Cockatoo Tears by Daniella Levy

In this, the first iteration of the latest Ficticities reboot, I tried out a new search algorithm for selecting a recently published, open-access, online short fiction to read. There are 52 pages of literary magazines listed on the Poets & Writers website, with 25 magazines per page. I used an online random number generator to select a specific page of P&E‘s magazine listings (the number 32 came up), and then the specific mag from that page (number 20). Clicking through on the link to the website for that magazine, I found the current issue. Three fictions are published in that issue; the random number generator selected fiction number 2.

And so, be it driven by chance or by fate, the algorithmic sortilege led me to short fiction number 32.20.2: “Cockatoo Tears,” a story by Daniella Levy published in Qu Literary Magazine. Here’s the link. Tolle lege, baby: take up and read. And then maybe discuss.

*   *   *

I read “Cockatoo Tears” on Friday afternoon, thought about it, went to sleep and dreamed about it. I was attending an academic conference, chatting between sessions with a woman I didn’t know. “You know,” she told me, “that story is a global warming denier.” I nodded in agreement. The verdict was clear to my dreaming self; is it clear to me now?

“Cockatoo Tears” — sounds a lot like crocodile tears: insincere mourning provoked by fake news. And yes, Allison, the makers of that video might have been exaggerating for effect, amping up the sense of urgency for viewers, prodding them into taking action right now rather than falling back into passive complacency. It’s like your counselor telling you that the cockatoo, moaning in response to the video’s soundtrack, was pining for its Amazonian home, when in fact the bird’s native habitat was halfway around the world on some Indonesian island. Or the video makers might have miscalculated, telling you that, at the present rate of depletion, the rainforest would be entirely gone by the year 2000, but if they’d done the math right they might have come up with the year 2050, say. Or maybe their calcs were correct but their forecasting model wasn’t accurate. The rate of deforestation might not have been as fast as they were estimating, or maybe the remaining rainforest covered more acreage than they realized.

But I’ve read — is it accurate? — that the rate of deforestation has decreased by more than 50 percent since your lemonade stand, so maybe the money you raised did help make a difference. And you know another way we can help stop deforestation? By not buying — or selling — printed books. I’ve also read—  is it accurate? — that more than 2 billion books are printed in the US every year, and that it takes more than 30 million trees to make the paper for all those books. If we shifted to ebooks, then those trees would still be standing in the forest. Like this magazine. People can read our story online for free, or they can buy a paper-and-ink version of this issue for eight dollars. Is that price supposed to be a disincentive, a kind of tax, so readers will move toward the online version? Or is it commodity fetishism, the sense that free stuff is worthless, that you get what you pay for, that it’s not a real book or magazine unless you can place it on your coffee table as a symbol of your artsiness and erudition? This magazine probably relies in part on the proceeds from its print version to pay the editors and the writers. Couldn’t they switch to some other source of revenue — maybe a lemonade stand?

This is the year 2000, and what six years ago was the future has become the present. But the future is never really here and now; it’s always there and then. There’s still a future six years out there ahead of us, but now that future is called 2006. Whenever “now” is, there’s always a future six years ahead, six minutes ahead, six hundred years ahead. We can imagine the future, fantasize about it, try to predict it, try to change it, but we’re always living in the here-and-now. It moves ahead second by second, year by year, decade by decade, and we move along in lockstep with it. To think about the future is to outfit yourself as a time traveler to a fictional realm. The future, when it rolls around into the present, might turn out to be pretty close to how we imagined it was going to be. But the accuracy of our prediction depends on a lot of things that can get in between the now and the then. How far into the future we’re trying to see. How many things we’re trying to predict that are beyond our control. So we can be pretty confident that our fictional breakfast bar of six minutes from now will be a lot like the one we’re sitting in right now, except by then your Cheerios bowl will probably be empty. But deforestation in Costa Rica or Siberia thirty years from now? The fictional future we visit in our imaginary time travels might turn out to be very different from the one that actually shows up in the year 2030.

And when the future doesn’t turn out the way we expected it would? Well, Allison, this story we’re in describes one of many possible reactions.


