“Writing is a skill requiring practice and dreaming.”
“It must be a skill, like fishing, to cast your net into a river of dreams and catch a splendid array of words.” So says the young poet Nur, one of the complex characters in Lyrics Alley, the newest novel by Muslim Sudanese-Egyptian author Leila Aboulela. It is true. Writing is a skill requiring practice and dreaming.
This summer I am spending six weeks in Paris, France as the Writer-in-Residence at L’église Américaine à Paris. I will be giving a few talks and working on my next writing project. In order to write well, I believe it is important to read well. So, as part of my writing practice over the next six weeks I will be reading a few works of fiction by and about non-Americans. As writers and readers I think it is essential to encounter the stories of those distinctively different from whomever we consider ourselves to be.
Last month, before leaving the United States, I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing, a biennial conference held at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over sixty journalists and writers including Jewish author Jonathan Safran Foer, Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist and novelist, Marilynn Robinson and renown Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie spoke to almost 2,000 attendees, eager to listen and dialogue about the crossroads between faith and the literary arts. What I love about this ongoing Festival is how it brings together writers and speakers across literary genres and faith and non-faith traditions. The range represented is a necessary reminder that neither God nor language can ever be co-opted.
However, there was one major disappointment which I have been unable to let go. Initially, I was thrilled to see that the Festival had a workshop called “Writing the Immigrant Experience.” I anticipated a thoughtful and relevant discussion on how narrative and creativity might lend itself to better understanding and engaging issues of displacement, of cultural shock, of ethnic diversity, especially as we live in a world that politicizes and depersonalizes immigrants and their unique contextual challenges. I was anticipating conversation on any number of racial and ethnic groups given that in 2006 the top 12 emigrant countries were Mexico, People’s Republic of China, Philippines, India, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Vietnam, Jamaica, South Korea, and Guatemala.
The four panelists presenting at the FFW session on “Writing the Immigrant Experience” were of Canadian-Dutch descent. Needless to say, I was duly shocked that ALL four were of the same descent. They each talked about the immigrant experience from that one perspective. I was both floored and sorely disappointed.
During the conference I led a festival discussion group on the topic of “Writing for the Upbuilding of God’s Kingdom.” In the Gospel narratives of the New Testament, people ask Jesus to define the Kingdom of God. And Jesus started telling stories. I wanted participants to reflect on how telling stories across genres can reveal the kingdom of God in novel and expansive ways. How do we recognize writing that honors our God-bearing image? If any inching we make towards God is ultimately about moving toward wholeness and healing, about making clearer how all human creation bears the image of God, then reading and writing about the lives and circumstances of people from different ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions is kingdom work.
So, despite the earlier misfortune I was thrilled that, while at the Festival, I did have the chance to listen to the likes of authors such as fiction writer Leila Aboulela, who writes in part to expose readers to the riches and complexities of her Islamic tradition. In her presentation she spoke to a standing room-only crowd. People really do want to hear from a wide diversity of cultural, racial and ethnic voices. As I listened and observed Ms. Aboulela, I was struck by the humility and seriousness with which she spoke about her Islamic faith. She and her family were forced to immigrate to Great Britain during the Sudanese coup in the 1980’s.
She spoke of how one of the chief things she missed from Sudan in her new country was how easily people had spoken of God’s presence in daily life and conversation. Evoking the name of Allah was common across intensities of conversation. Aboulela told of learning to memorize the Koran and her grandmother teaching her to take refuge in the repetition of verses. When she moved to Britain she discovered she wanted to write fiction that told of these beautiful mundane yet sacred aspects of what she knew it meant to be an African Muslim woman.
I also got to listen to North-American born Chinese fiction writer Lan Samantha Chang, the current Director of the esteemed Iowa’s Writers Workshop. Chang shared with her audience how at one season of her life she used writing to explore and discover her identity as an American born to Chinese parents. Her novella and collection of short stories, Hunger deals beautifully with issues of Chinese American immigration, family dynamics and how we struggle between past realities and future hopes.
Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, lives and writes from both the US and Nigeria. She is the acclaimed author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and The Thing Around Your Neck. It was an unexpected treat to meet her and to have her speak at the Festival. Adichie identifies as a Catholic, but writes for a global audience across traditions. During an interview at the Festival someone asked her what it was like being a global citizen. Her response was nuanced and telling. “I like to think of myself as an Igbo woman who is comfortable in the world, more than as a global citizen.” Adichie is clear to both affirm her cultural and ethnic identity and to recognize the gift of being able to move seamlessly across cultures, engaging people and stories from various contexts.
So why do I think it is important for people of faith to hear from such a diversity of authors who, regardless of their views on religion or faith, can speak to the immigrant experience in one form or another? The immigrant experience is about crossing borders, physically, but also emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually. I believe that at its core, the life of faith itself is also one of crossing borders, between the transcendent and the imminent, between the identities we self-construct, the identities created by the communities that form us, and that which comes from efforts of self-emptying to conform to holy images.
In the Christian faith, the tradition, of which I am most familiar, God performed the ultimate border-crossing through the Incarnation, circumscribing to our likeness. As someone of faith, I understand one direct correlation as our own seeking to correspond to the likeness of God. This necessitates, among other things, recognizing the divine image in those who are distinctly different from us in varied ways.
In the New Testament narratives Jesus was constantly putting the disciples in circumstances out of their comfort zones. Jesus sought out those who were determined by certain religious and cultural criteria to be so different that one was not supposed to seek such people out, but rather to hold them at arm’s length, if even that. Within the Christian tradition there exists a holy defined and particular level of invitation to cross borders in ways that should perhaps make us terribly uncomfortable.
As a writer and avid reader, I believe engaging literature, especially fiction, is one specific way we do this. If we are open to allowing God to reveal God’s self to us through neighbors and strangers, then that includes encounter through various forms of literature. Perhaps we take initial steps of turning strangers into neighbors by listening to other people’s stories with the expectation that there is inherent value in their stories and something to be learned from how these authors see the world. Reading across cultures and religious traditions can remind us that in order to really enter into the lives of others, we have to acknowledge that even in our differences we share some aspects of a collective imagination.
It requires a humble willingness to be transformed by other people’s struggles and triumphs. I cannot help carry your burdens or share mine, be empathetic or able to give and receive grace and mercy, if I do not allow myself to in some way be shaped by your worldview.
Enuma was born in the United States and raised in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and England. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University Divinity School where she served as Director for the Center for Theological Writing. She is an author, speaker, spiritual director and continues to lead workshops and retreats on varied topics engaging the literary and visual arts, and spiritual disciplines.
Her spiritual memoir, Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books, 2010) was a winning finalist in the 2010 USA Best Books Award and received the 2011 National Indie Excellent Book Awards Winning Finalist in “Spirituality and African-American Non-Fiction.” She is co-author with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals
Okoro’s new forthcoming book, “Silence,” will be released in Summer/Fall 2012