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And the Award Goes To…Socially Engaged Fiction
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
June 2012
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
June 2012

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.


* * *

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.


 * * *

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 Care", and her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly.

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  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thanks to Natylie Baldwin for writing to tell us about her work-in-progress, "the story of 12-year old boy who lost his father and is being neglected by his grieving mother....The overarching theme in the book is people adapting to change and loss, but it also explores war, class, sustainability and community."  I think it's well worth taking a close look at other books in the genre, to see how different authors introduce, develop, sustain, and resolve their blends of individual and universal, personal and political narratives. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thanks and congratulations to Gayle Brandeis, winner of the Bellwether Prize in 2002.  Definitely worth a look:  "With great beauty and lyricism, The Book of Dead Birds captures a young woman’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s terrible past while she searches for her own place in the world. This moving mother-daughter story of migration, survival, and reconciliation resonates across cultures and through generations."

  • Ardyth DeBruyn

    There's a few that have made it past the taboo though, so you might also make it if you keep working for it... think it over, I've remembered "Eva" by Peter Dickinson, which centered around rights for chimpanzees in a futuristic society (and demonstrated the economics keeping them privately owned).  I suppose he was already a well known YA author, which helped, but definitely don't give up no matter how it ends up being classified on the bookshelf.  I also hope to read it someday.

  • Rebecca Burke

    Ardyth, I agree that kids care about these issues. That's why I wrote the book in the first place--I didn't see anything like it and knew how much young people care about animals, never knowing how much the very phrase "animal rights" sets some people off. If I had actually been an activist, I probably wouldn't have been so naive.

    I think what is difficult is to publish a Young Adult book of fiction that directly addresses the subject. Kingsolver's book was intended for an adult audience, so there weren't any censorship/gatekeeper issues. The economic issues at stake make animal rights a more hot-button issue than some might realize.

    Brenda, go for adult readers and young people will manage to find it. I for sure look forward to reading this story someday.

  • Brenda McClain

    Ardyth! So glad to hear you're "not going to shy away from them" in your own work. We must write about what is our to write about.  Glad to meet your acquaintance here!

  • Ardyth DeBruyn

    I had no idea that animal rights was so taboo.  I hope your book does terrific as an indie and that yours finds a good home, Brenda.  I was very into animal rights in middle school, often ridiculed by other students for being a vegetarian.  Kids care about these issues.  I'm not going to shy away from them in my own work.  Considering the main character in Barbara Kingsolver's novel "Animal Dreams" was an open animal activist as a child and there's multiple scenes about her standing up for environmental issues and animals rights, I'd guess this contest isn't prejudiced against such an important issue.

  • Brenda McClain

    Oh, and, Gayle, I want to read your book.  Congrats on being the first.  What an honor.  Amazing!

  • Brenda McClain

    I hear you, Rebecca, and know it's a hill to climb. I also know I must create characters that readers care about.  That's the key for me. 

    I'm fortunate --I've already interest from two traditional publishers.  We'll see!  Thanks for writing.  I wish you the best. 

    And here's to writing stories that we care about......

  • Rebecca Burke

    Congratulations to Susan! I wish your book all the best.

    Brenda, your story about your father's steer is a heart-breaker. Good luck in your writing. Not to discourage you, but please know that it is hard to get animal welfare stories published. There is a tremendous amount of--for lack of a better word--censorship in traditional publishing towards animal rights in fiction. Don't take my word for it, though--Google the topic and see what you find for titles. Slim pickings! And I'm pretty sure it's not because young people have no interest in this subject.

    Naively, I wrote a young adult novel  (The Ahimsa Club) about a group of young people who formed an animal rights club at their school and led some pretty innocent campaigns (Pledge to Veg and Save the Strays). Their club becomes a lightning rod for their school and community, leading to trouble with teachers, family, and friends. They deal with the conflicts in all sorts of ways--with humor, courage, and sometimes abject timidity! It's not a screed, but a full-blown, well-populated story, but many editors did not give it that benefit of the doubt. My own agent at the time would not even read it, telling me that it had no chance of being published with that subject as parents and libraries wouldn't buy it for their kids. Who knew? I eventually found a good small press who quickly and enthusiastically accepted it, then changed their minds after getting dressed-down by their marketing department.

    Well, I finally self-published it last year. I'm satisfied that it's a good novel, one that is socially engaged yet by no means some kind of jeremiad about animal rights. How could it be, with its author so conflicted herself? I explore all viewpoints in the story, but my main character, a teenaged girl named Valerie, believes to the end that "you cannot come down on the side of cruelty." She sticks to her guns.

    And so should all of us who like to write stories that have some of the heft and excitement of ideas we feel strongly about. I think young readers especially are hooked by the sense of engagement that fuels this kind of writing.

  • Brenda McClain

    I am writing a novel that addresses the issue of animal welfare.  It centers around a time-honored tradition where 4-H boys and girls "feed out" and "break" a steer for the coveted Grand Champion ribbon and big money.  This takes place in many states today.  My father won Grand Champion in 1941, the first year my hometown of Anderson, SC had such an event.  They called it The Fat Cattle Show & Sale, because after the big show, came the next part, the auctioning off of the steers for slaughter.  My father, even today, can't talk about it. He says he feels like he sold out his best friend.  "You got to get your mind on something else," he tells me. 

    But I can't.  I have to explore this in story.  I call my novel ONE GOOD MAMA BONE.

    Thank you, Barbara Kingsolver, for shepherding stories that deal with issues that matter. 

  • Natylie Baldwin

    Thanks for spreading the word about this prize, Ellen.  I had heard of Bellwether and was considering entering my novel when it is completed.  It is the story of 12-year old boy who lost his father and is being neglected by his grieving mother who is now juggling single parenthood with two dead-end jobs.  The boy strikes up an unexpected friendship with the eccentric town drunk (a Vietnam vet) who lives in a trailer at the edge of town and tends a makeshift garden.  The overarching theme in the book is people adapting to change and loss, but it also explores war, class, sustainability and community. 

    Gayle, I just ordered your book, The Book of Dead Birds, a few days ago and am looking forward to reading it.  It has been on my to-read list since I heard about it a few months ago.

  • Thank you for sharing this resource. I am writing my first novel about family homelessness and class differences in Los Angeles, and will pursue this for sure! Barbara Kingsolver is an inspiration.

  • gayle brandeis

    My first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, won the Bellwether Prize in 2002. I have a feeling that getting that call from Barbara Kingsolver will forever be the highlight of my writing life--she has always been a role model for me on how to seamlessly integrate art and social issues, so to get her blessing (and the blessing of Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, who had been the other judges that year, and who are also at the top of my favorite writer list) was such a deep and gratifying thrill. Having won the award, I feel a real responsibility to continue to address social issues in my work. I love that Barbara Kingsolver created the award, and I've loved all the books that have received the prize--so eye opening and full of passion. I can't wait to read Susan Nussbaum's novel! 

  • Suzy Henderson

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting.

  • Ellen I wasn't aware of this prize -- thank you so much for sharing this!

  • Karen Banes

    I love speculative fiction that addresses social issues. Everything from The Handmaid's Tale, to Brave New World, 1984 and, most recently, The Hunger Games. I just love it when an author takes a social issue, whether it's increased citizen surveillance or our obsession with reality TV and projects it into the future with a dark and chilling set of consequences. I'm working on a YA speculative fiction novel that does something similar (or tries to!) It addresses how we as a society are losing all our basic survival skills because our world is so comfortable, and how a government could exploit that for it's own benefit. Not sure that's really the kind of socially conscious fiction we're talking about here, but I think it's kind of related!