Press Room Contributor Georgia Symons reviews Saturday’s Writing and Faith panel, featuring Lachlan Brown, Fatima Measham, Eli Glasman and Zainab Syed
I had a lot of faith that this panel would be ace. It seems that young writers/emerging artists/the kinds of people who attend this festival are a good deal more secular than the broader society, and that faith isn’t always an issue we’re comfortable talking about and allowing space for, so a panel like this is particularly valuable and enriching.
Host Lachlan Brown (poet, lecturer and evangelical Christian) was joined by Fatima Measham (writer focused on social justice, consulting editor, Catholic); Eli Glasman (novelist, atheist but ethnically and raised Jewish); and Zainab Syed (poet, political science graduate of Brown, educator, Muslim).
Fatima responded to the first, big, question about how faith interacts with her writing by talking about a conflict between her devout Catholic upbringing in the Philippines, and her Jesuit University education where philosophy and theology were compulsory, encouraging her to question and test her faith. She spoke about her university’s emphasis on ‘faith in action’, which informs her writing practice and its social justice focus.
There was an interesting contrast between the other two writers’ answers to this question. Eli was raised orthodox, but has since made a transition to being a secular Jew – still linked to culture and community, but perhaps with less of a focus on faith. Eli has recently published a YA novel about a young orthodox Jewish boy coming to terms with his homosexuality, and he talked about how part of his role as a writer is to contribute to education and awareness about his culture in the wider community through storytelling. By contrast, Zainab Syed is a practicing Muslim and has been her whole life, but doesn’t consider herself a ‘Muslim writer’. She has lived across at least 4 continents, and aims to reach out to communities and talk about issues in a way that transcends her own experiences.
When asked about how the panelists writing about faith may bring backlash from their faith communities, Eli insists that he never writes about anyone real, coming from a place of care and respect, and that some of the most interesting conversations that he’s had have been discussions on the interpretation of Torah law with members of the Jewish community after they have come into contact with his book. As a secular Jew within a wider secular context, Eli often finds himself representing his culture or educating others, whereas the conversations with his Jewish community arising from his writing allow him to engage more deeply with his own faith background.
Fatima makes the very important point that ‘most faith communities are actually quite diverse.’ Working as a journalist for a Catholic publication online, she sees the diversity of responses to her work through the comments on her articles. This, for her, is an example of the space that exists for disagreement and debate within the Catholic church.
Having previously said that her faith does not factor strongly in her writing practice, Zainab focused on the direct link between her words and communities. She said ‘my writing is a bridge that brings [people] in.’ One of her most nervous performances was to a crowd in her home-town of Lahore – connecting to this community felt even more important to her than other performances, in part due to her own confusion about concepts of home. But she felt that she really connected to those people, which was a spiritual experience for her. She also talks of visiting the Ayasofya, a building which has in its past been used as a mosque and a church, and is now a museum. She found this particularly metaphorically resonant: ‘Islamic civilization has become a museum unto itself,’ she says; the paint is chipping off and things are crumbling and fading, but she hopes that her culture can use that history as a springboard to create the future.