3:00 pm EST, February 17, 2017

‘The Beast Is an Animal’ author Peternelle van Arsdale talks giving our fears a face

By Karen Rought | Edited by Donya Abramo

Peternelle van Arsdale may have come up with the idea for The Beast Is an Animal years ago, but it couldn’t be any more relevant than it is right now.

About ‘The Beast Is an Animal’

A girl with a secret talent must save her village from the encroaching darkness in this haunting and deeply satisfying tale.

Alys was seven when the soul eaters came to her village.

These soul eaters, twin sisters who were abandoned by their father and slowly morphed into something not quite human, devour human souls. Alys, and all the other children, were spared—and they were sent to live in a neighboring village. There the devout people created a strict world where good and evil are as fundamental as the nursery rhymes children sing. Fear of the soul eaters—and of the Beast they believe guides them—rule village life. But the Beast is not what they think it is. And neither is Alys.

Inside, Alys feels connected to the soul eaters, and maybe even to the Beast itself. As she grows from a child to a teenager, she longs for the freedom of the forest. And she has a gift she can tell no one, for fear they will call her a witch. When disaster strikes, Alys finds herself on a journey to heal herself and her world. A journey that will take her through the darkest parts of the forest, where danger threatens her from the outside—and from within her own heart and soul.

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The monster is coming from inside the wall: Giving our fears a face by Peternelle van Arsdale

Alternative fact: I’m a witch. Probably I should be burned at the stake. Or crushed under rocks. Or drowned to see if I float. Or maybe my powers should be harnessed: With my predictive abilities, I can conquer the stock market and give all the proceeds to organizations I support. Go ahead, Republican-controlled congress — take away federal funding from Planned Parenthood. They won’t need your money anymore. They’ll have my witchy money.

I have proof that I’m a witch. Years ago, when some people were still reality-TV stars whom no one took seriously, I started a novel about small-minded people who built a wall around their village because they believed they were under attack by monsters. The villagers were suspicious of the refugees they took in, and worried that they were in league with the monsters. This made the villagers do very bad things. My point was that people want complicated things to be easy; they want to know who and what to be afraid of. So they give their fear form by putting a face on it — a monster’s face. And in so doing, people behave in monstrous ways and become monsters themselves. I put the finishing touches on this novel, a dark fairy tale called The Beast Is an Animal, in January of 2016, but most of it was written long before that. As the events of 2016 and early 2017 have unfolded, I’ve wondered about myself. I’ve never been a prescient person. Sorry, Planned Parenthood, I wouldn’t even trust myself to invest my own IRA. So how on earth did I do that?

Actual fact: I’m moderately observant and I half-listened in history class. We humans are capable of terrible things when we’re afraid. And if you add a desire to dominate others into the mix, things get really unholy. But internal conflict is painful — we don’t want to feel like bad people. It’s so much easier if we can feel justified in what we do. So if the people by whom we feel threatened are definitively monstrous… well, that makes everything okay.

So we tell ourselves that the people who live on the land we want are savages. We don’t even think of them as human — not in the way we think of ourselves as human. They’re primitives, not fully evolved. We view them as physically and morally repulsive. They have multiple wives and they want to take ours, too! So we drive them off their land. We starve them and their children. We take away everything they hold dear, including their right to speak their own languages and pass down their cultures. We give them disease-infested gifts. We bring genocide upon them.
We also tell ourselves that the people whom we force to work for us without pay — whom we rape, beat, keep illiterate, and whose familial bonds we destroy — aren’t fully human. We do these things while we depict them as animals and sexual deviants. We use their labor even while we perceive them as a threat, which is why we have to keep them down. Long before we benefited from illegal immigration, we benefited from forced immigration, and yet somehow we always perceive ourselves as the victims.

Or we tell ourselves that the people who make us feel less smart and less accomplished and who don’t believe in the Virgin Birth are avaricious schemers. We depict them with unpleasant physical features. We describe them as rats; we view them as a taint. We round them up and exterminate them, as one does with rats. Even those who should know better turn their backs on the innocents who flee this fate — afraid that spies might be lurking in their midst. Right-wingers with their own agendas push this false belief because it suits them. Others too easily give in to those agendas. It wasn’t until 1944 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, and only after having turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them children.

We tell ourselves that because some people of a certain nationality attacked us, then all of them could or would do the same thing. Meanwhile, our dominant culture depicts the perceived enemy with animalistic features, capable of animalistic things, thereby once again justifying our own inhuman behavior. Just look at how frightening and bloodthirsty they are, we tell ourselves, with their yellow skin, massive teeth, and angry eyes! So we round them up and force them from their homes and incarcerate them in camps, and a man who is regularly described as one of our greatest presidents feels justified in doing so. This happened to more than 110,000 American citizens of Japanese descent while the rest of us watched.

We humans are weak creatures with soft skin and wobbly morals. We’re magnificent and we’re awful. At our most awful, we build big walls. At our most magnificent, we tear them down. There’s a reason the walled cities of Europe are quaint artifacts: They don’t work over time. Culture is fluid. Ideas resist walls. Ideas spill over, no matter how high you build those walls.

We’ll always be afraid, and we’ll always write stories about frightened people. We’re animals who instinctively look for danger and seek to protect ourselves. It’s when we don’t recognize the animal in ourselves — when we see it only in the Other — that we become the monsters. And no wall, no matter how high, can protect us from that.

About the author

Peternelle van Arsdale is a book editor who never thought she’d write a book, until one day she had a glimmer of an idea that became The Beast Is an Animal. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on her second novel.

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