PEN WORLD VOICES FESTIVAL: Faith and Fiction

By Nicolle Elizabeth

PEN World Voices Festival

The Faith & Fiction panel at the Powerhouse Arena felt like a transcendental experience altogether. The Arena is made up of giant glass windows for walls, and stands hidden at the foot of the East River and under the Manhattan Bridge surrounded by cobblestone. Outside it was pouring warm rain and a bike rally, with thousands of participants just so happened to to be riding by. My walk in the rain through DUMBO to hear the panel intersected the parade and I walked with the bikers, smiling, and shouting, they looked liked a school of fish expanding and contracting along the winding Brooklyn streets. This is why I got to the panel a little late, I was flopping around outside in the water with a parade, while on the way to a lecture about God.

Inside, people were seated and the panel had started. The Arena was lined with posters of faces, people on continents and islands farther away than the Statue of Liberty–almost visible from the arena where we were sitting–could wave at. Books for sale on dozens of tables, my eyes were drawn to a children’s book standing two tables over behind the panelists, The Book Of Why. Bookforum’s Albert Mobilio moderated the panel and I had just enough time to sit down and start listening. The conversation was serious, people were talking about the parallels between the writer and the believer.

“The novelist wants to ask why and belief is the obliteration of asking why,” said Mobilio.

The panelists grumbled and shifted in their director’s chairs, as this was partly the debate. Where does the line between faith and fiction skywrite itself in? If writing a novel (or anything for that matter) is partly a process of distilling, of figuring something out, and if the writer is someone who already has religious faith, who already has answers, then wouldn’t they just be writing toward what they already know as fact? Asking questions and coming up with God, as it were.

“The novel, as all art, conjures the unseen.” Mobilio said.

"Religion is the possibility of locating myself outside of something," Ben Anastas said.

And if art, and writing, help me to locate some kind of truth, some part of everything else…

“The sacred word is distinct from the fallen word,” Jan Kaerstad pointed. So then, there is a difference between writing with God and writing without God? Or still, if we believe in God, are we always writing with God somehow?

My very dear friend Peter, who I knew as a rock star and now know as a Theology Major in a Master’s program at a college in New York often lets me annoy him with questions like these. (It’s not uncommon for me to wait until just the right moment of solitude over tea when Peter looks as though he is finally relaxing after reading hundreds of pages of homework when I swoop in, look up and say something like, “Okay, buddy. If there’s a God, why are do terrible things happen randomly?” Or something as morbid as I can get. I happen to be a believer, I just really like annoying him.) He’d probably tell me: what we’re trying to figure out with faith, and with fiction, is what it is to be a human being, or how to talk about it. Faith perhaps is a set of rules for humanity, and fiction perhaps is a way of exploring what people do with those rules, how the bicyclists maneuver within the DUMBO cobblestone walkways, as it were.

Brian Evenson shared a story about a student approaching him and saying, “You’re Brian Evenson, right?” Evenson responded yes and then the student lifted his own sleeve and showed words, which Evenson had written in a novel, tattooed on his forearm. Evenson did not say he was flattered, but rather, said it made him quite uncomfortable, this fanaticism. Evenson, an excommunicated Mormon has been verbal both in his writing and interviews about his experiences and what led to his decision to leave his faith. At one point in the panel, Aslaam actually turned to Evenson and said, “Are you a believer?” To which Evenson responded, “No, I’m not, currently. It’s a long process of getting lost,” and half the crowd giggled and half the crowd sighed. Is there danger in writing religion into work? Does writing lead to fanaticism from readers? (I hope writing leads to fanaticism about reading and writing! But I am totally crazy!)

“A fanatic should read fiction,” Kjaerstad said. “You have to have empathy to write fiction.”

Anastas brought up Moby-Dick as an example of a text which may be religious for people.

“Moby-Dick could not be a foundation for a religion because it is too open,” Said Aslaam, but then said, “Martin Amis wanted the world to stand up.” And we were back to ambiguity between wanting to know and knowing.

Always fun is the talk about being “bad.” Mobilio wanted to talk about the classic, of course being (sound angel horns): Milton’s Satan. For, if we do not have conflict, we probably do not have a very interesting novel. Let’s take adultery for example. Take three characters, marry two of them, make two charming, irresistibly good-looking, good-smelling, good-thinking, make one even more than the two, stir the pot, and voila, you have a good ol’ fashioned love affair/adultery plot in the works. And as we’ve seen over the last four hundred (plusplus) years, it’ll sell. Why? Because people like thinking about being bad.

“There is a moment in which you make the choice to write how much religion is going to come out in your work,” Kjaerstad said.

Aslaam told us a personal story. Very recently, he was in Pakistan. And he purchased a ring. The ring which he purchased was symbolic of a God which he holds quite dear. And he made the choice to put the ring on his left hand. In Islam, the left hand stands for “the wrong hand” and the right hand stands for “the right hand” and he, a human, wanted to wear the ring on his left. He thought about this the entire trip, and people noticed and often stared at his hand throughout his travels. So, he gets back to the States, constantly touching the ring and thinking about the importance of the weight on his hand. While telling us the story, he takes the ring off his finger and holds it to the crowd and says, “And then I remembered, this wasn’t the ring I had bought in Pakistan at all. It was the one I had bought in Barcelona.”


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