WWU's Richard Simon named a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction

Richard Simon, a senior instructor in WWU's Honors Program and Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, was recently named a finalist in the Pen America Literary Awards' Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for his unpublished book, "The Dolphin Ambassador's Daughter."

The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a career-founding prize, which promotes fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. Established by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles.

The winning unpublished novel manuscript is chosen by a panel of three judges, including one editor representing Algonquin Books and two distinguished literary authors. Entries are judged blindly, to avoid any form of bias, and the identities of the authors of the submissions are not known by the judging panel until after the decision is finalized.

"Socially engaged fiction" may describe categorical human transgressions in a way that compels readers to examine their own prejudices. It may invoke the necessity for economic and social justice for a particular ethnic or social group, or it may explicitly examine movements that have brought positive social change. Or, it may advocate the preservation of nature by describing and defining accountable relationships between people and their environment.

Western Today recently chatted with Simon about his book, being named a finalist for such a prestigious award, and more.

WT: Congratulations on being named a finalist, and also on the completion of your book!

RS: "I want to say first that it feels strange to answer questions about the book. Because it’s not yet published, and I am seeking publication, it’s a bit like trying to talk about a painting that is on the wall in your studio, and that no one has seen yet except a few friends – yet has still somehow managed to get some recognition."

WT: How did the concept for this novel come about? 

RS: "I had been on a boat when a pair of dolphins emerged on the bow wave, and when they drew breath, the sound was indistinguishable from humans taking breath. The idea that dolphins are highly intelligent sentient beings living in a deep, three-dimensional world that was largely hidden from humans fused, in my mind, with Tolkien-style fantasy. What if those two dolphins were on their way to an important meeting? What would that meeting be about? What’s going on in their world and what are they worried about? Probably, they’d be worried about humans. That may be overly anthropocentric -- but if I were them, I'd be worried about us."

WT: Was social or political engagement a goal for you as you came up with the framework concept for the book?  

RS: "All art is political, from my perspective. Social and political engagement is the point of art, when art is not being made either to advance the form or for pure pleasure. And when art is made for either of those last two purposes, it tells us something important about the artist’s political situation – namely that the artist has the privilege to not have to make political art as a matter of survival."

I was frustrated that action to deal with global warming was derailed by the 2000 election and the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq (and again in 2016). Why was it that the U.S. in the 21st century can turn itself and its values upside down and inside out to respond to something that looks like war, but not to deal with an existential crisis that doesn’t look like war? That’s part of the political question: what if the whales responded to a major oil spill, to global warming, to the changing seas, the way that Americans responded to the 9/11 attacks? Would we get it then?

Themes about war and peace, and prejudice and racism (among others) continued to evolve as the story took shape across time, as the characters came to life and their concerns became real. And this is what's going on in our time. To me, again, this is the purpose of art, to hold up the mirror and show society its true face."

WT: How does the process of writing a book like "The Dolphin Ambassador's Daughter" inform your teaching? 

RS: "That’s a great question. For one thing, because I am always writing and always revising and always editing – and always trying to get work published – it’s very real for me when I am trying to help students improve their work. It’s not academic. Writing and revising and editing are real and gut-wrenching and raw, all the time. The stuff that they are trying to do, I am also trying to do, all the time. And when I am teaching epic poems in Honors, I’m not coming from the experience of being a Homer scholar, but rather from the experience of someone who has spent a great many hours writing epic poetry. And it’s not a one-directional transfer! I am always learning from my students – both from reading and editing their work, and from learning about their perspectives and experiences and how they make sense of the world.

I learn as much from my students as I ever did from my writing professors. And I am grateful for that."