Writer in Residence · 01/29/2013

Guest Post from Ellen Meeropol: Social Justice and Ann Pancake

This week I’ll wrap up my series on socially-conscious fiction. To that end, here’s a meditation on Ann Pancake and social justice from a writer, Ellen Meeropol, who is interested in work that is explicitly socially conscious. “This is the kind of fiction I try to write,” she says.

In Ellen’s Words:

My favorite novels explore explicitly political material — genocide and torture, oppression and insurrection, all kinds of economic and physical mayhem perpetrated by the corporate-military elite on the rest of us. I read novels like BURNT SHADOWS (Kamila Shamsie), A GOLDEN AGE (Tahmima Anam), SMALL WARS (Sadie Jones), RUNNING THE RIFT (Naomi Benaron), and THE AIR WE BREATHE (Andrea Barrett) with profound admiration and a craft magnifying glass, studying how each author evokes a rich political landscape while avoiding polemic rant.

My study is personal: this is the kind of fiction I try to write; these are the stories I struggle to tell. So I examine each social justice fiction — deconstructing the clash of narrators, the fractured narrative, the prose that eschews any hint of political diction. I wish I could remember who told me about Ann Pancake’s novel, STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN. I’d like to thank her/him profusely for the recommendation.

Through the distinct and extraordinary voices of four members of a family living in the coal-rich mountains of West Virginia, Pancake gives us the impact of mountaintop removal — “some new kind of crazy stripmining” — on the family and their community. Anyone who has ever loved an Appalachian holler will be immediately returned to that peculiarly compelling landscape. (As a young woman, I spent a couple of years working and living in Knott County, Kentucky, and oh, do I recognize this land and its pull.) If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance, Lace and Bant and Corey and Dane will introduce you to their world.

The voices of these characters, their diction and syntax and the cadence of their speech and thoughts, are fresh and startling, lyrical and utterly non-rhetorical. I will follow them anywhere and they lead to a world that is “subtly beautiful and so overlaid with doom.” This is how fifteen-year-old Bant describes the way her neighbor talks about a species poisoned by the mining. “They said it like somebody was dying and others had already died, quiet and prayerful and sad they spoke it. They didn’t rant.”

They didn’t rant, and neither does Pancake. She doesn’t have to. On the strength of exquisitely rendered characters and magnificently woven sentences, STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN opens our eyes to a political landscape by stretching our hearts between doom, fury, and hope.

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Ellen Meeropol’s writing explores characters on the fault-lines of political turmoil, ethical dilemma, and family life. Her novel House Arrest was published in 2011; short stories and essays are published or forthcoming in The Writers Chronicle, Dove Tales, Bridges, Pedestal, Rumpus, Portland Magazine, Shaking Magazine, and Women’s Times, among others. Ellen is a founding board member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and author of their dramatic program, coming to Manhattan’s Town Hall on June 16.

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posted by Megan Mayhew Bergman