Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Guestblogger Ellen Meeropol: Five Political Novels To Change the World

This week's guest-blogger, Ellen Meeropol, is the author of House Arrest, a first novel published this month which received a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly: “Meeropol's work is thoughtful and tightly composed, unflinching in taking on challenging subjects and deliberating uneasy ethical conundrums.”

Meeropol began writing fiction in her fifties while working as a nurse practitioner in a pediatric hospital. Since leaving her nursing practice in 2005, she has worked as the publicist and book group coordinator for an independent bookstore and taught fiction workshops. She is a founding member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and author of the script for their dramatic program “Celebrate.” Drawing material from her twin passions of medical ethics and political activism, her fiction explores characters on the fault lines of political turmoil and family loyalties.

She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine and lives in Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in The Drum, Bridges, Portland Magazine, Pedestal, Patchwork Journal, and The Women’s Times.

Five Political Novels to Change the World
by Ellen Meeropol

Can fiction change the world? Novels have been credited with offering the political imagination necessary for true societal change and with sparking actual political transformation (e.g. Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook convincing Czar Alexander to free the serfs and Ignazio Silone’s Fontamara playing a major role in discrediting Italian fascism). Literary responses to tyranny and injustice, from Man’s Fate to Things Fall Apart to The Dew Breaker, demonstrate that the novel can be a powerful vehicle for shifting our political consciousness. Our world today could use some major transformation, so here are my nominations for five recent political novels that just might kick us into action for social justice.

by Naseem Rakha
After nineteen years in prison, the man who killed 15-year-old Shep has stopped his appeals and is scheduled to die by lethal injection. The story follows prison superintendent Tab Mason and Shep’s mother Irene back and forth between the family’s Illinois farm and the town in Oregon where the murder took place, from the family’s move to Oregon in 1983 to the execution date in 2004. As the plot twists unfold with seamless transitions, the reader travels Irene’s road of fierce hate and revenge-hunger to eventual forgiveness and re-connection. Rakha does an admirable job of avoiding the pat, the easy, the black and white sound bite and of challenging the reader both emotionally and intellectually.

by Chris Cleave
Little Bee is a teenager from a small, oil-rich Nigerian village. Sarah is a well-to-do British editor, wife, and mother. They meet on a Nigerian beach when Sarah and her husband are on vacation and Little Bee is running for her life. Although the author doesn’t reveal what happens at that meeting until late in the book, we know that the event is brutal and pivotal, keeping the narrative tension high. We also know that whatever happened on that beach binds these women together in profound and complex ways. There you’ve got it, precisely what interests me so much in reading - and writing - political fiction: the powerful and complicated intersection of people (okay, of characters) with the political worlds we inhabit.

by Kamila Shamsie
follows two families across five countries and sixty years like a relay race. The narrative baton might be the stunning image introduced early in the book when Hiroko dons a silk kimono “white with three black cranes swooping across her back” and goes to meet her German fiancé, Konrad. Minutes later, the atomic bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, burning the pattern of the cranes into Hiroko’s flesh. The baton passes from Nagasaki to Delhi on the cusp of partition in 1947, to 1983 Pakistan and the mujahideen. Finally, inevitably, the story reaches 9/11 New York and Guantánamo Bay. All these characters – and all of us – are branded by the history we live.

by Sadie Jones
Small Wars is the story of British army major Hal Treherne, dispatched to Cyprus during the 1956 “Emergency” and eager to be tested as a soldier and an officer. His wife Clara and their young twin daughters accompany him. While Hal faces the morally difficult role of leading an occupying army during a guerilla war, Clara faces increasing danger and loneliness. Their parallel battles and inner struggles as the violence escalates and the marriage flounders evoke a wonderful tension for the reader, one that remains authentic to the era while suggesting strikingly contemporary issues of means versus ends in waging war.

by Randy Susan Meyers
The Murder's Daughters finds its subject much closer than Cyprus or Nigeria; this novel of social injustice begins in the small Coney Island apartment of Merry and Lulu on the day their father kills their mother. These are two wonderfully complex characters, stubborn and determined to survive despite heavy odds. The prose is fresh and strong, the story compelling. Despite the shattering event that opens the novel, the narrative shimmers with healing, sisterly love, and hope.

--- Ellen Meeropol, author of the new novel House Arrest

---> For the complete archive of Madam Mayo's guest-blog posts, click here.