Tag Archives: language

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea tells the story of the island republic of Nollop, situated off the coast of South Carolina. Named after its native son Nevin Nollop, the creator of the typist’s pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  Ella Minnow Pea, an 18-year-old laundress is the book’s heroine and principal narrator. Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, unfolding through the correspondence among Ella, her cousin Tassie Purcy, and various other characters, along with dictats from Nollop’s governing High Island Council.

Ella Minnow Pea is a political satire and observation of state control. One July evening a tile falls from the monument that commemorates Nollop’s iconic sentence. In panic, the Council’s members convene to determine the purpose. They decide that the fall of the tile clearly represents the great Nollop’s posthumous wishes, and since the tile in question bears the letter ‘Z’ it must follow that Nollop wants that letter removed from the island’s speech and writing. The Council issues a ban, threatening violators with flogging, the stocks, or permanent exile. At first Ella believes that the loss of ‘Z’ will be only a minor inconvenience, she soon realises that the ban has terrible consequences. These become increasingly evident as more tiles fall  with more letters taken out of circulation. Communication becomes all but impossible, island life has come to a standstill, and many citizens have been exiled. In the end only Ella is left to break the Council’s stranglehold, with a deadline fast looming.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever book, and a real indulgence in the English language. Told entirely in letters, Dunn creates a literary feat, as language becomes more and more restricted. At one level, it’s a ridiculous tale, with paper-thin characters (who are awfully nice), and a single premise of a plot. There are some tensions, romance and reconciliation, but ultimately the engine of the novel is the ludicrous notion that governance is based on tiles falling from a statue. Its genius was enough for this lover of language.

This book isn’t for everyone, but I delighted in it. Towards the end of the book, only the letters LNMOP remain. A laughable delight in the phonetics of the central heroine, Ella Minnow Pea. Bloody genius.



Writing authentically

You know when parts of your brain fire off each other, as connections from things you’ve read, seen, done spark together?  Well, authenticity has been my food for thought this week.  I start from the premise of a person liking to ‘get things right’ (tendencies towards perfectionism, not always a very helpful thing), so hold that in context.

One of the events I attended at The Port Eliot Festival was a talk given by Kurt Jackson.  At the Q&A at the end, a girl in the audience asked him how he painted the sea – she just couldn’t emulate it no matter how she tried to glean techniques from studying his texts.  “You have to observe the sea, truly know it” he said, almost telling her that she was looking the wrong way.  He told her to experiment with paint, rubbing off, adding, highlighting until you have it.  Or that was the gist of the technique.  He then talked about understanding how something ‘works’ in order to re-create it, and how in working with kids from the city, who don’t know the sea, that it translates so clearly in what they create on paper.  “You know they don’t know the sea,” he said. It’s not authentic is where my mind goes.

I’ve had that experience with writers too.  Someone wants to toss in a scene about sailing, and it shows that they’ve never experienced it.  Also about the world of business, how organisations work.  Not everything runs like a school (where some people’s experience of large functioning organisations end).  It makes me think about my own attempts in raking up the past in my WIP – and why I’ve spent hours pouring over reference books.  I have a good sense of how people lived, what they wore, what they ate, what the houses were like, how they farmed, and how they seemed to a relatively sophisticated 18th Century Scottish adventurer (fairly rustic, it has to be said).  But I’ve some work to do in understanding the religious dogma that was around – hence a  parallel process on searching for sermons, and investigating the Spanish Inquisition.  I’m not aiming for text-book quality, but I want my reader to believe that this is 18th Century Lanzarote. I’m also revelling in studying about volcanoes, and representing the eruption accurately will be an aim of mine.  There won’t be any ash clouds, although it’s tempting to write about it as there’s so much footage/writing after the 2010 explosion of Eyjafjallajokulll.  It wasn’t that kind of volcano.

The nature of authenticity also had me thinking about writing about sailing (the other book I want to write).  The whole language about it when I first started set my head into spins.  I had a similar experience the other day, as I’ve started a ‘learn to row’ (a gig) course – when in Cornwall and all that.  There is a whole new language, and I’m right at the start, AGAIN!  In the 90 minutes of the lesson my mind was completely fused, and I am completely at the “Consciously Incompetent” end of the learning curve, beyond “unconsciously incompetent”. In less polite terms, this means “ignorant” – which is the quality that betrays some writing.  I’ve been reading Tim Winton short stories this last week (what an amazing writer), and noticing the authenticity and authority in his writing.  I could never convey what he does about Australian society, culture or surfing.  Stereotypes don’t create authenticity.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I don’t believe in ‘write about what we know’, as we’d never have the opportunity to grow as writers. Certainly write about what interests you, but please do it authentically.

The language of rain

Moored off Tobemory

I am a self-confessed weather geek.  All matters meteorological fascinate me.  My sister teases me about my daily habit of checking the weather, even when it makes no difference to what I’m doing.  Today, for example, I shall be mostly researching, yet I know that an Atlantic frontal system is crossing over Cornwall, probably the warm front has passed (I bet it feels warm outside, but haven’t tested that), and that a BIG weather system is waiting in the wings to make a grand entrance on Sunday, deepening and occluding as the morning goes.  I know all of this, because weather fascinates me.   I was just looking out of my window and I remembered the photograph I took from Whinchat a few summers ago, at the top of this post, when weather did matter.  Getting to the point, I also remembered a fascinating conversation I had with my good friend Ochaya Robert, in Uganda… and that’s the musing of the day.  Language. Continue reading The language of rain