Are you writing a novel about "the world as it is with an eye for how it could be”? If so, Barbara Kingsolver may have a prize for you. Check out the submission guidelines for the PEN/Bellwether Prize (and join the conversation below for a chance at a free book.)
Kingsolver launched the PEN/Bellwether Prize in 2000 to promote “fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” The biennial prize is awarded for a first novel. The winner receives $25,000 and a contract with Algonquin Press.
Last month, in a ceremony at BookExpo America, the annual trade fair, Kingsolver bestowed the 2012 award on Susan Nussbaum for her novel, “Good Kings Bad Kings.”
Nussbaum, a Chicago-based disability rights activist and playwright, described her book as “a comedy about disabled teens being abused in a really repressive institution.” While living in a nursing home for juveniles with disabilities, the teens form friendships, fall in love, and band together to fight back against mistreatment.
Her aim, Nussbaum said, was to create “authentically realized disabled characters who are not symbolic of anything.” Rather than serving as vehicles for the education of non-disabled protagonists, as disabled characters do in many a work of fiction, she wanted them to be simply themselves.
By all accounts, she succeeded. The book “stopped me in my tracks,” Kingsolver told the crowd at BookExpo America. “Its characters are so real, so belligerent, so endearing.”
Speaking over the roar of literary wares being hawked, deals being made, and freebies being grabbed at the trade fair, Kingsolver ("The Lacuna," "The Poisonwood Bible") insisted that “there is a place for political fiction in the U.S.” As hallowed examples, she cited John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars.”
“Is it risky to blend fiction and politics?” Kingsolver asked. “Of course. But fiction is full of risks.” And because fiction creates empathy, she said, it is inherently political.
Kingsolver’s goal in establishing the award was to encourage writers to take the risk of writing political fiction. “I wanted the prize to change a life,” she said. “To open a door to a career. To give the winner a chance to ask, ‘What do I want to say next?’ rather than ‘What do ‘they’ want?’”
Indeed, as Kingsolver intended, the prize promises to change Nussbaum’s life.
As for Nussbaum herself, she hopes that when her tale of disabled teens struggling for dignity and self-determination hits the bookstores next spring, it will change the lives of others as well.
Photo of Susan Nussbaum by Susan Plunkett.
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Join the conversation: What are your favorite works of socially engaged fiction? If you’re writing in that vein yourself, tell us what you’re working on, the challenges you’ve encountered, the solutions you’ve found.
One randomly selected commenter will receive a copy of “Running the Rift,” by Naomi Benaron, 2010’s Bellwether Prize winner. The book tells the tale of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a gifted Rwandan boy living through a time of searing conflict.
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Ellen Cassedy’s new book is "We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust" (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...", and her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly.