Monday, August 7, 2017

Reading Ella Minnow Pea for the First Time (in 2017)

As someone who loves reading and language, and teaches both writing and grammar, I have often been recommended Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea.  Many of the bookish podcasts I listen to discuss it as a silly, feel-good story.  I came upon it for a song at a recent book sale, so I decided that it was finally time to give it a read.  What I found on the pages was something darker and more applicable to the current political climate than I expected, and more relevant than I could have imagined.

Are you a lover of words and language?  Is freedom of expression important to you?  Do you value critical thinking and rationality over blind adherence to dogma?  Would you be willing to sacrifice your principles and better judgment in order to gain acceptance?  These are questions that I didn't expect to be asking myself while reading Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, but they became very pertinent very quickly.

The island nation of Nollop is located a few miles off the coast of South Carolina.  Once called Utopianna, it was renamed in honor of the man, a native of the island, who penned the famous pangram sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog", Nevin Nollop.  His influence is everywhere on the island.  People live either in Nollopton or Nollopville.  There was a massive statue erected in his honor, upon which were glued letter-tiles that spell out his famous sentence.  It is this statue which becomes the source of so much suffering for the residents of Nollop.

One day, a lettered tile falls from the statue and breaks on the ground.  It's discovered by a little girl and brought before the island's governing body, the 5-member High Island Council.  The Council convenes an emergency meeting to discuss the meaning and implications of what has happened.  In their unanimous decision, they proclaim that the tile's detachment is an "Act of Nollop" - a symbol that Nollop himself no longer wants the residents to use that letter of the alphabet any longer.

Furthermore, the Council sets very strict rules around the adherence to the letter's prohibition.  If someone is found to have spoken or written a word containing the restricted letter, or possesses any written/typed material containing that letter, the first offense will be a public reprimand.  The punishment for a second offense is either flogging or spending time in the stocks - violator's choice.  The third offense results in immediate banishment from the island.  If a violator refuses to leave, or returns after being exiled, he/she will be killed.  There is no appeal process.  These punishment are carried out by the island's police force or their deputized auxiliary.  The only exception is that children under the age of 8 are still allowed to speak, write, and read the letter.

That first fallen tile contains the letter Z, and Council sets the effective date of restriction for that letter as August 7 (today!).  At first, Nollop residents don't think it's such a big deal, because Z isn't a frequently-used letter.  Although they think the Council's edict is silly, Nollopians are willing to go along with it because they don't see it as too burdensome.  But then things get really dark, really fast. 

Schools, libraries, and residents' homes are required to be rid all of their novels, textbooks, correspondence, etc...because what are the chances that any printed materials don't contain the letter Z?  Reading materials are banned en masse.  People who have a Z in their names must change their names.  Residents have to self-censor what they say, so that they don't accidentally utter a word with the restricted letter.  They also have to be careful because their fellow Nollopians are encouraged to report each other if they are aware of infractions. 

Some residents are quick to buy into this culture of secrecy and policing, willingly changing their own behaviors and tattling on their peers.  Others fly in the face of the regulations and feel the wrath of the punishments; they are eventually expelled from Nollop.  Still others make the conscious choice to remove themselves the island, before they have committed three offenses, clearly seeing the ludicrousness of the situation.  They leave behind their homes, possessions, livelihoods, and loved ones.  News of what is happening is spread via correspondence smuggled out by these immigrants.  Once it becomes clear to the islanders that all of their writing is being intercepted and read by government officials, looking for violations, this spread of information becomes a dear priority.

Meanwhile, more tiles continue to fall from the statue, forcing more and more restrictions.  As language becomes more arduous and pitfall-ridden, many more Nollop residents decide that it's no longer worth it to stay on the island.  Whole neighborhoods grow deserted.  In response to this, the Council rules that they now have the authority to reclaim abandoned properties for their own use.  Later on, they declare that they also have the power to evict current residents from their homes, without due process.  Council members, their families, and the police force are encouraged to take up residence in the recouped houses.

The Council believes strongly that Nevin Nollop is worthy of reverence, because he performed a miracle in crafting his pangram.  They pray around his cenotaph, and refuse to allow worship of any other Supreme Being except for the Almighty Nollop...Nollop eternal.  Some of the reclaimed properties are intended to be razed in order to build a Church of Nollop.

All of this gets the attention of Nate Warren, a graduate student in Georgia, who writes to one of the residents of Nollop that he would like to visit the island and talk with the Council.  A former Nollopian had absconded with some shards of a fallen letter-tile before he left the island.  A scientific analysis was run on the tile bits, and it was found that the adhesive, which attached the tiles to the monument of Nollop, had dried and grown brittle over time.  That, not some kind of divine intervention, was the reason behind the falling tiles.  Nate wished to discuss these findings with a Council member, in hopes that it might change their course of action.  He is able to come to Nollop, but even after he discusses the contents of the report, and how summarily they explain away the "phenomenon" of the falling letters, it has no impact.  In fact, the Council member with whom he meets argues that Nevin Nollop must have influenced the decision to use that adhesive, since it would eventually dry up and allow Nollop's will to be done through the falling tiles.  There was no scientific proof that would sway the Council away from their belief system.

