Matthew Scully graduated with a PhD in English from Tufts University in 2018. Since graduating, he has been an affiliated faculty at Emerson College for five years in the Department of Writing, Literature & Publishing and the Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies. Last week, the Zoon Garden Team reached out to have a conversation with him about fiction’s role in shaping truth.
“Perhaps because of my training in literary studies, I always approach questions of interpreting the media and ‘truth’ in terms of the problem of reading,” says Scully. “In any given reading encounter, the reader might interpret the object being read in any number of ways. There is rarely (if ever) just one, ‘correct’ reading. At the same time, however, there are certainly bad or wrong readings.”
Scully maintains that in humanity’s search for truth, the first step is defining what “truth” actually is. “If by truth we mean something absolutely ‘objective,’ or something essential, or universal, then I don’t believe such a thing exists,” he says. “But if we retool our sense of objectivity to refer to something that refers to collective, social, and historical processes, to material facts of existence, and to communities of sense and understanding, then truth becomes more relevant as a category.”
Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation attempts to express “truth” through allegorical language, using fiction as a means of portraying material realities. This is something literature does constantly. As a result, we construct our understanding of life through the fictional worlds we inhabit.
“Our relationship to whatever we call material reality is always necessarily mediated by fictional, representational, and narrative structures,” says Scully. “The stories we tell ourselves, or the stories we’ve inherited (whether consciously or unconsciously), structure our relationship to the world.”
According to Scully, these fictional worlds and expressions of “truth” always return to questions of knowledge and power. “Stories not only help us make sense of ourselves, but also help us understand and constitute a community that persists over time,” he says. “Stories are able to reveal to us different ways of being in and different modes of knowing the world. They can reframe what is thinkable and perceivable. The kinds of stories we construct can therefore interrupt narratives of domination and oppression.”
So how can we seek out sources which interrupt narratives of oppression and division? If objectivity is impossible, how can we strategize to seek out information that accurately reflects our material reality? For Scully, the answer involves skepticism, critical thinking, and asking active questions.
“We always need to ask, who’s speaking?” says Scully. “Who is the audience? And, perhaps even more important, who funds the venue from which this speaker makes their claims?”
By thinking critically about our country’s prevailing narratives, we can reconstruct our vision of what the United States can and should be – and with time, perhaps decrease polarization.
“Amidst our ongoing global crisis, which, as is always the case, affects the most vulnerable populations unevenly and disproportionately, it is even more necessary that we come up with better narratives, narratives that disturb the working of inequality rampant in society,” says Scully.
We have all been changed by a work of art. Whether it’s a song you heard when you were thirteen or a book you read last month, no one is immune to the devastating power of a good artist. Jordan O’Donnell is no exception – and today, the Zoon Garden team wants to share with you his top three life-changing books.
3. The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway.
Clocking in at third place is a classic Hemingway novella that examines complex relationships, death, and the natural world. Hemingway may have been a jerk, but he was a damn good writer.
“Hemingway had an ability to make simple words pack a guttural punch,” says O’Donnell. “His short, snappy, yet powerful prose are a boxer’s jabs. I’ve never read anyone else who made my body tingle and stomach flip from a single paragraph.”
2.The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“The second to last book Dostoevsky wrote before he died, this one is significantly relevant to the modern day,” says O’Donnell. “It involves a secret ‘socialist’ society that is attempting to start a nation-wide Russian coup. It highlights the nihilistic personalities involved in mass destruction, is a prophecy of 1920’s-1980’s Russia, and might very well be a prophecy of America 20 years from now.”
1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A philosophical drama and final work of Dostoevsky, this novel has been praised by literary legends such as Virginia Wolf and Kurt Vonnegut. It tells the story of three Russian brothers who each represent different aspects of humanity. To O’Donnell, it’s “second to the Bible in terms of explaining the human soul.”
“It’s widely considered one of the greatest books of all time,” says O’Donnell. “I believe it is the greatest.”
Mountain Alliance, a non-profit based on Boone, NC, is a local organization that provides meaningful experiences to teenagers in Watauga and Avery County. These experiences are free and open to all students regardless of means or backgrounds – and like the Zoon Garden Promotional Tour, connection is at the crux of their mission.
“One of our biggest focuses is to build a safe and supportive environment for all students,” says Rachel Witmer, the Watauga Program Director. “Creating connections is one of the most important things we do because that is the gateway into students finding they are stronger than they believe, seeing the positive impact they can make on the lives of others, and growing in their leadership and as a person.”
