Posted on

Announcing the Siskiyou Prize winner and finalists

Ashland Creek Press is delighted to announce Jennifer Boyden has won the 2015 Siskiyou Prize for her novel THE CHIEF OF RALLY TREE.

Jen_4182_3K

Of THE CHIEF OF RALLY TREE, judge Ann Pancake writes: “Inventive, smart, and often hilariously funny, The Chief of Rally Tree delivers a social critique both searing and sly.”

Jennifer Boyden is the author of two books of poetry, The Declarable Future (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), winner of The Four Lakes Prize in Poetry; and The Mouths of Grazing Things (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), winner of The Brittingham Prize in Poetry. She is a recipient of the PEN Northwest Wilderness Writing Residency and has taught writing and literature courses at a variety of places, including Suzhou University in China, The Sitka Center for Arts and Ecology, Whitman College, and at various workshops. On the faculty of Eastern Oregon University’s low-residency MFA program, Jennifer also works for an environmental nonprofit in the San Juan Islands. She lives in Friday Harbor, Washington.

The two prize finalists are the novel THE PLACE WITH NO NAME, by José María Merino, translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Polli, and the essay collection THE SHAPE OF MERCY: ESSAYING THE GEOGRAPHY OF HOME by Alison Townsend.

The semifinalists are NOT TILL WE ARE LOST: REFLECTIONS ON EDUCATION, COMMUNICATION, AND SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION by William Homestead and THE PTEROPOD GANG by Nancy Lord.

The Siskiyou Prize is named for the Klamath-Siskiyou region of northern California and southern Oregon, one of the most diverse eco-regions in the world. The annual award is open to unpublished, full-length prose manuscripts, including novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essay collections. The winner receives a cash award of $1,000, a residency at PLAYA, and an offer of publication by Ashland Creek Press.

Thanks to all who submitted to the prize for your support of environmental literature. For more information, and to learn about next year’s prize, visit SiskiyouPrize.com.

Posted on

Book Review: Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley by Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake’s new story collection, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, brings readers to the West Virginia territory of her extraordinary novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been. In these novellas and stories, the ravaged West Virginia landscape is such a deeply ingrained part of these characters’ lives that those who move away are lured back—even if they may not completely understand why.

In “The Following,” a Seattle woman finds herself mysteriously drawn to animal bones, eventually using a job interview as an excuse to return to her homeland: “many days I felt so feral I’d choose homelessness over that sense of living inside a speeding car I’d had while working full-time.” And when she returns, she discovers that the land was still a part of her: “The smell of the place. It’d near rolled me. A smell foreign to anything I’d scented as an adult—water on limestone? Appalachian dirt? acorn rot?—but one sniff. And I was eight years old again.”

Yet for a visiting cousin in the story “Sab,” who “said she had to come home and didn’t think a week would be enough…Said she really just needed to get out in the woods…” finding her roots proved more difficult. “How long do you think it’ll take,” she asks, “before I’ll get all the city out of me?”

pancake

For most of these characters, the landscape is so deeply a part of them that they can never fully leave it behind — and the tragedy of its destruction weighs heavily on them all, from the retired miners in “Arsonists” who watch their town burn down one home at a time to the narrator of the novella “In Such Light” who “traveled under horizons of coal power plants, heaving up out of their own steam and effluvium like daymare mirages, menacing unoccupied castles, the cooling towers monstrous squat beakers, some mutation out of a chemistry set. The oil refineries with their perverse metal trees, overtall, spindly, their flares rippling, biblical, each crown a sterile altar.”

Everywhere the effects of the coal industry hovers, visibly and emotionally, made vivid by Pancake’s haunting prose. In “Arsonists,” former miners futilely spend their nights on watch, surrounded by the aftermath of fire, to catch whoever is burning down the town’s company-owned homes. “Some of the houses are just scorched, their windows like blackened eyes. Others went full-blaze, gaping open now, their charred rooms exposed—a pitiful vulgar to it…Overhead, the flattened hills roll in dead slumps, like men’s bodies cold-cocked…like men knocked out. The humps of their twisted shoulders, their arms and legs drunk-flung. Them sprouting their sharp foreign grass.”

