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Festival of Faith and Writing: the conference that brought John Updike, Salman Rushdie to western Michigan

This year's Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College included Jonathan Safran Foer, Marilynne Robinson, Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Leila Aboulela.

By Yvonne ZippMonitor fiction critic / April 23, 2012

“I've also welcomed the opportunity to talk about faith, because I don't usually do that," said Leila Aboulela, author of "The Translator," who traveled from her home in Doha, Qatar, to attend this year's Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.

Mark Pringle/Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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Unless you write Amish romances, announcing one's faith at a literary conference usually isn't going to win a novelist more fans.

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Or, as Tony Earley, author of the beloved novels “Jim the Boy” and “The Blue Star,” puts it: “It's not necessarily a good career move to go out and proselytize."

There is one exception: The Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, a biennial conference that has brought such literary luminaries as John Updike and Salman Rushdie to West Michigan.

The 2012 conference, which ran from Thursday to Saturday, featured 64 speakers, including novelists such as Earley; Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was recently turned into a Oscar-winning movie; Marilynne Robinson, whose novel, “Gilead” won the Pulitzer Prize and whose sequel, “Home,” won the Orange Prize; and Nigerian author Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie, whose “Half of a Yellow Sun,” was also an Orange Prize winner. This year the festival drew more than 1,900 participants.

Luis Alberto Urrea, whose new novel, “Queen of America,” is a sequel to his acclaimed “The Hummingbird's Daughter,” gave the most dynamic talk I heard at the festival, an hour-long tour de force about faith, prejudice, and the border, starring his spiritual adviser, an 86-year-old Baptist preacher with, Urrea said, the disposition of an Old Testament prophet.

"This is a festival made for me. I don't often get to talk about things like faith," said Urrea. Where he teaches, at the University of Illinois, Chicago, "God isn't on the docket very much."

But, Urrea insists, a discussion of faith puts him squarely in his native territory. "I'm often mistaken for a political writer," said Urrea, since he writes about the Mexican-American border. "I'm a theological writer. I'm interested in the eternal soul. That's what I write about. To me, writing is prayer. I pray all the time."

“Everybody has a faith in something,” says attendee Deborah Schakel, a retired teacher of theater and American literature who stages a one-woman show about Beatrix Potter for elementary schoolchildren. Schakel, a resident of the Grand Rapids area, says she first came years ago to hear Madeleine L'Engle speak. “I don't come specifically for the faith, but this conference brings in such spectacular writers, and all of them have a reverence for life. Let's call it that.”

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