Festival of Faith & Writing 2014

This past week I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. It’s a gathering of writers and readers interested in faith.

I first heard about this event when I was in college, but it’s never been practical to attend. It’s also held every other year, so I would tend to forget about it or only remember during off years.

This year I’d been looking for an event to attend and this seemed perfect. I’ve never been to a conference in my professional career that wasn’t in some way promotional. I was always doing work. It was never a retreat or a chance to recharge, it always involved promoting something.

This time around I was there as a writer and a reader, looking to hear from other authors and not do anything promotional.

Which makes for a glorious event.

Now I suppose most people are attending the Festival of Faith and Writing with some self-promo in mind. It is an opportunity to meet with editors and agents and pitch your book. But right now that’s not on my radar at all, so I was able to sit back and enjoy. It’s a great way to approach an event and actually allows it to be energizing, as opposed to being sapped by all that platform-building.

So what did I learn? Well, I tweeted like a madman during the event, and you can get a lot insights there. Some of the better insights I should probably blog about separately. But here are a few highlights:

  • G. Willow Wilson – She’s written fiction, she’s written a memoir and she writes comics. Right now she’s writing the Ms. Marvel series, which features a teenage girl who’s a superhero and a Muslim. Willow (when I spotted her at the event and introduced myself, butchering her name, she said I can just call her Willow) has a lot of great insights into religion and culture, informed by her time in the Middle East. Thanks to Willow and Gene Luen Yang, I stopped at the comic book store and bought what’s probably my first comic book in maybe 25 years.
  • Eliza Griswold – She was in Afghanistan in October 2001, watching F-16s streak overhead on bombing runs while the locals fired the AK-47s in the air in a show of anger and rage. The Taliban killed one of her translators and they asked her hosts to hand over “the Christian” (thankfully they refused). Yet when she started her shared conversation with journalist Jeff Chu—who traveled the U.S. to talk about homosexuality for his book Does Jesus Really Love Me?—Eliza commented on how brave Jeff must have been. What does that say about our society that confronting LGBT issues in the U.S. is more dangerous than working in Afghanistan? (Jeff responded that he’s more naive than brave.) Griswold has what looks like a fascinating book of Afghanistan poetry I can’t wait to dive into.
  • Uwem Akpan – This Catholic priest from Nigeria wrote the Oprah-approved Say You’re One of Them collection of short stories (which I didn’t like—too depressing, too hard to get into). He talked about writing for the poor and how it’s easy as a writer to overshadow them: “Sometimes we get it into our heads that we are the voice for the voiceless, but then they have no voice.” His stories are told in the actual voice of the characters, the pigeon-English that’s difficult to understand. Protecting that voice was important to him (“the poor always have to learn the language of the elite”), so even when Oprah asked if he could provide a glossary, he refused. It should be hard to understand, it should take work to get through: “It’s about us going with the poor. If you’re going to learn the life of the poor you have to patient.”
  • James McBride – This celebrated novelist and musician had so many great things to say, especially his disdain for social media (“all that twitterin’ and flitterin'”). But one of my favorites was his admission that he “never got into the Russians.” He just didn’t appreciate Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the like, which just adds fuel to my assertion that we don’t need to care so much about the classics. Read what you like.

I could go on and on with highlights, and I probably will in later posts, but that should be enough for now.

What a great event and I look forward to going again.

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