Among Pancake’s many gifts are to reveal at once the beauty of her native landscapes and the suffering it endures — where, as she writes in “Arsonists,” the mountain-top blasting turned day to night and “dust stormed the hollow so thick…everybody’d had to birth their headlights, their houselights, right through the middle of the day…That year, there was no summer green, no autumn red. Everything evergray and velvet.” And Pancake’s every sentence is something to be savored — from the pitch-perfect voices and descriptions (“He says his words like flat creek rocks laid”) to the details that reveal physicality as well as character and place (“The bottom half of his face was twice as long as the top, out of balance even by horse standards”).

AnnPancake

The narrator of “The Following,” the only story set outside of West Virginia, is overly aware, in part due to the recent losses in her own life, of the “Great Losses of These Times”—“the atmosphere boiling, the Arctic thawing, oceans rising, species dying.” She reflects: “That same spring my life was being dismantled, BP annihilated the Gulf and a coal company with a criminal environmental record slaughtered twenty-nine miners in the hills not far from where I’d lived as a child.”

That so many other characters in this collection haven’t left their hometowns doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same sense of foreboding; Pancake captures their sensibilities beautifully, from young and teenage girls for whom poverty has made them older than their years to Matley in “Dog Song,” who feels his twenty-two dogs are the only ones who understand him, “the loose part in him” that makes him the object of rumor and nicknames. When his dogs begin to disappear, the despair is overwhelming: “…just when he’d think it couldn’t get worse, think a body couldn’t hold more hurt, another dog would go, the loss an infinity inside him.” Every character reveals an entire mirror landscape reflecting the whole of this region that Pancake portrays so distinctly.

Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley is a stunningly beautiful collection by one of our finest writers — and one of our most important voices in environmental literature.

Posted on

The Greening of Literature

seattle

A week ago I traveled to Seattle to participate at the AWP Conference and Bookfair — the world’s largest gathering of writers and writing programs. Ashland Creek Press hosted a booth, and a number of our authors attended for panels and book signings. We also met editors at the environmental journals Newfound, Flyway, Catamaran, and Terrain.

With more than 12,000 writers at the conference, it was a crazy few days. Perhaps in part due to its Seattle location, a strong environmental theme ran throughout the conference, and I was pleased to see so many people at the “Greening of Literature” panel that I moderated with writers Ann Pancake, JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, and Gretchen Primack.

I only wish I could have recorded this session because each writer offered outstanding advice and inspiration for any writer pursuing eco-fiction or eco-poetry. I frantically took notes during the presentations. Below are a few nuggets that I was able to capture.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float and Addled. She posted her AWP talk on her blog and I highly recommend reading it in full. Here are a few passages that stuck with me:

As John Clancy said, the difference between reality and fiction, is that fiction has to make sense. So when I started Float, I began reading about marine plastics, which turned out to be not just unsightly, immortal, and deadly to sea animals, but toxic to humans as well. As the writing continued, my interest in the health of the oceans expanded. I read about dead zones, overfishing, bottom-trawling, acidification, and the opportunistic appetite of the jellyfish. I learned a lot about the sea, but much of it was pretty dry. Pages and pages of one damn fact after another. No racy scenes, no humor. No plot, no narrative, no characters. No Pauline tied to the train tracks. It was informative, but not particularly engaging. Intellectually, I was concerned; emotionally, I was on the outside looking in. Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect. Academic papers and straight journalism cannot convey human suffering; they can only calculate or report it.

But most readers don’t want to hear about populations; they want a specific person. Not the planet, but a particular place in a moment of time.

And…

As writers, our most sustainable energy source is creativity, and we should use it freely. Literature teaches us to notice, to care, and to create meaning.

