Lake E-ffect Newsletter banner SUNY Oswego logoNovember 2011 • Vol 7 • No 8

ORI Author Shares Memoir-Writing Experience

In the search to finding the answers to what makes us human, Vanessa Woods and husband, Brian Hare, study bonobo apes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Vanessa Woods in class"Bonobos are the better part of ourselves," awarding-winning journalist and author Woods told a Living Writers Series class Oct. 5. "I wanted to give them some paper space. There is this huge conspiracy to ignore bonobos and I have no idea why."

A story about seeking, finding and cherishing, Bonobo Handshake brings to light a species that shares 98.7 percent of our DNA. A research scientist first and author second, Woods said she encountered difficulties writing non-fiction. In addition to her memoirs, she has authored some children's books.

Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this year's Oswego Reading Initiative selection tells the story of a bonobo sanctuary in Congo's war-torn capital and offers a personal narrative of how the apes changed Woods.

"It's about yourself and about people you know," Woods said. "How do you write something where you don't come across as being too cloying, but then not too falsely humble? These were challenges I think that made the whole writing process much more difficult than if I was writing about somebody else I didn't know or about somebody else I invented.

"If you're going to fling yourself into this as writers, (book writing) is something to be done with extreme caution, which is why I think it's great to have this other career, this other life," Woods said. "That is an excellent platform, either to fund your great work of fiction or to potentially write about the other side that is what you do."

In order to succeed in this field, Woods recommended becoming an expert in something. For Woods, that something was bonobos.

After studying the endangered apes for six years, she decided to write a memoir about her experiences. Woods encouraged future writers to pick one topic to write about and stick to that. She, on the other hand, decided to weave three storylines into this project.

One thread was about the bonobos themselves, another was about the history of the Congo, and the third, being the most important, was a personal narrative about her experience.

"Bonobo is a symbol of pride, a symbol of hope for the Congo women," Woods said, noting the apes function in a female-dominated society.

A non-violent species, they are the only form of apes that don't kill each other.

Woods wanted to know the mechanism behind this peaceful lifestyle, even living in a war-torn country. Woods found the answer: a bonobo handshake.

Erin Marulli '13

Scientist, journalist and author Vanessa Woods, left, speaks about the behavior of bonobos with students in biological sciences and anthropology Oct. 5 at Rice Creek Field Station.

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