Advocating for Social Change: When Words Move People

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When I was a teen my father hated that I wouldn’t remove my nose from the book I had in my hand long enough to see the sights on our summer vacations. (Well, I did, but only to appease him or to see something worth seeing.)
He was fond of telling me I should be reading some other, classic author, rather than the current Harlequin romance writer’s book I was racing through. (Janet Daily comes to mind.) In particular, he shook his head in dismay when I wouldn’t pick up The Good Earth.
I think that’s the real reason I’ve never read Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. (Which is something I’m actually embarrassed to admit.) Whether you’re 13 or 16, when your father harps about something enough, you’re not going to want to do it.
Since that time, I’ve longed to read the book, and it’s been on my list of books I must read for probably 20 years. I finally bought my own copy Saturday, after winning the very first “Pearl S. Buck Award, Writing for Social Change” award in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. (There were only 18 entries, which greatly increased the odds of winning for anyone who entered, but I imagine next year that number will triple.)
So what does this award mean to me? Honestly, it’s the most prestigious one to date, since Buck didn’t just win a Pulitzer. She’s one of only two American women to win a Nobel Prize for literature. (Toni Morrison is the other one.) That rather sums up what it means—but only from a professional aspect.
Because what it means to me personally is another matter entirely. That’s because of my parents—both of whom read The Good Earth. It reminds me of their steadfast efforts to ensure all five of their children were readers, and parents who tried to see the differences in other people and other cultures.
Too, if your writing is being compared to Pearl Buck’s in a favorable way, that’s huge. As Dr. Edwina Pendarvis, a professor emeritus at Marshall University, said yesterday morning, Buck was a wonderful advocate for women and children. I think being an advocate is more important than being a writer, but I love that my writing is viewed as advocating for them!
Dr. Pendarvis and I were strangers before this weekend, and we only met then because she and Jolie Lewis taught an amazing workshop about Buck at the conference. (Lewis is on the board of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation, which helped sponsor the award.) All contest entries were judged blindly, and I’d be surprised if Dr. Pendarvis had even read my work prior to my entry.
But that she chose to bestow this honor upon Lethal Silence, a book that looks at social factors that significantly impact the lives of women and children, is the creme de creme of honors. Especially when she said Lethal Silence is important because it will make people see things differently.
Even things they don’t want to see.
* * * *
The writing world in West Virginia is a close-knit one. It’s full of writers who are unassuming and who sing the praises of others louder than their own. I first attended the WVW conference in Ripley more than 20 years ago. Time and circumstances prevented me from going back until a few years ago. But when I attended last year, I decided to make it an annual event. Stellar literary agents and big-name publishing houses don’t usually grace us with their presence, but they really should.
That’s because West Virginia has some of the best writers in the country, if not the world. Look at Pearl Buck. Or Irene McKinney. Or Lee Maynard. Or Homer Hickham. (And those are just the ones you’re heard about. There are many more you haven’t. Yet.)
I’ve attended other, more prestigious conferences: Imagination in Cleveland, Backspace in New York City. (The year I went to Imagination I met Alice Sebold; she was a keynote speaker. Backspace was held in the Algonquin, famous for such big literary names as Gertrude Stein, Maya Angelou and William Faulkner.)
But none of these conferences came close to what WVW offers. And it isn’t just the rural, scenic setting that writers crave, because it provides the peacefulness we all need to write. It’s because we aren’t New Yorkers, and we don’t write because we care about the praise and the honor and the glory. If that happens it’s nice, but what’s really wonderful is that we care about the written word much more than the glory. And we care about each other.
* * * *
Tamarack was as much fun yesterday as it was last month. (Has it really only been one? It feels more like three.) I met teens from Wisconsin who were on a mission trip to West Virginia—none of whom even own an e-reader. (Thank you for restoring my faith in youth; now I know there’s hope!) I met a lady trucker from Mississippi who gave up her own company and then went on the road as an employee so she can spend her weekends with her 10 grandchildren.
I met a college student who just returned from an exotic trip, and who was carrying around some beautiful plants from the farmer’s market. She offered to watch my books so I could to grab some myself, since the farmers were closing up. (That’s how I came to have the hottest pepper plant in the world, so they say. It’s a ghost pepper.)
I met so many people I can’t remember them all, and I really cannot say how many books I sold. I’m guessing the kind folks at Tamarack placed 12 books on the table before my arrival, and I had to get six more before I left, since we were down to three books by 4 p.m. and I still had an hour to go.
* * * *
This just in: I’m going to join The Broads, who are actually Christine Eas and Molly Dedham. The show is live, and they invited me on the air for Christine’s “Survivor Series,” which is featured the second Tuesday of each month. We’ll also talk about the Sandusky sex abuse case. I was supposed to call them after they got a copy of my book more than a month ago, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. So happy they reached out to me!
Broadminded is a Sirius XM program, and they like to say it’s “refreshing radio,” which it is! (Channel 107, 9 a.m. ET.)
* * * *
Daleen can be reached at
Editor’s note: Berry has expertise in overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment, and wrote about Wanda Toppins’ murder in her book, after reporting on the case in 1991 when she worked for The Preston County Journal. Wanda was another Preston County woman who died needlessly, and who Berry wrote about in Sister of Silence.
To read the Sister of Silence e-book (or any other e-book), download a free app from Amazon for your phone, tablet or computer.
Berry’s an award-winning author, editor and journalist who speaks at conferences around the country. Berry was one of two keynote speakers addressing a national audience at “The Many Faces of Domestic Violence,” the 18th Annual Conference of the Association of Batterers’ Intervention Programs on March 1, 2012, in Anaheim, Calif. She recently spoke to social workers from all over the country at the “Hope for the Future: Ending Domestic Violence in Families” conference at the University of California, Berkeley.
Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read the first chapter free, please go to Goodreads. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”
If you want to read dozens of other five-star reviews, check out this title on Amazon. To view the Sister of Silence book trailer, go to her VintageBerryWine Youtube channel. For a mock up of the SOS t-shirt readers are demanding, check out Berry’s Facebook page.


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