Gretchen Primack is a poet and author of Kind and Doris’ Red Spaces. Gretchen made clear that any writer aiming to write about the environment cannot overlook the animal industries. The pollution generated by these industries far outweigh the impact of cars — so we would make a much greater impact if we all simply stopped eating animal products.

Gretchen read Love This from Kind. Many of Gretchen’s poems take the perspective of the animals — and this is not pleasant place to be. It’s horrifying to see the world through a dairy cow’s eyes, to see your offspring yanked away from you immediately after giving birth, over and over again.

When asked how she could stay upbeat while writing such challenging poetry, Gretchen said that the writing process actually helped her, as she felt engaged and able to make a difference. And I think this is a key takeaway for any writer tackling difficult issues. It’s easy to get depressed when you see and learn horrible things, but by remembering that you’re putting your talents to work to help make a bad situation less bad, you can at least know you’re making an impact.

Gretchen also talked about a word that I find is too frequently used to distance us from animals — anthropomorphism. She asks: What if we, what the planet, erred on the side of having too much compassion for animals? Would that be a bad thing? And how much better would this planet be if we did just that?

Ann Pancake is the author of Strange as This Weather Has Been, a novel about mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Ann  told us about her extensive research, which included newspapers (there were no books out yet on this issue), interviews with residents of the regions, time spent living in the region, and research at the state archives. She then let all this information “compost” for a period of time before she began writing. I love her compost metaphor because it drives home how important research is but also how this information often doesn’t make it into the writing directly, if it all. That is, Ann was clear in emphasizing how she often had to leave out information she wanted to mention when she realized that it would have come across as didactic — something writers of eco-fiction must strive to avoid.

She also provided tips about how to get a message in more subtle ways, such as relying on a child narrator. But she emphasized that you must prioritize your art above politics. That is, the story and the characters are most important — that the message will emerge through them, and not vice versa.

Mindy Mejia is the author of The Dragon Keeper. Mindy said that she didn’t set out to write an environmental work initially. She was simply writing a love story — a story about a zoologist and her relationship with a Komodo dragon — and that everyone loves a good love story. I couldn’t agree more!

Mindy talked about how she spoke to a classroom of students about her book and how they responded to fiction vs. nonfiction. What was interesting was how they had trusted her to get the science right — and this is a key lesson to any writer: The reader is placing faith in you, the writer, to not only tell a great story but to get the science right.

A bright future for eco-fiction and eco-poetry

I didn’t expect to leave Seattle feeling more energized than when I arrived, but that’s exactly how I felt — because I realized there are so many writers out there who are passionate about eco-literature. Based on the conversations, the readings, the number of people who dropped by our booth, I am optimistic about the future.

PS: I have to mention a nearby restaurant that I frequented while we were in Seattle: Veggie Grill. This place is all vegan, and I challenge any omnivore to eat here and not come away impressed. It’s one of many plant-based restaurants that prove that adopting a vegan diet is not about deprivation but about delicious, sustainable,  environmentally friendly food.

Posted on

Book Review: Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake’s powerful novel Strange as This Weather Has Been is a must-read not only due to its compelling story but also its accomplishments as a work of eco-literature. This novel captures what a good book does best—revealing our humanity in the midst of beauty and grief and heartbreak and joy—while simultaneously opening readers’ eyes to environmental disaster, without ever sacrificing character or story.

strange

Set in a West Virginian town in the midst of a coal boom, Pancake introduces a family plagued by poverty and by the effects of the mountaintop removal strip mining that is destroying the land around them. Told through the eyes of several characters living amid the ruinous effects of coal mining—which early on felt a bit cumbersome, as the book also jumps around in time—this story belongs mostly to Lace and her teenage daughter, Bant, born when Lace herself was a teenager. Through their eyes and others, the novel vividly portrays the daily struggles of those who live amid mountain-removal coal mining: the constant fear of black floods weighed against a desperate need for work, the memories of what once was versus the wasteland that now exists. Lace and Bant, deeply connected to the land, feel these effects more strongly than most, in their very bones.

