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Gold’s work of love exposes ‘elephant hell’

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The Breaking by award-winning author and editor, Irma Gold, was released on March 1. In this Q&A she offers insights into her debut novel’s central love story and how we can stop the harm done to elephants through tourism.

The Breaking is a fast-paced love story centred around the intense bond between two young women. Which came first: your marvellous characters Deven and Hannah or telling a story that might help halt the suffering of elephants in Thailand?
I had recently returned from a trip to Thailand and Deven and Hannah just showed up on the page. They were such a joy to write and at first, I didn’t even realise that elephants would be part of the story. In retrospect it seems obvious that I would write about elephants and the situation in Thailand given my experiences, but it wasn’t the impetus behind the book. And I actually think that’s important. I didn’t write an issues-driven book. I wrote about the magnetic bond between two women and the complexity of the world they find themselves in.

How much “elephant hell”, as Hannah calls it, have you seen firsthand?
Many details are drawn from my own observations but I also undertook extensive research. I wish I could say that Pang Tong’s experience working 10 hours a day with a five-kilogram saddle on her back is unusual, but this is the norm for elephants required to give rides. Humans often see animals as inferior beings, but every animal has their own story. In some ways this novel is a voice for elephants. They are hugely intelligent creatures who we subject to enormous suffering in the name of entertainment.

How hard was it to witness this cruelty and weave it into the narrative?
It was shocking and incredibly hard to witness, especially when tourists were oblivious to what was happening right in front of them. I have never witnessed the phajaan, the brutal breaking process that every elephant goes through at the age of about two, not just in Thailand but around the world. So I forced myself to watch videos, and I just wept through them.

I wanted to use a light touch when weaving the cruelty through the narrative. It needs to be bearable for the reader. Ultimately, I wanted the book to be like life – filled with both dark and the light, with sadness and joy, and everything in between. So that the ride is an enjoyable one.

Deven and Hannah’s backgrounds, personalities and sexual ethics are very different and it causes some ups and downs in their relationship. How did you discover the right tone and intensity for their story?
It was something that I worked very hard on, trying to strike the right note, and get the balance right during each part of the narrative. During the redrafting process it was the nuances of their changing relationship within the narrative arc that required the most attention.

You imbue many of the elephants in the novel with a character and a back story. Why is this important? How much of this detail is drawn from on your own work on projects that rescue elephants from the tourism and logging industries in Chiang Mai, Surin and Kanchanaburi?
The details are really what brings a book to life and on my trips to Thailand I always kept a journal. In it I recorded every tiny detail of the place, paying particular attention to the sounds and smells and taste. It might be the feel of an elephant’s flyswat-like tail or the jagged freckled edge of its ear. This is what brings a place to life in fiction, and I constantly returned to these journals during the writing process. I also obsessively took photos and videos. They weren’t the kind you’d share with friends, but they became instrumental when I was back in Australia. They immediately returned me to the feel of what it was like to be in Thailand with the elephants.

Which elephant in the novel is your favourite, and why?
If I had to pick one it would have to be Bua Khao (whose name means “white lotus”). She is blind in both eyes from being slingshotted by her mahout on two occasions when she wouldn’t comply. This happens more than it should, and several of the elephants at the sanctuary where I worked were blind in one or both eyes. Deven and Hannah rescue Bua Khao and she becomes pivotal in their story. There were many moments writing about Bua Khao that moved me.

Deven’s special affection for the elephants mirror your own feelings. What sparked your passion?
When I was 8, my parents took my brother and me to a circus. We had our photograph taken with an elephant, and as I stood beside this enormous creature – feeling a little nervous and a lot awestruck – her trunk brushed briefly against my cheek. It was corrugated but gentle, and I fell in love. Later in life I realised that if I genuinely loved elephants I couldn’t in good conscience ride one. That was the point at which my volunteering with elephants in Thailand began.

Hannah says she’d imagined one elephant’s owner “as a picture of evil. But he was just a man, with a family.” If the choice is safeguarding a livelihood or an elephant’s wellbeing, where should the line be drawn?
This is such an excellent question and, in many ways, it is what propelled me forward in writing the book. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. There is so much grey involved. For many people in Thailand their elephants may be the only way of them earning a living. The elephant suffers, but without the elephant earning income the people suffer. That’s why ecotourism is so important.

