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 , Monitor fiction critic

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    “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.
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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.

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.

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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.”

Earley, who is currently working on a collection of short stories, says that the festival, his first, was larger than he expected, noting that “among the literary community, [faith] has a slight whiff of hipness it didn't have 10, 12 years ago.”

That's not to say that there's a return to the days of John Milton, or even C.S. Lewis.

“Once a writer's books wind up only in Christian bookstores, they're no longer engaged with the world,” says Earley. “It's a closed ecosystem.”

But The Bible, he points out, “is such a big part of our cultural patrimony, particularly of literature.”

As perhaps anecdotal evidence of that “whiff of hipness,” attendees had traveled from as far away as Washington State.

Nicole Sheets, a blogger and professor at the University of Washington, was at Robinson's address Friday night with her friend, Andrea Dilley, author of the 2012 memoir, “Faith and Other Flat Tires,” about moving to America after a childhood in Kenya as the daughter of Quaker missionaries, who had come from Austin, Texas.

Perhaps no one traveled farther than novelist Leila Aboulela, author of “The Translator” and three other works of fiction, who came from her home in Doha, Qatar.

“I like the name of it: the faith and writing. It resonated. Faith is so much part of my writing. I was touched that they invited me, as a Muslim. I thought that was really good of them,” said Aboulela, whose newest novel is “Lyrics Alley,” in an interview with the Monitor. “I've also welcomed the opportunity to talk about faith, because I don't usually do that.”

Aboulela spoke to a standing-room only crowd in the recital hall about the “culture shock” of moving to Scotland after a coup in Sudan, which, she said, turned her into a writer.

“Now, I found myself praying in a place that had stopped praying,” said Aboulela, who has a master's degree in statistics. “One day … I tried to write a letter to the editor. Fiction came out instead.”

Her first novel, “The Translator,” is a romance inspired by her favorite novel, “Jane Eyre,” in which a young Muslim widow and her Scottish boss are separated by religion.

Aboulela said she considers “Jane Eyre,” usually seen as a feminist novel today, a Christian book. If Mr. Rochester had been a Muslim, she explained to chuckles, the subject of bigamy would never have come up. “As a Muslim, there is no problem. There is no plot.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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