Dr. Aysha Akhtar made her first foray into non-academic writing with Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies (Pegasus Books, May 2019). Throughout her book, Dr. Akhtar weaves stories of interactions between humans and animals with science, human experience, and social history to draw assertions about the connection between humans and animals: how we interact, develop empathy from, and benefit from relationships with animals.
Dr. Akhtar originally planned to title her book With Animals, until she experienced a revelation at Texas Heartland Animal Sanctuary. She was sitting there on the grass with a pig named Ivy; the owners of the sanctuary were in the background chuckling. In that moment, she heard humans and animals being content—no one being harmed. It reminded her of Mozart’s music, which she loves. The symphony of his music, and the symphony of the humans and the animals, led her to a new title.
The development of the cover was also a journey. Dr. Akhtar told Spine, “I had a very different idea for [the cover]—originally a very musical idea—something corny like the circle of life with humans and animals. My publisher had contracted with different designers to come up with designs for the book and this was one of them. As soon as I saw [the final] one, I thought ‘wow, this makes a lot of sense.' It was not your typical photo of children with dogs—this was a little bit more provocative with the way they were just lying on the grass like that. I did a testing of the different book covers amongst my friends and family and this one was definitely one of the top ones."
Choosing a title and book cover were nothing compared to the process of writing a book steeped in both science and emotion. Dr. Akhtar grappled with voice for a long time. “I’m trying to tell other people's stories, plus my past story, plus my present story. I decided to use my present self and look back to the past and repeat as others are telling their stories to me. Present me is the common thread."
This project was a labor of love and inspiration for Dr. Akhtar due to her own emotional ties to animals, which are revealed throughout the book. She believes animals, and our connection to them, is important, and feels her book is a “call to action for people. To validate people’s connection with animals. There’s still a bit of a stigma, and others denigrate people’s relationship with animals.”
Ultimately, Dr. Akhtar hopes her book inspires people to create a kinder world. “Empathy for animals really is an extension of and contributor to empathy towards each other."
Mercedes is a lazy reader with an interest in postcolonialism, graphic novels, and anything cat related.