Constrained Writing: Alphabetical Africa (and Ella Minnow Pea)

Messing about online today, I ran across one of the wackier book ideas I’ve ever seen.

I ran across Alphabetical Africa, by Walter Abish.

Here is the synopsis from

Chapter by chapter, Abish lets in one letter of the alphabet; then, one at a time, he takes them all away. From this premise arises a mysteriously absorbing narrative of African adventures.

From it’s Wikipedia entry:

The writing is restricted by a pseudo-alliterative rule: the first chapter contains only words starting with the letter a, the second chapter only words starting with a or b, etc.; each subsequent chapter adds the next letter in the alphabet to the set of allowed word beginnings. This continues for the first 25 chapters, until at last Abish is (briefly) allowed to write without constraint.

In the second half of the book, through chapter 52, letters are removed in the reverse order that they were added. Thus, z words disappear in chapter 27, y in chapter 28, etc…

But then it occurred to me that it reminded me of Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn, which I have read.


Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

Of course, Alphabetical Africa predates Ella Minnow Pea by nearly 30 years. I don’t know how influenced Mark Dunn’s writing was by Walter Abish. It’s entirely possible they came up with the constraint completely separately.

I haven’t read Alphabetical Africa but I have read Ella Minnow Pea.  Though I usually don’t care for epistolary novels (novels in the form of letters & other mail written and sent between the characters), I enjoyed how Dunn was able to work within his self-imposed constraint. It’s also an interesting statement on the freedom of speech (it’s difficult to read it and not start seeing Orwellian shadows around every corner).

I found an excerpt from each of the books. Here is the opening of Alphabetical Africa:

Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Ants are Ameisen?

Africa again: Antelopes, alligators, ants and attractive Alva, are arousing all angular Africans, also arousing author’s analytically aggressive anticipations, again and again. Anyhow author apprehends Alva anatomically, affirmatively and also accurately.

Ages ago an archeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an archaic African armchair affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archeologist and atheist. Ahhh, atheism . . . anyhow, Albert advocated assisting African ants. Ants? All are astounded. Ants? Absurd.

Africa again: Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture, as author again attempts an agonizing alphabetical appraisal . . . asked about affection, Albert answers, Ashanti affection also aesthetically abhorrent, antagonizing all. As alien airforce attacks Angola, Albert asks, are anthills anywhere about, agreeing as Alex asserts, all Angolans are absolute asses.

Are all archeologists arrogant Aristotelians, asks author, as Angolans abduct Alva. Adieu Alva. Arrivederci.

After air attack author assumes Alva’s asexuality affected African army’s ack-ack accuracy, an arguable assumption, anyhow, army advances, annihilating antelopes, alligators and ants. Admirable attrition admits Ashanti admiral as author all alone autographs Ashanti atlas, authenticating anthill actions. Actually, asks Alva, are all Ashanti alike.

Apprehending Africa: always, as an afternoon abates an ant advances, also antelopes, alligators, archeologists, African ankles, African amulets and amorous Angolan abductors. Abductors all agreed about abhorrent acts, about air attacks, about Alva and Alex and Allen all apart.

Africa again: Angolans applaud author, after author allegedly approached an American amateur aviator, and angrily argued against America’s anachronistic assault. Afterward all applaud as author awarded avocado and appointed acting alphabet authority.

Alex and Allen alone, arrive in Abidjan and await African amusements.


Here is the opening letter from chapter 6 of Ella Minnow Pea:


(The *uic* br*wn *ox *umps over the la*y **g.)

Nollopton Toes, October 17

Nate, I’m not sure this letter will reach you, though I pray the contrary. Time is running out. We cannot go below 47. As much as we try — that is, those who are still trying. I’m aware that some are still laboring at the university. Mother writes to Cousin Ella that she continues her own moiling over the alphabet up in the Village. But the mass exit has nonetheless begun. Townspeople. Villagers.

As three more tiles have given plunge. All in one evening. Two “e’s,” then a “b.”

We have one “e” remaining. The “b” may be a blessing. Other possibilities might have been more troublesome. (Yet as I peruse what I have written up to now, I note six “b”s in the last two sentences!) Who, then, can ever be sure about such a thing? At this point, losing any letter can only be problematic.

We have come to a travailious time, Nate. Mother’s Rory is gone. Mother, Aunt Gwenette, Uncle Amos — each has one violation to spare, then banishment. I am growing so weary with that term. “Banishment.” You hear it all over. In urgent whispers; in hopeless cries. Companion to the listless, vacant stares — stares belonging to those who live in resignation to the grimmest possible outcome, all but put to seal. “Banishment.” We say the term. We write the term. Believing somehow that in 36 hours, it surely will not be gone. That somehow the cavalry will come to our rescue!

But we are our own cavalry. The only cavalry there is. Whose horses seem in permanent hobble status!

“Banishment”: the next banishment victim! To become one more invisiblinguista. The 4000th, 5000th such victim? Is anyone counting? Perhaps Nollop? Expunging each entry in his Heavenly Lexicon — one at a time — until the tome’s pages stop resembling pages at all. Until they become pure expurgatory— tangibull. Raven— striate leaves. Ebony reticulate sheets. Tenebrous night in thin tissue.

Contemnation by tissue! It is almost unbearable.

Am I being morose? I’m sorry. I cannot help it. I want you here. I cannot say how much.

Write me. Will I receive your letter? I can only hope.

I miss you so.



You can find a few other examples of constrained writing here and here.

Alphabetical Africa is definitely going in my reading queue.

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