Companions: An Anthology and Earthbound: An Anthology – New Writings on Disability, Animals, and Earth (edited by Olivia Dreisinger)

Reviewed by A. C. Riffer

Companions and Earthbound comprise a disability-themed, double anthology edited by Olivia Dreisinger. As one of the critical components of this anthology is the two-in-oneness of both its physical and digital versions, I wish to honor this format by presenting a review of Companions, then of Earthbound, and conclude with my overall impressions of the double anthology.

The introduction begins with the astute observation that neither humans nor animals are interested in unearned connections. However, when those connections are earned, they are invaluable.

Companions illustrates the esteemed and priceless comfort that can exist between human and nonhuman species. Paired with observations on the space we humans take, and what happens in private, interspecies spaces, “companion” is the only word to be used for these animals in our lives.

The first story, “Solo Tuning,” by George Wu Teng, is moving. The story is told in a matter-of-fact way with no grandiloquence. George is in Montreal to study music; specifically, the classical piano. He takes a job as a dishwasher and appreciates the routine it affords. He makes friends with a co-worker, Victoria, who later reveals to him that she has similar struggles to his own.

Throughout the narrative, George reflects on two birds he had as companions in his life. He feels a loss of connection following the birds’ death. The birds are named “Active” and “Less Active,” due to their natures. To me, the story seems to be a salutation to George’s self-confidence. He knows what his needs are and does not ascribe them a morality. George’s meeting and later parting with Victoria are not wholly unhappy. The similarities and comfort they share in one another’s presence are lasting.

While reading “Solo Tuning,” I was concerned that George might describe having been mocked or feeling awkward for not being able to read social cues in his interactions with his co-workers. I was relieved that wasn’t the case and, for example, that the disruptions he experienced in his schedule didn’t cause him irreparable harm. George’s self-assurance and hopefulness made this one of my favorite stories.

The imagery and mastery of account in Alexandra Box’s “A Day in Variegated Brick” are entrancing. Protagonist Simone is in the city with her mother to visit their friend Kenneth. The sideways acknowledgement of Simone’s diagnosis is not a curse, as some in the world may want it to be. At first, Simone seems to be narrating; then, an “I” appears, from time to time, to remark on whatever subject Simone has mentioned. The “I” that is presented in contrast with Simone’s inner dialogue creates an interesting dynamic. Simone is also self-assured. Unlike George’s experiences, however, others do not seem to accept Simone, her desires, or her thought processes. She recognizes and finds ways to grapple with this lack of acceptance by others.

Cypress Marrs’s “Notes on Cat” stayed with me long after I read it. The language we use can often go unexamined. Additionally, new circumstances can create a need for new language, which can be challenging to identify. Capitalism places our worth on our production and simply taking space is difficult. The space cats use is not subject to the same criticism. “Cat” is tied to a painful new circumstance but is also the relief from it.

“Old Dogs” by Bára Hladik includes one of the most common struggles disabled individuals encounter: the presence of a well-meaning acquaintance who thinks we just need to try harder, do yoga, or go out in nature. Disabled animals are believed more often than their human counterparts; their presence is likewise often more socially digestible than ours. “Old Dogs,” one of the collection’s shortest stories, is also the one that brought me to tears. Though sick, the dog is perceived as cute. The dog is the one who stays and comforts the narrator; in turn, the narrator is the one who stays and comforts the dog. The imagery of the dog’s white fur getting on everything—and the narrator wanting it to get everywhere—resonated with me. Impermanence is the state of all things, but that doesn’t make the truth of it any less heartbreaking.

“Broken-Fixing-Fixed” offers a tidy narrative of animals and people finding their places. Expanding on the (un)acceptability of disability, Sophie Heif’s “On an Upworthy Animal” shares an analysis of those “feel good” videos featuring disabled animals, and how the accommodations these animals receive in each video are extended for a finite amount of time. The animals and their experiences are palatable for three to five minutes—a sufficient time for a quick rush of warm feelings—then, both the animals and their experiences are likely forgotten. Some of the lingering questions include: What happens after the videos? What happens if the body cannot be fixed?