This vision of connection has manifested in incredible ways for Mountain Alliance. In April of 2014, the non-profit launched a trip to New York City to help with disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy – and when their bus broke down, they experienced the power of compassion and connection first-hand.
“Instead of it becoming a story of tragedy, it became one of hospitality and generosity,” says Witmer. “When we found out that we needed a second night of lodging, the mayor of the town ended up helping us out and connecting us to some others in the government that paid for hotel rooms for us and helped connect us with transportation.”
That transportation was provided by a book publishing company, which offered the group a free tour of their facilities. Through this experience, the students witnessed the power of compassion and connection in a profoundly personal way. Then, upon their arrival to New York, the students deepened this inner work by extending care to demographics different than their own.
“It became clear to the students that our older gray-haired hosts were a little different from some of our multi-colored hair students,” says Witmer. “But we learned to live together despite our differences and worked side by side to help others impacted by Hurricane Sandy, even creating bonds of friendship across generations.”
It seems like the world has much to learn from small town non-profits such as Mountain Alliance. As the Zoon Garden team expands its reach across the United States, we aim to cultivate similar experiences of trust, empathy, and connection, all with the aim of building a more compassionate world.
“We use stories to recall trips of the past and share memories but also to connect and to teach,” says Witmer. “Sharing stories from our memory is sharing a part of us – and sharing fictional stories helps create new memories and impart lessons.”
Welcome back to the blog of Zoon Garden author Jordan O’Donnell. This week we want to drop in with a quick discussion on media literacy, which is a central theme in O’Donnell’s book.
In Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation, modern media takes the form of howling birds: an owl, eagle, and overwhelming amounts of pigeons, which represent the politically slanted media sources and social media, respectively. Like Americans today, the zoo animals struggle to determine which sources they can trust and how to find “truth” when their culture is oversaturated with information.
The free press has been a symbol of democracy since the founding of the United States, when the colonial fight for free press was entangled with the American struggle against British control. As such, the concept of free press remains central to the American identity, with newspapers representing a democratizing force in our culture. Unfortunately, the capitalistic and polarizing motives of news sources go nearly as far back. The “yellow journalism” of the late 1800’s is a clear example of this; without the sensationalized headlines of the day’s news sources, the Spanish-American War of 1898 may have been avoided.
Because of the cultural value we place on the free press, we often ignore the ultimate motive of news presses in capitalist civilization: profit. Sensational headlines get more readership. Articles that demonize political groups and polarize Americans get more attention because they reinforce beliefs that we already hold, because they don’t challenge our perspectives, because they feed into the emotional convenience of tribalism.
So what can we do? In the age of media overload, it’s easy to nestle into a safe corner of the internet and get your information from an echo chamber of your choosing. To combat this, cultural professionals – and the Zoon Garden Team – recommend sharpening your media literacy skills.
Media literacy is the set of skills needed to access, analyze, and create media, with the intention of promoting awareness of media influence. In other words, what motivates the media you consume? How can you extract the facts from biased sources? There are seven media literacy skills that are generally agreed upon by media literacy experts, and throughout the following weeks Zoon Garden will provide an in-depth lesson on each, right here on our blog.
In the meantime, we encourage you to start questioning the content you surround yourself with. How does your social media feed serve as a reflection of your own ideological beliefs and biases? What does it mean that you’re on this website, reading this article, right now? How might you begin to expand your sources?
Crash Course Video Series on Media Literacy
National Association for Media Literacy Education
Pew Research Center on Political Polarization & Media Habits
Brian O'Sullivan, Zoon Garden’s Head of Online Sales, has lived in many different places. “I went to high school in Massachusetts and New Hampshire – I spent time in New York before college, then the first year of college in Indiana and finally finishing in New York City. I’ve been to 40 states. All that is to say, I think that the biggest thing I can tell you is people are not as different as we like to think.”
Today’s media has become a culturally divisive force. Different political groups control their own news channels, and each side attacks the other for spreading “fake news” or using biased sources. Evidence is often skewed to one side or the other to support a political ideology, forcing Americans to choose a version of reality which suits their political beliefs.
“The media plays up this idea that the other side is evil,” says O’Sullivan. “If you go to Manhattan and you ask someone about a Trump supporter, they would be hard pressed to think about someone who they’re very close with who’s on that side – and vice versa.”