Pancake, who is from West Virginia, writes with a stunning authenticity; the book draws from conversations and interviews with people living through mountaintop removal mining, and she’s dedicated this book to them. “Nowhere have I seen courage and integrity like theirs,” she writes, and this spirit is reflected in each of her characters.

Place, too, is a major character in this novel; the richness of detail and the characters’ history with the land reveals why it’s so hard for them to leave, even when the jobs begin to disappear and the threats loom everywhere, from within the coal miners’ lungs to in the flooding of toxic black water.

At one point, the family does leave, temporarily, when Lace’s husband, Jimmy Make, gets a job in Raleigh, North Carolina. Despite the necessity of the move, she misses home: “Down there, I learned fast, you couldn’t ever really get outside. Couldn’t even get in trees, in brush, much less get into hills, you weren’t ever out of sight or sound of a road, a building, a parking lot, and sometimes I’d miss backhome woods so bad I’d feel land in my throat.”

Lace also notes “… it wasn’t just the lack of money that made us poorer in North Carolina. It was what you saw around you, what you had to compare yourself to, and I’d never understood about that before…Somehow people knew we were different from them, even before we opened our mouths, although I couldn’t for the life of me see how we looked much different from anybody else…It was that smallness North Carolina made me…I got a whole lot littler.”

Yet back home, tensions escalate both within the region as more blasting continues, and within the family as Lace becomes involved with anti-mining activists and Jimmy Make resists. Meanwhile, the couple’s younger sons—Dane, Corey, and Tommy—each deal with the landscape and the anxiety in his own way: “Sad dark Dane”; “Corey a flame, a push, a glow”; “Tommy growing up poorer than the others had to, Tommy growing up poorest of us all, and him not even knowing any different.”

When Bant, who takes after her mother in passion and intensity—“Little sister, little friend,” Lace calls her—sees the mountain in whose shadow she’d grown up in destroyed, it affects her deeply: “What I saw punched my chest. Knocked me back on my heels. At first I saw it only as shades of dead and gray, but I pushed my eyes harder, I let come in the hurt, and then it focused into a cratered-out plain. Whole top of Yellowroot amputated by blast, and that dragline hacking into the flat part left. Monster shovel clawed the dirt, and you felt it in your arm, your leg, your belly, and how lucky Grandma died, I thought. I thought that then.”

Strange As This Weather Has Been succeeds beautifully not just as the unforgettable story of a family, a region, a culture; the novel indirectly asks readers think about where their power comes from, and what the costs of coal truly are. Though not didactic—we’re never brought out of the story—Pancake has written a book we can hope will raise awareness about mountaintop removal mining and the lives affected by it. As Lace says in the novel: “Stay in their way—that’s the only language they can hear. We are from here, it says. This is our place, it says. Listen here, it says. We exist.”

 

Posted on

Happy New Year from EcoLit Books

Happy new year, readers and writers! We are looking forward to a new year of eco-literature and already have a great lineup of new reviews coming soon.

For all of you who live in the Seattle area or who are attending AWP, we’d love to see you at our eco-lit panel on Saturday, March 1, at 12 noon: The Greening of Literature: Eco-fiction and poetry to enlighten and inspire. The panel will be moderated by John Yunker, who will be joined by eco-minded authors, essayists, and poets: JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, Ann Pancake, and Gretchen Primack. Authors on this panel discuss how their ecologically themed fiction and poetry engages readers in powerful ways that nonfiction can’t. Panelists discuss writing in these emerging sub-genres as well as their readers’ responses, and offer tips for writing about the environment in ways that are galvanizing and instructive without sacrificing creativity to polemics. Click here for full conference details.

If you’d like to start 2014 with a sample of Ashland Creek Press eco-lit, check out our newly updated Eco-Fiction Sampler.

ecosampler

Wishing you a happy new year of reading!