Reading Deb Olin Unferth: Humanizing the Hen

LaVonne Elaine Roberts on Deb Olin Unferth’s new novel, Barn 8, in which two rogue auditors in the U.S. egg industry plot to steal a million chickens. It is published by Graywolf Press and available now wherever books are sold. Check back for Roberts’s interview with Deb Olin Unferth in Issue 10, April 7. Unferth is the author of five other books of fiction and nonfiction. She lives in Austin, and is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin.

I first met Deb Olin Unferth while volunteering at Austin’s homeless shelter, the ARCH, where she visited one of their free creative writing workshops. I sensed at once her generous spirit. It feels otherworldly coming from her petite frame. She has something about her—a sense of wonder that has everyone around her wanting to impress her.

Not since Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web has literature humanized an animal to the extent Unferth has in her new novel Barn 8. Deb Olin Unferth has elevated Bwwaauk the chicken and given voice to her feathered friends in an endearing way. We hear what hens think happens when they die and are told what the hens-scape may look like in the future. So, it’s heartbreaking when we learn that hens are slaughtered between a year and a half after being force-molted and artificially light-triggered into laying eggs.

Unferth takes her readers on a journey from Brooklyn to Iowa with Janey, a young girl in search of her biological father. Janey arrives only to suffer a significant loss, and the reader is warned that her journey to redemption won’t come easy. “It seemed a bit harsh that for the rest of her life, she’d have to pay for one childish mistake she made at age 15, the sort of mistake anyone could have made.”

Janey and Cleveland, two auditors for the U.S. egg industry, decide to plan a heist of one million chickens. Their madcap caper requires that a wacky, quarrelsome group of activists work together to free these one million chickens in captivity. It’s implausible—or is it? We trust Unferth knows this world; she went undercover to write the preemptive essay “Cage Wars” in 2014 for Harper’s Magazine.

Barn 8 is a book you can already envision as a movie because it’s ripe with tension, drama, and movement. Unferth mines the best out of seemingly unlovable characters, just as she reveals the evil lurking behind facade. Unferth’s novel is as philosophically curious as whimsically outrageous. Unferth isn’t afraid of asking big questions. In her world the personal is political and the political is personal. Barn 8 shines a mirror to our appallingly inhumane treatment of chickens and in doing so it shows us the power of human connection when we commune to think beyond our own welfare. Unferth asks the reader to question how far is too far when it comes to liberating the voiceless.

There are times that Barn 8 feels rushed, when one character’s description bleeds into another, feeling like a relay race, but one could argue that Unferth is doing what she does best—bringing all the manic, schizophrenic details of life to the page in real-time.

Authors like J. M. Coetzee and Jonathan Franzen have used fiction to illuminate the perils of other species, but few have written from an animal’s perspective. Even fewer have woven an animal’s point of view into a fictional narrative. Barn 8 straightforwardly, spells out the stakes while at the same time lures you into believing in the impossible.

Deb Olin Unferth has a literary style like no other. At times her prose feels very Kafkaesque. Sometimes, it feels so dark; and at other times, her whimsicality makes me wonder if studying with George Saunders influenced her humor. Certainly, he must have encouraged her ability to breathe life into her protagonists she lovingly sets free on the page. So much so, that you’re sure Barn 8’s characters remind you of people you know. What’s spectacular about the quotidian lives of Unferth’s cast of characters is not just that you’re rooting for them, but that your world seems a little less mundane as she reminds us what real human connection looks like.

It would be easy to chalk up Unferth’s ability to educate the reader in a way that makes them feel smart, but it’s so much more. She understands humanity in a way that no one else does. Barn 8’s power is in its juxtaposition between barns of hen hell in overcrowded cages to wacky revolutionary animal rights activist’s collective rage about the indefensible injustice we inflict on defenseless animals. At the heart of the story is the power of love to unite when we are most vulnerable. However ajar, anxious, or discombobulated Unferth’s characters are, there’s a sense of order to their madness that’s digestible because Unferth’s compassion is infectious. Here’s the funny thing, I haven’t been able to buy eggs or order chicken since reading Barn 8. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to be vegan, but then, thanks to Unferth, I’m keeping my options open.

About the Author

LaVonne Elaine Roberts, ’s Interview Editor, is a short story writer, essayist, and memoirist. She is a regular contributor of interviews and book essays to .

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Issue 9.1

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