Eliot Schrefer’s new novel, Endangered, is the story of Sophie, a teenage girl, and Otto, the baby bonobo she befriends during her stay at her mother’s sanctuary in the Congo. While writing the book, Eliot had the opportunity to travel to Africa and stay at a very similar sanctuary outside of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today, he’s stopped by Figment to talk about his experiences on his trip and how they inspired his writing—both for this book and in general. Oh, and he’s also shared some pretty cute videos of the baby bonobos. Is it wrong that we kind of want one for the office?
I was in Congo, staying at a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos outside of Kinshasa. One of the bonobos, Oshwe, was so young and so tiny that he couldn’t have his breakfast alongside the other orphans, because they’d eat all the food before he could get to any. So he’d eat his fruit and peanuts with me each morning. I’d sit there with this marvelous creature in my lap, soaking in everything I could. It was like I was back in my first creative writing class, when the teacher handed us each an item and asked us to describe it. But instead of an apple, I was taking in the details of a magical, almost-human little being for which I felt tenderness and awe. I stared and stared.
I had about one-third of Endangered written before I left for Congo. I’d fallen hard for bonobos and knew the outline of the novel I wanted to write, about a girl’s love for an orphaned ape as they fought to survive in a country at war. I was sure of what I wanted as far as event. But the manuscript read more like a play than a book—it was all situation and dialogue, with very little description. Outside of Sophie, my main character, I wasn’t sure what anyone or anything looked or smelled or felt like. YouTube videos of bonobos can only go so far. (Though, I have to say, watching videos of bonobos playing PacMan or making spaghetti is a great way to pass an afternoon.)
There are things I learned in those mornings that no amount of research would have taught me. First, bonobos don’t squish. There’s nothing stuffed-animal-like about them. Adult bonobos are three times stronger than humans, and I could tell why once I had one in my lap. They have virtually no fat (which is why they can’t swim, by the way—it takes body fat to float) and tight ropy muscles. Their hair is wiry, which makes it resistant to the many biting bugs in Congo. Oshwe hated the bitter red papery skin around each peanut, so would carefully pare it with his front teeth before discarding it. While he ate, he made frantic little sighs, like chewing a banana was the hardest job in the world. Drama queen.
Baby bonobos tend to be more comfortable around women than men, since the hunters who came into the deep jungle and left them orphans were mostly male. At first Oshwe was wary around me. But then, a week into my visit and while I was writing what for me is the most emotional chapter in the book (twenty-two, if you’re curious), I was pulled from my writing by Oshwe climbing into my lap and making worried cries. He’d been startled by one of the gardeners, and in his alarm had come to find… me. I held him until he calmed down, then he was back off to play with the other nursery orphans, the scary gardener forgotten. I finished the scene, then went into the nursery to play with the group. I’ll never forget what it had felt like to have Oshwe turn to me for comfort. It’s one of the most moving times of my life.
I didn’t visit the bonobos in order to write Endangered, and I didn’t write Endangered in order to visit the bonobos. My passion for bonobos and my passion for writing happened to come together for the space of one novel, and it’s honestly changed my expectations and outlook on both. The close observations of bonobos my writing task forced me to do deepened my connection to them, and my deepening resolve to know as much as I could about the bonobos heightened my standards for my writing self.