Literary Hub

R.O. Kwon and Paul Harding Talk God and Faith in American Fiction

In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, novelists R.O. Kwon and Paul Harding and hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell discuss writing about God and faith.

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Readings for this episode

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon · Tinkers and Enon by Paul Harding · Blind Spot and Open City by Teju Cole · The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson · He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman · Marilynne Robinson · Laleh Khadivi · Simone Weil · Mohsin Hamid · Louisa May Alcott

Part I
R.O. Kwon on writing towards Christian extremism

Whitney Terrell: There’s gonna be many different kinds of religion that are important in America, not just Christianity and Judaism, you know, but I do still think that people associate now, today—talking about that mixture of politics and religion—associate particularly Christian religion with extremism, and fundamentalism, and the Far Right.

And I don’t know if it’s possible to pull those things apart. For instance, that association did not exist if you’re looking at Dostoevsky’s work, right? He didn’t associate Christianity with the far right extremist kind of ideology that we would associate, like Jerry Falwell, Jr. with today. Does that make sense? And that’s what seems difficult. How do you make even a positive religious character without dealing with this thing that’s grown onto Christian religion in America, and that we find so forward in our politics today?

R.O. Kwon: Hmmmm. The response I’ve had most often, actually, about extremism in Christianity from readers has been—people have expressed surprise, not in a bad way, but, people have said—oh, I never really thought of Christianity as potentially being extremist—

[laughter]

—and it seems many more readers have been used to thinking of Muslim extremists—

WT: Ahhh!

ROK: —than of Christian extremists, and so, bringing this to Christianity, it seems was startling to a lot of people.

WT: Wow, that is so surprising to me, I mean, I get it—how that would happen, but that is certainly not how it works in my mind. What about you, Sugi, what is your association with extremism and Christianity?

V.V. Ganeshananthan: I’m just reminded of Marilynne [Robinson], who always talks about our ability to very swiftly become ahistorical readers, ’cause all you have to do is look at—the Crusades, right? I mean, there’s so many instances of Christian extremism. Maybe this makes me a particular kind of jaded, but I don’t think that belonging to any particular group makes one exempt from the possibility of being radicalized or extreme. Often, when it comes to writing about Sri Lanka I get this kind of incredulity with which—maybe I’m slightly impatient with this, probably—that people say, there’s Buddhist extremists?!—and I think, well, must I? Must I explain this? And there is a Hindu right wing as well. And I think that in any faith, and also in any set of politics you can find those people. As someone who’s often writing—from the position of faith, and often race as well—because of being a minority in those situations, I’ve always thought that those stories are interesting. What was so appealing here, was to try and understand how do people’s beliefs lead them down paths that they might initially have not expected, you know, step by step.

ROK: Mhmmm.

WT: I feel like, one of the complications—just to be totally up front—of having a character who is sincerely Christian and Fundamentalist, in a book, as an important character is, how to get secular readers to not just be like—that is a nutcase, right? That’s what I do as a secular reader, right? And what I noticed about one of the strategies that you use in your book, R.O., is you talk about how—you use Will as a kind of entry point for a secular reader into the book, and you can see some of that in that opening passage that you read, when he’s asking, he’s like—Phoebe, I didn’t really get all this stuff, right—because he’s somebody who has lost his faith, so therefore, he’s in a non-believer position, right? Is he a sort of entry figure, in that way, dealing with that particular issue in this book? As a strategy, narratively?

ROK: At the two-year mark, when I threw away everything I had, the book was told entirely from Phoebe’s point of view, as I’ve said, and I found that there was something about her point of view that felt really claustrophobic to me, because she goes through such ups and downs. I’m not giving very much away at all, if I say that. She loses a great deal in the novel, and then she feels she gains a great deal. And then she maybe blows up a building. Her experience of the world runs to extremes, and I’ve found that having a narrator who’s not so much at the center of the action, in this case, Will, just opened up a lot more space for me, it let the novel breathe, it let me hit a lot—it let me play with a lot more emotional registers than were available just with Phoebe.

That said, I’m not sure that I thought of Will as any kind of an entry point, because when I’m writing I find it impossible to think about an audience. I’m so deep in the sentences, and in the language, and in just trying to get things right, and trying to be truthful, that I’m writing very much for myself, and to satisfy myself, but of course this also means that once I step away from that deep immersion in the writing, this has political implications. I’m centering me, a Korean-American woman, with a complicated relationship with faith, which means of course that I’m not centering, for instance, straight white male readers. So I’ve had people ask me questions. I think someone at one point just straight up asked—do you think about white people when you’re writing—

[laughter]

WT: But that seems so weird, ’cause there’s lots of white people in this book. I don’t get that.

