“In the room at the back of our apartment”

Illustrated by Shaun Tan

“But maybe pigs suffer in a way we can’t know. Who can say for sure what another animal is feeling?”

“In the room at the back of our apartment” is a short story in Shaun Tan’s collection Tales from the Inner City. The story begins by describing, by hyperbole, the ignorant exploitation with which humanity interacts with the natural world. Like many of the other stories in the book, it presents a relatively familiar practice or experience in a surreal way: in this reality, every family in every home keeps a pig at the back of their apartment as little more than a decorative mantelpiece. The Pig slowly wastes away, and when one finally disappears completely, it is simply replaced by another one. Surrealism aside, the story essentially depicts the repurposing of animal lives into aesthetic decoration—not a far cry from the practice of taxidermy or trophy hunting.

The pig in the story has no identity, and therefore no dignity, to the family in whose home it resides. As the tale goes on, however, it suggests not routine sameness but the pursuit of change; it depicts not complacency with but questioning and challenging the way things are. The children in the story—the narrator included—question the blind acceptance of the status quo and instead, in the middle of the night, take the Pig out for a type of joyride, proposing the start of a new normal.

This story contributes to the message Tan conveys that although the relationship between humanity and the natural world is fraught with manipulation and exploitation, that there remains hope to create difference and change.

This story can be productively paired with “Respect the sheep” and “One afternoon, the member of the board.”

©2024 ClimateLit (Julia Coltman)

Other reviews from Tales from the Inner City can be found here.

This tale is featured in the Climate Literacy in Education’s critical essay: “Humanity’s Reliance on the More-Than-Human in Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2021

Pages: 224

ISBN: 978-1338298406

Audience: Questers (8-13), Rebels (14-older)

Format: Short Stories

Topics: Hope, Taxidermy, Trophy Hunting, Youth Agency, Youth Climate Activism