Arts & Culture / Mosaic / February 25, 2009

Author speaks about writing as activism

Author Silas House presented his work to an audience in the Alumni Room on Feb. 25, sponsored by Caxton Club. The writer of three novels and two plays, and also an acclaimed music and magazine writer, House hails from eastern Kentucky and considers himself a southerner, a rural person, an Appalachian and also an activist by the way of his words. He has been involved in the fight against mountaintop removal and his political activism is increasing through his work.

“Just the very act of writing in this day and age [is activism],” House said. “I don’t want to get too political, but these past eight years are what made me an activist. The act of writing is a political act.” House also said, “I feel like I can speak more truth in fiction than in non-fiction.”

House has even written an investigative journalism piece, but still thinks fiction holds more truth. “All writers are activists in his own way,” he said before beginning his reading.

In an introduction by Visiting Assistant Professor of English Cyn Kitchen, she said, “Silas comes from the land of mountains and loves those mountains…he wants his reader to love [that land] too.” It became evident as he read that this was no small thing to him. Thin and speaking with a becoming southern drawl, House’s readings from his novel The Coal Tattoo constantly evoked images comparing nature to the industrial. He contrasts the moving of wind through leaves of a tree with the sound of a motorboat, and also the beauty of untouched nature compared to the environment of coal workers, calling on the listener or reader to examine the differences between the two.

On how he started as a writer, House said, “I think that most writers start out as eavesdroppers.” The Coal Tattoo was based on the relationship he examined and eavesdropped on between his mother and his aunt while he was growing up. “They would get into incredible arguments. They were totally different examples of devoutness and it made me a really screwed up person,” he said with a laugh. “I like to use music as much as possible and pop culture references,” which is also why he set that novel in the early 1960s.

Like his references to JFK and Lucky Strike cigarettes, his nostalgia manifests itself in another novel coming out in September, titled Eli the Good. “It’ll be published as a young adult novel, but I wrote it as an adult novel,” he said of the novel that was partly inspired by his own father, a Vietnam veteran who suffers Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. “I wrote it during a time when we were told there was a very specific way to be a patriot.” House did not agree that there was only one way to be a patriot, and he wrote the story because he thought the complexity of war could only truly be understood through the eyes of a child like Eli Book, the main character. “I think it’s a really selfish thing to be a writer, truthfully,” he said about the idea of manifesting himself in the new novel. The manifestation is particularly obvious in the novel when Eli thinks, “Being a writer was a fate I had accepted, though I was not as open to accepting I was weird.”

Though House’s roots and pride for his southern background manifest themselves greatly in his work, he has also been confronted with the problem of prejudice against southern intellect. “There is a sense of feeling like you have to prove yourself a little bit,” he said. “We all have a prejudice about something, and a lot of people have a prejudice against southern people because they associate certain areas with ignorance.” It is clear though that House is far from ignorant on important matters as he continues to fight for environmentalism through his writing.

Annie Zak


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