Can you have faith without being religious? In what (or who) do you have faith? These are the questions that started our conversation about religion last Thursday. M.S.* told us about her thank you journal, where she records causes for thanksgiving in her life nightly– a habit we would all benefit from following.
Our readings heralded from four very different parts of the world. From last year’s syllabus, Tiphanie Yanique and Tarfia Faizullah returned (for more biographical information, see last year’s blog post), with Song Lin and Yaa Gyasi being two new additions.
Although we didn’t get to discuss Faizullah in class this time, Yanique’s, Gyasi’s, and Lin’s searching interrogations of religious identity within and beyond their cultures of heritage provoked new questions for us to consider. St. Thomas-born writer Tiphanie Yanique‘s short story, “The Bridge Stories,” from How to Escape a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press, 2010) presents four vignettes revolving around the image of a collapsing bridge. The precarious bridge is a metaphor for the sheer impossibility of unity across belief systems in the Caribbean, where Islam, all manners of Christianity, and all stripes of false gods collide. Yanique lives in New York and teaches creative writing at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, if you’re looking for colleges to apply to this fall!
Our newcomers, Song Lin, a contemporary poet from China, and Yaa Gyasi, a Ghanaian-American novelist from Alabama, further complicated the uncertainty and discontent stirring in Yanique’s story. Lin’s poem, “Paul Celan in the Seine,” darkly imagines the eponymous German poet, Paul Celan, a Jewish Holocaust survivor originally from Romania, grappling with survivor’s guilt. J.N. paraphrased her own piece on Christ’s infamous traitor, Judas, and we talked about the value of humanizing flawed religious figures.
Gyasi made headlines recently by garnering seven figures for her first book contract, for her novel Homegoing (Knopf, 2016), at an auction in London. Only twenty-six years old, she graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree, went on to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her master’s degree, and has won numerous national accolades for her early success. The story we read, “Inscape,” imagines a queer daughter grappling with her extremely devout mother’s devolution into dementia. In this interview, Gyasi comments on the influence religion and race have on her work.
Here are our chalkboard notes from last class, in case you would like to try your hand at any of these authors’ styles:
This week, we confront possibly even more sensitive questions as with sexual orientation, and hopefully, we will begin feeling brave enough to share some original writing here with the world soon. Don’t forget to check out the reading packet here and attempt one of the writing prompts under the subject header for this week.
*In lieu of pseudonyms still forthcoming in our class blog, I will use students’ first and last initials to give credit for any moments of genius shared in class.