9 thoughts on “Cockatoo Tears by Daniella Levy

  1. Hi John, thank you for this very rare gift of seeing how a story of mine was recieved and processed by a reader.

    My intention in writing the story was not to question the accuracy of environmental science; I’m definitely not a global warming denier and I very much hope Alison doesn’t become one either. My intention was to question our methods of transmitting the information to children–particularly bright, emotionally intense children who may take our words at face value–for whom lack of nuance may create a sense of distrust and betrayal. I hope that when Alison is no longer a dramatic teenager she will be able to understand why she was told what she was told and forgive her counselor and mother for not being equipped to present the information in a way that was right for her. I also hope she is better able to understand what her mother tells her about everyone doing what they can even when it seems insignificant and like it won’t make a difference. I hope she comes across the famous parable of the girl throwing the starfish back into the sea, knowing that she will never be able to rescue all of them, but that she is making a difference for each starfish she rescues. I wasn’t explicit about Alison’s family being Jewish, but I imagined them being so (as my family is), and I hope someone teaches her the Talmudic saying: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

    As the author of this story I of course had the option to tie it up nicely by showing any number of these things happening, and I believe in my first draft, Alison was more convinced by her mother’s explanation, but after some feedback from my beta readers I concluded that it would be stronger and more impactful if I didn’t tie it up neatly and left more to challenge the reader’s imagination. Reading your piece further convinced me that that was the right decision. I want the reader to want to grab Alison by the shoulders and give her a talking-to–as you have. Or at least to think a little more carefully about how they explain environmentalism to the next wide-eyed child who asks.

    So again, thank you so much for writing this and calling my attention to it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Daniella. It’s funny, but the first thing that jumped out at me in reading your comment was that I’d spelled Alison wrong. An insistence on getting the facts straight I suppose.

    My rational conscious self might have established some aesthetic distance from the narrative, acknowledging that this story wasn’t meant as propaganda. But my unconscious dream self jumped to judgment, even though it was rendered in the context of a presumably rational academic convocation. This sort of thing happens all the time: people on both sides of any dispute tend to expect writers to engage in “virtue signaling,” so readers know right from the beginning whether they’re going to agree or disagree with how the text is going to turn out. In the first case they’ll read it to reinforce their already-formed position on the issue, or disagree, I’m not as dismayed by the knee-jerk liberalism of my dream self and his interlocutor as I might have been: they were judging the story, not its author.

    The idea of anticipating and shaping reader response is an intriguing one. The story hinges on Alison’s response to the deforestation video and the camp counselor’s empathy-seeking comment about the cockatoo. Were these honest mistakes made by fallible adults, or were the adults intentionally trying to provoke desired responses — emotion leading to action — among their little audience members? The same sorts of issues face the writer of adult fiction: am I trying to achieve a particular effect and response in the reader? You note your intention in writing the story; you also thank your beta readers for helping make the story more impactful on readers. Is the intentional maneuvering of reader response integral to the craft of fiction, or is it a manipulation — or both? Again, my knee-jerk dream self inferred a very different authorial intent from what the author herself had in mind. It happens all the time to me, where my intentions are misread by others. Or maybe they know me better than I know myself…

    No question you could have corralled your narrative story to end differently, turning into a kind of morality tale. In my original version of this post I had a little bit more tacked onto the end, something along these lines: But you know, Alison, whether it’s in a hundred years or two hundred, the rainforests will one day be gone. And there’s nothing either one of us can do about it. I dialed that one back, not wanting to be overly alienating in case you showed up here for conversation. I could also picture an alternative where the fictional 2000 turned out just as the video warned, and the last acre of rainforest had just been converted into a lemon grove so kids like Alison could keep running their lemonade stands. Again, maybe a bit too provocative for a first convo.

    I particularly liked the fact that your story isn’t exclusively about emotional responses — that it’s also about something in the real world. Deforestation ties in with a couple of other fictions I’ve encountered recently. First Reformed, a 2017 film by Paul Schrader, pivots on a scene in which a Protestant priest offers counseling to a would-be environmental terrorist who’s tormented by the destruction of the ecosystem. “Will God forgive us?” the environmentalist asks the priest. Schrader grew up in the church, but he also wrote screenplays for movies like Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, so he’s definitely got a jagged edge. Presently I’m reading The Flamethrowers a 2013 novel by Rachel Kushner, which deals in part with an Italian motorcycle manufacturer from the thirties who’s getting cheap rubber for his tire factory by hiring a strongman to build an Amazonian labor camp, in which the Indians are conscripted to tap rubber trees and haul hundred-pound balls of unprocessed rubber out of the jungle on their head.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent food for thought, John. You make an interesting point about emotional manipulation, comparing the words of the adults in the story to my decision to end the story the way I did in hopes of provoking a stronger emotional response. I think what bothered Alison was that the facts she was given were oversimplified; and they were probably simplified because they were given to a 7-year-old child! Most 7-year-olds would not have taken those words to heart the way Alison did, and most 7-year-olds would not remember them so precisely as their view of the world and their understanding of the issues evolved. So I don’t think the adults in the story actually did anything wrong. They were all doing the best they could. I think none of them could have imagined the impact their words would have on her.