The only success Nate has is in proposing a challenge, to see if anyone on the island can craft a pangram using fewer characters than Nollop did.  This is important, because the crux of the Council's system of belief is that Nollop is a god.  The Council believes wholly that it is impossible for the challenge to be successful, but they allow the residents to toil at it for the next 6 weeks, until Nollop's birthday.  It's called Challenge 32, as the winner will have to be able to craft a new pangram in 32 characters or less.  The only way they can work on this challenge, without invoking penalties on themselves for using outlawed letters, is to have young children do the writing for them.

While the first half of the novel gets us to this point, the second half is focused primarily on the progress that the residents make toward Challenge 32.  All the while, more letters continue to fall, making communication that much more difficult.  There are continually more people who are subject to the reprimands, physical punishments, and expulsions.  One resident is even killed by the island's police force.  This motivates many of the remaining people to flee, but the very few who stay on the island are singularly focused on meeting Challenge 32 by its deadline.  If they are unsuccessful, the result will be the eventual discontinuation of all communication and complete isolation.  Either Nollop will return to its prior utopian glory, or it will regress to a state of absolute censorship and total silence.

I found it rather serendipitous that I came to Ella Minnow Pea now, at this time in the world.  Although the novel was published back in 2001, it could easily be an allegory for the modern political climate.  After an event, that the Nollopians ultimately brought upon themselves from their shoddy construction of Nollop's cenotaph, the government seizes upon the opportunity to quickly enact a broad campaign of censorship and brutality.  This could be a criticism of the US government's actions in the Middle East, and against Muslims in general, after 9/11...the "War on Terror".

The prominent theme throughout the novel is censorship.  In the US, there is a strong desire amongst some groups to censor the media.  The White House press corps are censored from being able to record or transmit the briefings that they witness.  Books are regularly challenged and banned.  Truth is being pushed aside, by political leadership, in favor of "alternative facts" and "fake news" that reinforce narrow and deeply harmful ideology.

Even when presented with factual evidence that disputes their beliefs, and that should bring about positive changes, the island's High Council denies and resists.  It's almost like the steadfast convictions about the realities of climate change.  In spite of the plentiful scientific evidence that humanity is directly responsible for the rising temperatures on Earth, and the dire consequences that will come as a result, many politicians refuse to acknowledge that climate change is real, and reject any proposed changes or programs to counteract it.

There's the recurring image of Nollopian citizens being harshly punished and even evicted from the island, because they refuse to conform to the government's demands.  Could this speak forward to the US administration's current immigration policies?  Deportations are happening with shocking frequency, and the targets are often the most vulnerable populations.  The rallying cry of "send them back", even when the "them" are citizens of this country, rings loud.

That image also speaks to the desire of some in power to enforce conformity to their particular ideas of what is right.  Do you dress differently, worship differently, look differently, act differently, love differently, have a different skin color, read differently, communicate differently?  Any of these things make you a target for systematic repression and violence, in the service of enforcing same-ness. The Nollopians must endure this in their way, and so do many Americans.

The High Council makes it legal, at their discretion, for citizens' homes and businesses to be confiscated.  No legal recourse is available.  While there has been some flavor of this legislated in the US for a long time, a US Department of Justice Policy Directive 17-1 was released a few weeks ago, which allows the federal government to seize a person's assets, even if doing so is illegal by the relevant state's laws, without having to charge the person with any crime.

With each tile that vacates, correspondence becomes more and more lipographic. Near the end, there are so few letters left at the Nollopians' disposal that writing and speaking becomes unbelievably tedious.  At this point, grammar and syntax having little meaning or application.  Some people decide to stop communicating altogether and become silent.  They are like those of us who are insulated by our societal privilege.  They turn their backs to the widespread injustices happening all around them, until they can't do so any longer.

One Nollopian woman, Georgeanne, had been a ready tattler to the Council when they first passed their restrictive laws.  Once her husband was sanctioned and forced to leave Nollop, she awoke to the reality of what was happening.  She become so frustrated by the restrictions on language that she turned to art.  She obtained leftover house paint from abandoned homes and used it to create expressive canvases, which she gave to her neighbors.  In an act of desperate protest, Georgeanne decided to paint on her own body. Her artistic expression functions in direct contradiction to the legislated campaign of censorship.  Unbekownst to her, however, there was lead in the paint, which poisons her.  She eventually dies of lead poisoning, symbolic of the protesters who are killed or arrested (a symbolic killing of their freedom) as a result of their political activity.

From these observations, it really felt like Mark Dunn could have published Ella Minnow Pea in the past year, not 16 years ago.  The symbols that appear throughout the novel are entirely relevant now, and speak directly to the current, American, political leadership.  With this in mind, it wasn't surprising at all to read that Gold Leaf Films is working on a movie version of the book, with a tentative release date of 2018.  I look forward to seeing how the directive team treats the story.

In Ella Minnow Pea, the governmental actions are based on an arbitrary belief system that blinds the Council to any other explanations of the world around them.  They are so devout in this belief that they are willing to sacrifice the welfare of the entire island for it.  As today's date, August 7th, was the implementation of the first banning of a letter, it seemed entirely serendipitous to have read the novel, for the first time, now.  It's not the silly, happy-go-lucky story that I had been recommended, but is so much more than that.  It's relevant to our lives now, and speaks a truth that we all can benefit from.

Librorum annis,