ROK: Yeah, and I don’t remember what I said, but I was thinking—well, how often have you thought of Korean-American readers while you’re writing? But that’s not what I said in the moment. But there are choices I make, narrative choices I make. There’s a key part when—like, when Phoebe’s mother first addresses Phoebe as Haejin, which is her middle name, her Korean name, I never explain—oh, this is her middle name, it’s her Korean name, it’s what her mother calls her. It was important to me that I not explain something that was going to be incredibly obvious to any Korean-Americans I could think of, any Asian-Americans I could think of.

Part II
Paul Harding on the legacy of the American Transcendentalists 

Paul Harding: The transcendentalists, really, were the writers and thinkers, poets, philosophers and so—philosophically, intellectually, and aesthetically—who I first read, and they really sparked that amazing moment of recognition. When I started reading their art and their philosophy, it wasn’t like I was learning anything, it was like I was being reminded of things that I’d always known, you know?

Transcendentalism resonates with me because of its focus on individual experience—not self-help, or individualism, like it’s all me, tending to my own needs and my wellbeing—but the examined life, and, placing the ultimate value on experience. Being mindful, and paying attention to individual experience, and consulting your own soul, and your own intellect, and evolving just your awareness as a person.

Whitney Terrell: My father is a Fundamentalist Christian, and, so—it was interesting. I read the same books in college, and what I took from them was something totally different. Like, your take on this is so much more internal. I looked at them and thought—oh, what I think I’ll do is go to Alaska, and find places where there’s less people, you know?

[laughter]

PH: That’d be much easier. No, I think that the—the Transcendentalists were some of the most socially active and involved people in American history, and when you look into that group of, you know, Emerson, Fuller, and just keep widening the radius, and you very quickly get into things like women’s suffrage, and abolitionists—the abolitionists were very closely tied with Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism, to me, seems like, to be very fundamentally democratic, you know, because if the individual conscience is of the greatest value, then you are obligated to enable and help every person across whom you come to be free to examine their own experience without coercion, or oppression.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: That’s really interesting. I was—when the earlier part of the conversation, I was telling R.O. and Whit, I grew up Hindu, but in the United States, pretty far from the traditional physical structure of temples, et cetera, et cetera. And I think a lot of the way in which—I think anyone in a minority religious and racial position in the United States—I was sort of imbibing Christianity all the time, in the ways that it was around me, and also specifically  in literature, and I think, you know, I must have come to Transcendentalism almost, of course, without realizing, and probably by reading Little Women, and Little Men, and—

PH: Absolutely!

VVG: —you know, Jo’s Boys. When there’s that—you know, her ideal, the school of little boys. I think I read a Louisa May Alcott biography when I was a kid, so was absorbing it in this unconscious way, and then studying it in a more systematic way, came to appreciate the ways in which I got that, actually, through literature, and—

PH: Right.

VVG: So of course, Transcendentalism is this positive branch of American thought, and writing about religion, and The Scarlet Letter is a critique of the more rigid and fundamentalist, or at the time, puritanical view of religious experience, but Emerson was a minister’s kid, and became a minister, also, and so, I’m really interested to think about all the Transcendentalists, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and the Alcotts grew up in a deeply Christian society, so, you know, if you were talking to little kid Sugi with her copy of Little Men, how would you describe the connection between Christianity and Transcendentalism?

PH: Transcendentalism, it directly arose from that kind of congregational reformed Protestant, a tradition in which Emerson very prominently was immersed. One of the things that’s fascinating about Emerson, as a minister is that—it’s out of print now, but there’s a four-volume set of his sermons. People mention Emerson was a minister in order to get past the fact—

[laughter]

PH: —in order to ignore it, and he wrote close to 200 sermons, each of which he preached upwards of twelve times, and if you go back to the sermons, you have  the genesis of The American Scholar, and the divinity school address, and all of these things, and because religion is part of this—antithetical side of this false dilemma between science and religion, these days, so people are scared away from thinking seriously about religion because they’re afraid it will make them stupid, or something like that, but the tradition that Emerson comes out of—I mean, he, in leaving the ministry to continue his, the writing that he did, and for which we all know him, is consistent with the tradition. Protestants put the protest in Protestant—they—

[laughter]

PH: There’s a long tradition of Protestants—for religious reasons, leaving the institution of the church because it has become too calcified, or whatever, and has fallen to group-think, this kind of fundamentalist group-think, and in doing that it reduces that experience of the individual conscience examining itself, and so Emerson, I would argue, left the church in order to pursue religion, and God, more deeply, which you could argue Jesus did. You know, Jesus was Jewish, and he said, well, it’s getting a little uptight here, so I’m gonna go—so, you know, so this idea of Protestants protesting is very anti-institutional, very democratic.

*

This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcription by Damian Johansson.

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