The Ethical Treatment of Meat (and authors)

Free­dom to Read Week, Feb. 22–28, 2015

Entry #10: author/editor Claude Lalu­mière on zom­bies, wise stu­dents, and judg­men­tal par­ents.

I occa­sion­al­ly get invit­ed by teach­ers to meet their stu­dents. Even more inter­est­ing to me is that I’ve been asked to do so for var­i­ous age groups, rang­ing from ele­men­tary school to uni­ver­si­ty, in mul­ti­ple coun­tries, and in schools serv­ing dif­fer­ent socioe­co­nom­ic groups. What makes it par­tic­u­lar­ly enlight­en­ing to com­pare those dif­fer­ent events is that almost every sin­gle such pub­lic appear­ance has been focused on the same text: my sto­ry “The Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of Meat.”

Lest you haven’t read or heard of the sto­ry, I should offer a bit of con­text, includ­ing a sum­ma­ry. “The Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of Meat” was first pub­lished in 2002 in a vol­ume called

The Book of More Flesh: All Flesh Must Be Eat­en Zom­bie Anthol­o­gy — so, yes, it’s a zom­bie sto­ry, albeit one that nev­er uses the word zom­bie or any syn­onyms to imply the zom­bi­eness of the pro­tag­o­nists. The zom­bies are sim­ply referred to as peo­ple (or by their indi­vid­ual names).

The sto­ry takes place cen­turies after the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse, by which time zom­bies have tak­en over the world and repop­u­lat­ed it into a social­ly sta­t­ic sub­ur­ban mock­ery of our cur­rent times and the sur­viv­ing humans (referred to as fleshies by the zom­bies because “their skin is kind of sick­ly smooth, with­out any rot, and you can’t see any of their bones or any­thing, but, still, they almost look like peo­ple […] It’s not their fault if they smell, well, alive or some­thing.”) have been reduced — being the zom­bies’ only source of food — to the state of cat­tle raised in fac­to­ry farms, their bod­ies (and espe­cial­ly their brains) har­vest­ed to fuel the zom­bie econ­o­my.

America’s favorite sit­com zom­bie fam­i­ly! (from Atom­ic Cir­cus Tat­too)

As the sto­ry opens, a social malaise is sweep­ing across zom­bie soci­ety: col­lec­tive­ly, zom­bies yearn for chil­dren. Because zom­bies can’t repro­duce, a con­tro­ver­sial new fad is grow­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty: adopt­ing fleshie (human) chil­dren as a kind of com­bi­na­tion pet and child. The tale — struc­tured to fol­low the plot arc of a typ­i­cal 1950s/60s fam­i­ly sit­com — focus­es on a zom­bie cou­ple called Ray­mond and George and their life with their new fleshie son. Basi­cal­ly, here’s the sto­ry of two gay zom­bies adopt­ing a human child, who also hap­pens to be a poten­tial source of food; the whole thing — a mere 3200 words long — address­es and melds togeth­er soci­etal hot-but­ton issues like mar­riage equal­i­ty, gay adop­tion, children’s rights, cross-cul­tur­al mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ani­mal ethics, and the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of both human and non­hu­man liv­ing beings. Great fod­der for live­ly exchanges with stu­dents.

I’ve dis­cussed the sto­ry with the young chil­dren of inter­na­tion­al diplo­mats (they were exu­ber­ant­ly enthu­si­as­tic and amused), with social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive tween- and teenage first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion immi­grants in sub­ur­bia (who were for the most part baf­fled and often offend­ed), with down­town col­lege stu­dents (who ranged from apa­thet­ic to shy), and with art­sy dra­ma stu­dents on the verge of grad­u­at­ing high school (who were inquis­i­tive and insight­ful).

Only one time did I almost get in trou­ble — for a few days, it looked pos­si­ble that I might be under police inves­ti­ga­tion. Not because of my appear­ance at an inter­na­tion­al embassy school. Not because of my inter­ac­tion with social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive new immi­grants. But because of my sched­uled meet­ing with an art­sy dra­ma class. Well, to be fair, because of one par­ent whose child (I say “child” to main­tain anonymi­ty, but we’re talk­ing about a sev­en­teen-year-old) hap­pened to be in the class assigned my sto­ry.

Claude Lalu­mière (as imag­ined by angry par­ent)

To say that “The Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of Meat” dis­turbed and angered that student’s father is putting it mild­ly. After read­ing the sto­ry, he sent copies, with out­raged let­ters, to the police, to gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and to the school prin­ci­pal, claim­ing that I was a clear­ly a psy­chopath and should not be allowed near chil­dren of any age (or, I pre­sume, near peo­ple under any cir­cum­stance, ever). And he pulled his sev­en­teen-year-old from class for the day I was sched­uled to appear, of course. As all this was going on, I thought, at best, my appear­ance would be can­celled, and at worst I would face some kind of crim­i­nal charges. Author­i­ties are not usu­al­ly renowned for their under­stand­ing of satire.

The event was not can­celled, but it was nev­er­the­less with con­sid­er­able trep­i­da­tion that I trav­elled to the school. Upon arriv­ing, I was met by the prin­ci­pal (who, remem­ber, was one of the recip­i­ents of the out­raged cor­re­spon­dence). I felt the principal’s gaze siz­ing me up as we were intro­duced. With a chuck­le, she quick­ly made me feel wel­come. I got impres­sion that I didn’t strike her as a poten­tial psy­chopath (phew!), or at least that she didn’t feel that I was pos­ing any immi­nent threat to the safe­ty of her school. A few min­utes lat­er, I walked into class for what turned out to be the most stim­u­lat­ing and fun of all my school engage­ments yet. Those were damn smart stu­dents. They were so sophis­ti­cat­ed that, to them, there were no con­tro­ver­sial issues in the text. It was all stuff they’d already pon­dered pre­vi­ous­ly and come to a rea­soned and sen­si­ble posi­tion on. No, what they cared about what sto­ry struc­ture, world-build­ing, and how the sto­ry man­ages achieves what­ev­er the hell it is that it achieves. No police. No alter­ca­tions. Only stim­u­lat­ing con­ver­sa­tion.

Still, the wheels of bureau­cra­cy turn slow­ly, and for weeks, even months, after that event, I lived with the trep­i­da­tion that I’d receive an unwel­come vis­it from the police.

It hasn’t hap­pened yet.

Claude Lalu­mière is the author of Objects of Wor­ship (which includes “The Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of Meat”), The Door to Lost Pages, and Noc­turnes and Oth­er Noc­turnes. He has edit­ed and co-edit­ed more than a dozen antholo­gies in var­i­ous gen­res, includ­ing Lust for Life: Tales of Sex and Love, Masked Mosa­ic: Cana­di­an Super Sto­ries, and The Exile Book of New Cana­di­an Noir. A for­mer Mon­tre­al book­seller, Claude is now head­quar­tered on the West Coast.