In Animal Quintet: A Southern Memoir, Colin Dayan gives lyrical life to her childhood turmoil. During Texas’ first heavy snowfall in 30 years, I sat perched with a blanket and absorbed the small 120 page book in three sittings. This is noteworthy for the mere fact that my small children were home all day. During a time when so many voices of color are speaking out on mistreatment, it seems Dayan finally felt the freedom to explore her Southern past and revisit her childhood observations as an enlightened adult. It felt important and it felt new. The message isn’t entirely original, but the way she presents it, reflecting on the lives of the animals that lay victim to Southern egocentricity, feels like a fresh angle, and this in turn made the whole book enticing.
Dayan begins her quintet with horses. Oh, how the South loves their horses. They love them enough to make them jump — in the heat, for money, while they eat and talk and laugh. Dayan writes, “The women wear big hats. The men’s faces shine from drink. How much do you love horses? Enough to watch them die. To watch their bones break. To watch horses, stricken from too much heat, fold into death.” These reflections — of animals and their mistreatment — allow Dayan to relay what it was like to grow up as a person of color in the South. She tells the reader, “I never lived in a place where it takes so much energy not to feel.” It isn’t always blatant, the mistreatment of things. Sometimes mistreatment looks like a horse race and everyone is having a good time — making money, losing money, eating, laughing — but that’s only the surface. There’s a whole other way of seeing it that isn’t obvious at first. Dayan sheds light on the less obvious ways mistreatment takes form, and our vision expands.
In addition to the animals, there’s also Dayan’s mother. Throughout the memoir, her mother is found throughout and all around, side by side with the animals’ stories — her mother she cannot escape. She feels both a love and a hate for her mother.
“So perhaps the gray mare is just a token, an excuse for me to wallow in what I thought I wanted to escape. My mother’s liveliness and her gorgeous self deteriorated like the gray that began at the roots of her hair. But what is that to me? I can never leave the South. I am held to it’s rotten romance despite knowing the vileness beneath.”
There is a section about bulls, one about her beloved chickens, and a whole section dedicated to possums, those odd rat-like creatures. This section on possums is masterful — Dayan writes, “A whole history of the South is in the possum hunt” — but it is the section on chickens that stands out the most. There, she reflects on the fraught memories of her childhood and the present yearning she has to make those memories right. As a young girl, she witnessed the death of her chickens. She recalls their heads being chopped off and the image of their headless bodies still running stays with her to this day.
To make this right, she wants to find a new narrative for her beloved chickens, one that is contrary to the commonly told one of the lowly, headless chicken. In their eyes, she finds that narrative: “The South of hard drinking and slow talking nights where lightning bugs flicker and crickets sing never left me. Not even though I tried to kill the deep, real sight of what I kept looking for without knowing it: the eyes of chickens. […] It makes me giddy, as I happen to glide over a past that I thought long gone, lost to view in this world of commerce and ashes, where even the smallest bird in flight is a wonder. I am giddy as the white leghorns return.” It’s here where you begin to sense her healing. It isn’t a change in her environment or a new drug, it’s the shift in her perspective. It’s remembering the eyes of the chickens, instead of the headless version of them. It’s marveling at the birds around her, and the hope of their return.
In grade school, the surest way for teachers to discuss hard issues with their students and have them understand those issues was to offer stories that paralleled those issues. Dayan does this for adults in Animal Quintet. For those that hear of the issues of race, class, gender, and violence, but cannot — in their limited perspective — understand it, she offers another way to come to terms with those issues by paralleling the issues of racial discriminations through the lens of the South’s relationship with animals. For me, it highlighted the way mistreatment is often disguised. She beautifully provokes emotion through the lyrical retelling of her childhood memories and how she views them in hindsight. It’s a display of connection and mistreatment between human and animal and ultimately, human and human.
Animal Quintet: A Southern Memoir
By Colin Dayan
Los Angeles Review of Books
Published December 08, 2020