It’s easy to categorize people by their political beliefs – after all, what’s more indicative of a person’s values than their choice of a leader? But it’s essential to remember that although these decisions matter, every constituent comes to the voting booth with a different set of deep, complicated contexts. We all have different “bottom lines,” or issues that we prioritize due to their personal nature. For some people, that issue is human rights. For others, it’s abortion. For still others, it’s the economy. These values can be based in cultural, emotional, or religious backgrounds, or something else entirely. But there’s one thing we all share: our aspirations for a better life.
“I think the best way to form connection is to assume the best in the person across from you,” says O’Sullivan. “You may disagree with something, but there’s a very good chance you come from a similar place. There are more good people in this world than bad people. Debate isn’t a bad thing. It’s just this idea that we have to talk more. We have to understand why people believe things.”
The Zoon Garden Promotional Bus Tour aims to do exactly that: to reach out, to listen, to understand. And hopefully, to bring us all a little bit closer.
“What we need to do, and hopefully what the book tour will do, is allow people to step back and say, ‘Okay. Let’s have a conversation about why we believe what we believe,’” says O’Sullivan. “What experiences did we have that shaped our views of the world? What people were we surrounded by? What was our family like, what was our hometown like? When we share those experiences with the person that’s sitting across us, they may not agree with [our beliefs], but they can see where we’re coming from.”
We don’t have to agree with one another. But Zoon Garden is all about seeing from new perspectives – about opening that conversation. We’ll see you soon.
Chances are, if you’re on this page it’s because you’ve encountered some very exciting news: today, Jordan O’Donnell’s political satire Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation has officially hit the market.
This is a book about truth. It’s about the desperately good people who all want to make this country better, but who all want to do it differently. It’s about the ways we fail because we don’t trust one another – and because we don’t listen to one another. It’s about the ways our reality, our personal lives, and our deepest hopes have become political.
O’Donnell’s team is rapidly working to get the book into the hands of people like you. In a cultural landscape where you don’t know where to look for answers, where you don’t know what sources to trust, we invite you to escape into a fictional world that raises real questions.
“Trust is the center of democracy,” says O’Donnell. “Democracy crumbles without trust and without truth – and that’s the reason it feels like the American democracy is shaking at its foundations. There’s hardly anything left that we agree on as objective truth. Through empathy, we learn to understand one another and learn to fix these problems together.”
O’Donnell and his team are embarking on the Zoon Garden Cross Country Book Tour because we trust you. Because we want to meet you, and we want to have a conversation, and we want to empathize with one another. We’re not interested in making you vote in a certain direction – we’re interested in starting a conversation, and creating a safe space to see that conversation through.
“In a world where everyone lies to you, it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to trust somebody,” says O’Donnell. “That’s what I hope we can be this summer. The bus, everyone on it – we want to be a vehicle that is generating empathy and a vehicle that the American public can trust to tell the truth.”
Welcome truth seekers and wanderers – humans of hope and fear – star-gazers and number crunchers – city dwellers and mountain lovers – adventurous creatures from all walks of life. You’ve found yourself at the website of Jordan O’Donnell. Settle in, take a breath: we’re glad you’re here.
Tomorrow, May 22, O’Donnell is releasing his debut novel, Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation. This is a disturbing and brilliant satire for everyone who feels disillusioned with the modern state of politics. It’s a story about truth, connection, and polarization. You can read more and buy your copy on the “Books” tab of this website.
If you’ve kept up with O’Donnell, you know there’s more to this project than the book itself. In the coming months, O’Donnell is launching a cross-country bus tour of the United States alongside eighteen ambitious interns. The goal: to get the book to people like you.
Jonah Baker, the team’s Creative Director, stresses the importance of using the trip as an opportunity to start honest conversation. “Zoon Garden is a very interesting take on political allegory that I haven’t really seen before,” he says. “In the book, the animals don’t start with a baseline of truth. You can see clearly that the pigeons are social media, and the owl and eagle become nationally syndicated media. There’s an important interpretation that this presents to the reader: it’s very, very easy to fall into the trap of taking truth at face value and not investigating it as deeply as you should. How we interpret truth is more individual than any single outlet provides for us.”
Our perceptions of truth are deeply individualistic – and for that reason, we deserve to have access to open conversation, media literacy tools, and literature that questions our nation’s information distribution methods. The Zoon Garden Promotional Tour aims to do all of that. We want to meet you. We want to talk about the state of our nation, whether we agree with one another or not. We want to help each other discern truth using the information that we have. This blog is designed to take you on that journey with us. Going forward, you can expect weekly updates on the tour’s progress, punctuated with media literacy articles, political and philosophical interviews, and book reviews.
Pre-order your copy of Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation today. We can’t wait to meet you.