The grammar in “Messages in Bottles” by seeley quest makes the story approachable. There is almost no capitalization, and the short paragraphs create a sense of welcome. The animal companion is a whale sending messages between characters C and G. “Messages in Bottles” encapsulates the loneliness often accompanying disability. We hope to connect with one another, and so many encounters are just throwing the bottle into the water and hoping someone responds. We are told to follow the lead of the most impacted members, but what of the ones who can’t do so? What happens when the accessibility needs of one person seem to conflict with the needs of another? There is a dream-like quality to this piece that makes me long for further opportunities to access correspondence between these characters.

Earthbound is shorter than Companions, featuring half the number of stories. Also notable is that the first two stories are the only ones with numbered or titled sections.

I felt that “Mayan A.I.” by Vanessa Santos got a little lost in its own rich mythology. Marvelous concepts are paired with orotundity sentences, but there is little time to savor or fully explore them, since the confines of the short story structure delimit the work. Broken into sections designated with Roman numerals, “Mayan A.I.” tells the story of a demigoddess, Heike. Heike is her most recent incarnation as an A.I. Due to her many incarnations, her DNA has become increasingly vulnerable to Earth’s environmental toxins. Heike does not function with the past and present as she thinks she should; she struggles to regain agency.

One of the many aspects I appreciated in this story was Heike’s sexual desire, which was not relegated to a past when she was able-bodied. Her desire is acknowledged as a present need, and she is seen as desirable. Too often, disabled people are (wrongly) understood to be sexless. The space this story gives to themes of desire is wonderful and refutes negative stereotypes. While “Mayan A.I.” has some of the collection’s most beautiful imagery and sentence structure, it needs the breadth of a novel to be fully realized.

“Duality” by Koyote Moone is the story of Naira, a werewolf. The story is divided into five sections: “Loneliness,” “Control,” “Identity,” “I Remember,” and “Change.” Naira both longs for and hates the times when she is a wolf. As a wolf, she is no longer lonely, but she is not okay. The story ends on a hopeful note of healing and is engaging, overall.

“Petra’s Ugly Tears” by Olivia Dreisinger, one of the shorter stories in the collection, offers a view of a world that is not as far away as one might like. Due to the Ugly Laws, the disabled are regulated to Re-Institutions at the outer zone of cities. Petra has Mr. Happy, an animal companion she was on the waitlist for years to get, and who helps her live in the city.

Mr. Happy is also sick, and Petra must decide what to do. If she takes him to a vet, they won’t have enough money to eat. If she doesn’t, he could die, and she would be without her companion. It is a horrible dilemma that millions find themselves in today. She takes him to the vet. Mr. Happy is going to be fine. Petra’s “ugly tears” are shed with the relief that Mr. Happy—and they both—will be fine. They need and are lucky to have one another.

Overall, the collection left me feeling bittersweet. I wish a few of the stories had been longer, but all of them were captivating. The advantage of being a reviewer is that I can name my biases and preferences freely. Disability garners unsolicited advice and commentary by able-bodied and neurotypical individuals. Additionally, disabled individuals are frequently dismissed by the medical-industrial complex and the “expertise” its practitioners believe themselves to have. There is usually a rush for a diagnosis and to fit an individual within a tidy new category. The stories in this collection resist being easily labeled and likewise encourage readers to reject such tactics.

It seems that it is often easier for the abled to care about an animal than a person. There is a pervasive theme in disability literature about an individual’s agency, whether that be the amount of agency one has or the agency one must fight to have respected. The discourse of the morality of the disabled is similarly inescapable. Animal companions do not give such false criticism and are there to support an individual’s agency. In an ableist world, disability can be very isolating; companions of all shapes and sizes are needed. It is through connection that we are loved. The space an animal takes in our life and what they add to that space is hard to describe. Animals become our witnesses and solace; Companions and Earthbound convey that spirit of refuge.

Title: Companions: An Anthology and Earthbound: An Anthology – New Writings on Disability, Animals, and Earth
Editor: Olivia Dreisinger
Publisher: Painwise Press
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

A. C. Riffer is a professional romantic and enigmatic. They don’t think there is anything else to say. Though, if one were inclined to say more, in their spare time, they are a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work.

Read A. C. Riffer’s review of J. A. Field’s chapbook, Request for Amendment, in this issue of Wordgathering.