rest, where they are, and what they may do. I watch over an adopted wild mustang and horse, the daily deer herds, and even many wild plants. I care for the snakes as for the little fawn curled when tall grasses are green and new. This is the last remaining wildlife corridor in the region, so I note when the elk bugle, the time of day a certain fox crosses from one hill to the other, when crows see a predator and group together to send it away. Attention is the necessary act, and it is one from which we all benefit. It’s important to know where the mountain lions live and how their territory follows the changing curve of land, the creek bed on one side and on the other, past a moss-covered springhouse down the hill and up a high road until hidden above the old town church across the way.
That day it was the pack of wolves I watched travel. They went around a curve of land where no one lived, into fog between hills and canyon walls. Few animals or humans walked there because it was a complicated land and, I hoped, safe. Then there was no sign of them, as if they’d vanished into the invisible from which they emerged.
Afterwards, both Hernández and Pastan read from their books before sitting down with Jones for a conversation. Commenting on what led them to write about their subjects, Hernández spoke about how wanting to meet families affected by Chagas, a deadly infectious disease, pulled her into the science, and she was swept up in it. When she reached out to experts to learn more, she found that scientists were excited to hear from her. When an editor approached her about the idea of a memoir, the book was off and running.
Saeed asked how Pastan made decisions about portraying Barbara McClintock in novel form. In speaking about the decision to write a fictionalized account of McClintock’s life, Pastan shared that the nonfiction accounts of McClintock as a difficult woman were intriguing. She wanted to explore that as well as the challenging nature of the genetic science she was involved in. The humanity within science and science writing and research came up throughout the conversation, whether finding out about possible medical experiment research that is not widely known and questioning why that’s the case, or learning that labeling a sample “LOL” stands for “Lots of Life.”
The objective to uplift works that show how culture and science interact was very clear from the evening’s thoughtful conversation; it is great to see more attention given to how much science and society influence one another, as science and its history in any culture are an excellent starting place for examining the past and looking towards the future. Being present for the inaugural program was particularly special to me, as someone who worked at NBF and knows how much thought goes into setting up these events, selecting judges, and spreading the word about the Awards to the book community and beyond. Above all else, all the awards and programs are executed with the goal of reaching as many readers as possible and connecting writers and artists with all communities.
With readers in mind, it was illuminating to hear the writers on stage discuss their grappling with feelings about the worthiness of science writing and questioning whether they should be involved in research or advocacy themselves. In the end, writing these books helps get vital ideas out into the world, and in that way, expands the impact and reach of their subjects.
Daisy Hernández summed it up perfectly before we all left for the evening: “Books have been medicine for me, and now I get to make medicine for other people.”
About the Author
Bev Rivero is senior publicist at Beacon Press. Before joining Beacon in 2021, Bev was the communications and marketing manager at the National Book Foundation, where she worked on the National Book Awards, promoted the Foundation’s public and educational programs, and led all social media and marketing campaigns. Prior to NBF, she was in publicity at the New Press for 6 years, where she worked with authors committed to social justice, including Paul Butler, Michelle Alexander, and many more. She has extensive experience promoting nonfiction and tailoring outreach campaigns that resonate with activists and change-makers. Bev is a NYC-based graduate of Johns Hopkins University, ardent supporter of indie presses, and a graphic designer. You can follow her on Twitter @LOLBev, where she mostly retweets content about books, pickles, and migrant justice.