PY: What inspired you to write the short story “The Silent Monkeys”?
LDCB: About 15 years ago, I bought a little monkey statue in a North London charity shop. I didn’t realize at first that it was the “speak no evil” monkey, partly because the other two monkeys weren’t with it and partly because it had its hands clasped in front of its mouth, as if in prayer, rather than clamped over it. I only knew that I found it intriguing. I had kept it on my shelf for over ten years when I happened to attend an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection (a medical museum in London) of amulets that had been collected by the folklorist Edward Lovett. Amid the wealth of good-luck charms, many of which had labels with detailed descriptions of how they had been used, was a single monkey almost identical to mine. Its label said simply, “Jade Monkey of Silence.”
No one at the museum was able to tell me any more about it, so I began doing my own research. I eventually began to form an idea of what the silent monkeys had once meant to people, and the more I learned, the more I found myself wanting to tell their story.
PY: What kind of research did you do for the story? What kind of factual components did you include?
LDCB: Doing the research wasn’t easy, with stray snippets of information turning up here and there. One person who was very helpful in putting me on the right track was Emil Schuttenhelm who runs the three-monkeys.info website. Although he didn’t know quite what the significance of the silent monkey was, he did confirm that it was far more likely to be found on its own than the other two. He was also able to tell me approximately where and when it had been made, which inspired the first part of my story, about the carvers who made the monkeys. A search of the Imperial War Museum’s catalogue revealed that silent monkeys had been carried by both British and Japanese soldiers in World War I, which naturally suggested the next episode. Although my characters are fictional, the ways in which they went to war—or, in the case of the Quaker conscientious objector, to prison—are historically accurate.
The most startling discovery came when a Google Books search led me to Chelmno Witnesses Speak, edited by Lucja Pawlicka, which gives an account of the archaeological excavations of the Nazi extermination camp at Chełmno where over 100,000 Jews were murdered. The researchers had found a number of silent monkeys at the site, but were mystified as to why. Reading that was an odd experience, since with the research I had already done, I had a better idea of what the figurines had meant than the authors did. I ultimately didn’t feel that I was entitled to write about Chełmno from the victims’ perspective and decided that the best way to portray this part of the monkeys’ history was to write from the point of view of the baffled archaeologists who were trying to give the victims a voice again so many years later. While my description of the objects found along with the monkeys is closely based on the report, I’ve replaced the researchers with fictional counterparts. (If those involved in the excavations ever read this, I hope they’ll forgive me.)
PY: The monkeys in the story cross cultures, characters, and time. This is such a beautiful way to explore rediscovery. Can you talk about why you decided this piece was a good fit for Poor Yorick?
LDCB: One of the things that fascinated me about the monkeys was that they had been a part of many people’s everyday lives for a long time, but apparently no one had thought to record the practice in detail. The monkeys went straight from being taken for granted to being forgotten, which must be the case with so many things in human experience. When I learned about Poor Yorick, a few months after it first launched, I was delighted to learn that there was a publication devoted to rediscovering lost experiences. Since that was precisely what I had been trying to do in my story, I thought the two of us were made for each other!
Poor Yorick Editor-in-Chief