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CARPE LIBRUM: Showing the slippery slope to silence in ‘Ella Minnow Pea’

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Ella Minnow Pea

MacAdam/Cage, 2001, pgs. 208 

By Mark Dunn

13I have long said many of Shakespeare’s comedies continue to be his most poignant and tragic writing. Some topics are so weighty that to come at them head-on is almost beyond limits of human endurance. But through laughter some of us have the possibility of communicating a deeper message. Mark Dunn’s “Ella Minnow Pea” is a book many people underestimate.

The novel takes place on Nollop, a small island off the South Carolina coast that is sovereign from the United States. The island’s most famous son was one Nevin Nollop, creator of the famous sentence, “The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.” A statue of Nollop was erected on the island, complete with tiled letters of his famous sentence. One day the letter “Z” tile falls from the statue. The island council takes it as a divine sign from beyond the grave that Nollop does not want them to use this letter anymore. Henceforth to speak, write or read the letter “Z” is a crime punishable in “Scarlet Letter”-style public shaming, flogging, time in the stocks, and eventually banishment from the island.

Dunn has set himself an interesting task as a writer: As new letters fall from the statue and are subsequently banned for use on the council, he steadily reduces the letters that he, the author, uses in the book. “Z” and “Q” might not appear to be too difficult to give up, but what about “O”?

Part of what “Ella Minnow Pea” explores is the ways people normalize and cope with change, especially enforced change. On this small, contained island where everyone knows everyone else, Dunn creates a microcosm of what any nation can experience. But he also, quite cleverly, illustrates how slowly we can be forced into silence if we comply with the slippery slope of “the first letter.”

If anything, “Ella Minnow Pea,” which is a very light-hearted look at this unfolding crisis, got me musing yet again on a question plaguing me frequently. If art’s purpose is to raise awareness, why is there so little action that results from its awareness?

As I write, pictures and video from all over the globe are trading and posting, documenting the Women’s March on Washington, DC, on January 21. Others appeared around the country and world. This show of solidarity is remarkable and inspiring. But when real life resumes, and the insurance and taxes have to be paid, and grocery shopping has to be done, and someone has to pick up the kids from school, and … and … and …

That is what I worry about.

Because when we are distracted by demands of life, the powers that be will chip away at freedom and communication, and begin to normalize such losses. Politicians respond to two things: publicity and money. Few of us have the financial resources of Sheldon Adelson; however, we can give support to the few who are doing good work and take stands.

Conversely, people can choose not to contribute to those who are not actively working for the good of all and upholding the Constitution and Bill of Rights. But publicity is very different now than it was eight years ago, let alone 20 years ago.

The first time I went to a march in Washington, camera phones were not a reality. The story of my group—surrounded and contained by police in riot gear and the efforts to get a judge out of bed on a Saturday morning to get an injunction against this illegal arrest of more than a thousand people—never made the newspaper or TV news. The citizen journalism that we take for granted today could have gone a long way toward making that story have a different resolution.   

Right now, we are looking at an administration that has said, on the record, it would not oppose camps for containment of people it considers threatening. Press access to the administration is being curtailed and diminished. They are our eyes and ears; without their ability to question power and demand accountability, we have no ability to voice our concerns or engage in meaningful discussion with each other.   

We must question, we must demand meaningful, truthful answers, and we must engage in dialogue with each other and our elected officials. Please, attend town-hall meetings, ask questions, record answers, and share as a citizen journalist how our elected officials respond to our concerns. Because that first “Z” to fall is the beginning—and if we let it slide by without comment, we will lose the right to freedom of the press, assembly, religion, and habeas corpus when we are too busy getting through the day to notice. Speak today, speak tomorrow, speak now, or forever hold your peace.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mark Dunn

    January 26, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    Speak today, speak tomorrow, speak now, or lose your chance to speak at all. When I wrote this book, the Taliban in Afghanistan was blowing up religious statues. Now we have a madman who seems prepared to blow up our own country. Thank you for reminding us all of what’s at stake, Gwenyfar . — Mark Dunn, author of ELLA MINNOW PEA

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