I think about the welfare of elephants as being on a spectrum, with the opposite ends being the abuse elephants suffer daily in the tourism industry and the freedom of living wild. In the middle there are all kinds of scenarios which are not ideal, but are better than the worst. So ecotourism means that the Thai people can earn an income without their elephants experiencing abuse. The Save Elephant Foundation manages many of these projects. They are very special experiences for tourists and they don’t physically harm the elephants. However, it’s always worth remembering that the only reason that we can get close to these animals is because they have been “broken”.

Why aren’t more Australians aware of the harm they’re inflicting when they ride elephants and watch them perform in circuses? What more can be done to educate people?
I wish I knew the answer to that. I have found that almost everyone I speak to has no idea about what happens behind the scenes in elephant tourism. Yet if you google “elephant rides” all the top hits are articles about why you shouldn’t ride an elephant. I hope that books like mine will start conversations. The more these issues are discussed, the more awareness will grow and the tourism culture will change. And I do think that fiction has an important role to play because it allows readers to walk in the characters’ shoes – seeing and feeling what they do. Fiction creates empathy like no other written form, and explores the messiness of our world in all its complexity.

 “‘If you softened it a bit they’d be more likely to listen.’ But would they?”– Have you found some ways are better than others to get people to listen to what is happening to the elephants in Thailand?
Deven can be very brash and doesn’t pull any punches so sometimes she rubs people up the wrong way – it’s part of what made her such a fun character to write. But actually, I’ve found most people are really responsive. They’re shocked to learn about the reality for elephants, especially if they’ve ridden an elephant in the past. Only rarely do people who’ve engaged in elephant tourism claim that there was no evidence of abuse and the elephant looked perfectly happy. When you spend a lot of time with elephants, it’s blatantly obvious that these elephants are not happy. Elephants are normally so vocal and expressive, but captive elephants make little sound and their body language expresses their trauma. In any case, I’ve only come across a few people like this. Most people are willing to listen.

You say in the book that there were once 100,000 elephants in Thailand. What are their numbers today? And why have the numbers diminished?
Estimations vary significantly but there are around 2–3,000 elephants living in the wild and a similar number in captivity. The main reason for the massive decrease in numbers is that urbanisation and agricultural expansion has shrunk habitats. Sadly, this is leading to conflict between wild elephants and humans.

Where should tourists head to once Covid restrictions ease if they want to encounter elephants but not harm them?
Any of the Save Elephant Foundation projects in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia are a safe bet. And you’ll also have a much richer experience than riding an elephant. But founder Lek Chailert has also worked with many projects to convert them to her ethical model, so it is best to do your research before you go. Be aware that many places now use the word “sanctuary” in their name when they are anything but (so don’t visit if they offer rides, performances, petting of separated calves or use bullhooks).

What is the way forward for a place like Thailand?
We need to protect the environment so that the elephant population doesn’t diminish further. For those elephants in captivity, some can be returned to the wild but most can’t. They have experienced major trauma and many of them never heal. The best that can be hoped for for these elephants is that they are allowed to live on a sanctuary in peace.

The crux of it all is that if all tourists demanded eco-friendly interactions with elephants the situation in Thailand – and other countries like India – would change. The current situation only exists because the demand from tourists is there. In other words, the onus is on us to make ethical choices.

You are an Ambassador for Thailand’s Save Elephant Foundation. What does the foundation do, and why is it important that people volunteer, donate and/or sponsor an elephant?
The foundation runs a range of projects which offer tourists different ethical experiences where they can get close to elephants. Founder Lek Chailert is constantly rescuing elephants and advocating for change in the industry to safeguard their wellbeing. She is an unstoppable force and one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. But rescuing elephants costs significant amounts of money, and more land is needed to provide these elephants with sanctuary. Every dollar counts, as they say.

You are co-host of the Secrets from the Green Room podcast with Craig Cormick. Can you recommend an episode that shows another Australian writer who explores ethical issues through their stories and/or novel(s)?
In episode 4 Karen Viggers talks about the way she weaves issues relating to animals and the environment into her novels, and in episode 5 James Bradley talks about how he tackles big issues like climate change. Both episodes are well worth a listen for writers who are interested in addressing the real issues of our time through fiction.

The Breaking by Irma Gold (MidnightSun, $29.99). Irma is an Ambassador for the Save Elephant Foundation.

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