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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Faith & Fiction at The FOLD

In his memoir Joseph Anton that describes his nine years of living underground, Salman Rushdie, writes about his fascination with faith. “It was curious,” he says about himself, “that so avowedly godless a person should keep trying to write about faith. Belief had left him but the subject remained, nagging at his imagination. The structure and metaphors of religion (Hinduism and Christianity as much as Islam) shaped his irreligious mind, and the concerns of these religions with the great questions of existence – Where do we come from? And now that we are here, how shall we live? – were also his, even if he came to conclusion that required no divine arbiter to underwrite and certainly no earthly priest class to sanction and interpret.”

A few pages earlier, he describes his father Anis thus: “Anis was a godless man – still a shocking statement to make in the United States, though an unexceptional one in Europe, and an incomprehensible idea in much of the rest of the world, where the thought of not believing is hard even to formulate. But that is what he was, a godless man who knew and thought a great deal about God.”

I remembered these lines from Rushdie’s memoirs when I attended a panel discussion on Faith and Fiction at the first Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) at the grand Peel Art Museum and Archives (PAMA). Canadian authors Vivek Shraya, Zarqa Nawaz, Ayelet Tsabari and Cherie Dimaline held a lively discussion on the subject. Eufemia Fantetti moderated the discussion that delved deep into questions about faith.

“How does faith influence the creation and the shape of our stories? Do traditions and beliefs inspire or inhibit the worlds that arrive on the page?” The four authors with diverse religious backgrounds (although none counted themselves as deeply religious) “discussed the development of plot, character and stories and the inspiration behind them.”

The panelists reflected on how they were deeply influenced by the manner in which they had been raised, and how, in small yet significant ways, they had begun to question at a young age the received wisdom of their respective faiths to develop their own understanding of rituals and religion. They shared their journey of reflection which awakened in them a quest to find their identity that while not quite uprooting their faith, certainly made them question the fundamentals, and redefine their faith into something that was substantially more accepting and tolerant.

For Zarqa Nawaz, the egalitarianism of Islam was obvious in the community in which she was raised. But she also found several aspects of this culture such as the segregation of women in mosques fundamentally unfair. In a telling comment, she said, “You can be secular or religious, but by being fundamentalist in your belief, you can deprive women their basic human rights.” Ayelet Tsabari, articulating what many writers feel, said in order to write you need tremendous amount of faith. She said fiction has the ability to make “tiny little changes” and “make someone feel something deeply.” Ojibway and M├ętis writer Cherie Dimaline described her structured upbringing where nobody talked about things that could disturb the status quo. “Stories are my faith,” she said; stories of seven generations back and forward assume importance to the First Nations culture especially when they are rapidly losing geography. Vivek Shraya spoke about her fascination with Hindu male gods who wore jewelry and had women friends – something she could relate to when she was young and trying to understand herself and her orientation. Raised in an orthodox atmosphere, she began to question the portrayal of the “other” in narratives deployed to define faith-based identity.

Faith and Fiction panel discussion was held on May 7, on the second day of the three-day Festival of Literary Diversity. The FOLD brought together writers in a celebration of Canadian diversity. I had interviewed Jael Richardson, the artistic director of FOLD for my show Living Multiculturalism on TAG TV. Here’s the video clip of the interview:

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