      As for this question: “Is the intentional maneuvering of reader response integral to the craft of fiction, or is it a manipulation — or both?” I think the word I would use is “invitation” rather than “manipulation”. Good fiction invites the reader to respond–but how they respond will be entirely up to them. I’m celebrating your subconscious response, even though it initially made me uncomfortable, because you took my invitation. You misread my intentions because I didn’t force an agenda on you; I invited you to interpret the events and ideas in the story for yourself, and that’s what you did. Coming back to the adults in the story, it was actually the interpretations and agendas (however good, just, and well-intentioned they may have been) that were forced on Alison–the meaning of the cockatoo’s crooning, the projected fate of the rainforests by the year 2000, the numbers on the wall of the spider monkey enclosure–that backfired on them.

      I think Alison may have actually appreciated if someone had told her that there was nothing we as individuals could do about the eventual disappearance of the rainforests: “Why did you tell me you’d help me if I can’t? I can’t save the rainforests. Even you can’t save them. Why didn’t you just tell me that?”

      As a mother and educator I know that when we tell a child about something they may find upsetting, we try to give a positive and hopeful spin and to preserve their sense of agency, and sometimes we do this at the expense of the whole truth. But there are children–like Alison, and like the child on whom she was based (yours truly)–who need the whole truth more than they need that emotional shielding.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I like the idea of invitation — an openness to interpretation, elaboration, questioning. Genre novels, movies, and TV shows often generate so much forward lean and are so jam-packed with stuff going on that the readers/viewers are in effect taken for a ride, pulled along almost against their wills to where the writer/director is taking them. It helps if the author too remains open to her own story, to possible alternative ways things could be understood or go differently.

      And yes, I think it’s awfully pushy for adults to attempt to maneuver children through emotional manipulation and indoctrination. Open-ended education: like open-ended fiction, it invites kids to explore the implications and alternatives. Seven-year-olds can be pretty sharp, and often they’re more flexible and creative thinkers than the grownups.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. When my kids (currently aged nine, seven, and six) ask me interesting questions I like to turn it around and ask them what they think. The best is overhearing an older one explaining something to a younger one…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Our daughter is 25 now: she’s still got plenty of questions for us — and plenty of answers for our questions, too.

        I grant that, for some questions, there really is a right answer, but the process of figuring out what’s right about it seems integral to learning. And then there are the open-ended questions that spawn a whole host of new questions. Sometimes I get the sense that having one’s work published is like getting an A on a test: the judgment becomes more important than the meaning; the judge, more powerful than the writer or the text. Redressing that imbalance is one motivator for me to start engaging publicly with new stories and their authors. Getting published needn’t be an end in itself; what’s important is the open invitation to readers to explore and question.

        I’ve enjoyed our conversation very much, Daniella. Best wishes on your writing and your childrearing. Feel free to drop by any time. The next story selected by the random number generator is Ursula LeGuin’s last published work, and I’m pretty certain she won’t drop in for a chat.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Traditional Jewish education and scholarship places more emphasis on the importance of asking good questions than on finding good answers, so that resonates with me.

        I agree with you about getting published. I sought publication desperately for many years because I wanted my voice to be heard, but then I discovered that even when your piece is published, it goes out into the world and then there’s an anticlimactic silence. Unless it’s a book that’s selling decently and people are reviewing, you rarely get to see how readers are responding to your piece. Every once in a while, though, I’ll get a random email from someone who read a story or an article or a book of mine and took the time to let me know that they enjoyed it. This is a great kindness. You, however, went even further. I very much enjoyed our conversation as well. Thank you once again for reading my story and inviting me to discuss it with you.

        Liked by 1 person

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