Mary Helen Specht’s first tattoo at 18 was of a turtle, which she says turned out to be appropriate for her as a writer.
“I’m certainly a tortoise, not a hare,” she says. “I’m not a prodigy, but I’m more stubborn as I get older and more comfortable living and writing through those drafts of uncertainty.”
Specht’s debut novel, Migratory Animals, focuses on a tight-knit group of college friends, now in their early ‘30s, each facing uncertainties with which they are not altogether comfortable. When Flannery, a young scientist, runs out of funding in Nigeria, where she has spent the last five years doing research, she must return home to Austin, leaving her fiancé, Kunle, behind.
It’s a tough homecoming, as Flannery has spent most of her adult life avoiding Austin, a place she views as tainted “by the loss and heartbreak Flannery’s family dragged behind it like a lizard’s tail.” Flannery’s mother died young of a crippling genetic disease, and Flannery has spent her life since feeling as though she was “on the lam,” searching for new homes across the globe. She thinks she’s found one in Nigeria, and hopes this return to Austin is only temporary. Upon her return, though, she’s stunned and heartbroken to discover her sister, Molly, showing symptoms of the same disease that killed their mother. This news, along with Flannery’s return, sends repercussions throughout their entire social circle.
Flannery reconnects with an old flame, Santiago, who still pines for her, as well as her best friend Alyce, who is struggling with depression and considering leaving her marriage. Of her life, Alyce reflects: “It began feeling less like a choice and more like a game of musical chairs—the music stopped and she was surprised to find herself sitting next to [her husband] holding this baby.”
The novel is full of nuanced, insightful lines like this one, capturing the randomness of life (genetic or otherwise), even with the best intentions or deliberate choices.
“In our ‘20s, at least for the characters, so much can be happening every single year,” says Specht. “Even if you’re struggling, there’s still a sense of possibility. In your ‘30s, that can begin to narrow.”
Alyce is an artist, and to help herself cope, she begins to weave a tapestry that tells the story of her friends. “Her art is able to embody her feelings, in a way her real life isn’t able to, at least initially,” says Specht.
In terms of artistic expression, Migratory Animals can be viewed as Specht’s own tapestry. “It’s a bit of a representation of my own process, of working through this novel about friends going through this time in my life I’d just gone through,” she says.
After receiving an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in 2006, Specht, who has written for Kirkus Reviews, received a Fulbright grant to study West African literature in Nigeria. The novel started as a memoir, based on her experiences there, but as she wrote, Specht says she became less interested in trying to recreate her experience and more interested in writing the “what if?” She started imagining a character who hadn’t left Nigeria.
“What if there’s this American woman that thinks she’s finally found her place in West Africa, but isn’t allowed to stay?” she asked herself.
Specht is careful in her portrayal of Nigeria: “I did want it to represent a certain kind of freedom from [Flannery’s] background, but I didn’t want to portray Nigeria one dimensionally as this exotic faraway land,” she says. “Even there she has complex issues, in terms of a culture that is not her own. She’s in the privileged position of being a white American who can go there, and leave, and have a certain kind of freedom that most Nigerians she knows don’t.”
Flannery is conflicted between the home she created for herself in Nigeria, “the first place for her where home meant a growing of the vine, not a dying of it,” and her home in America, with family and old friends, helping to care for her sister in the future.
Migratory Animals was written during the recession after Specht’s own return home, as she watched her friends and many others around her struggle.
“There were a lot of well-educated, ambitious people who always kind of expected their lives to be as or more successful than their parents and it didn’t turn out that way,” she says.
During a climactic scene in the novel in which Santiago, an architect, is forced to confront financial issues he’s been avoiding, he asks himself: “Would anybody believe that he hadn’t allowed himself to imagine this far ahead? Hadn’t allowed himself to consider things might not work out for him, after all his struggles to get out of the Valley? Hadn’t he gone to the right schools, met the right people, worked hard?”
The novel accurately captures feelings of misplacement for characters who are searching for something, and not always finding what they are looking for: “There were always rogue birds who got turned around, their migratory wiring twisted by strange weather or faulty genetics, but it was rare for an entire group to be months behind schedule,” observes Alyce after reading a book on birds.
“It goes back to the idea of finding one’s place in the world, and I feel like at this time in our global history there is so much movement,” she says. “So many people move away from where they grew up, and you ask yourself, ‘Am I making the right decisions in terms of finding the right place?’ I think a lot of my characters and people that I know in real life are struggling between: Do you go where the best job is; do you go where your love is; do you go where you feel the most comfortable? These things are not necessarily all in the same place anymore for people.”
Courtney Allison is a former book publicist. She lives in Brooklyn.