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Monday, April 20, 2009

An Article by Geraldine Brooks, Author of People of the Book

By Geraldine Brooks,
Author of People of the Book

"How come your novels always have vicars in them?"

The question came as part of the Q and A after a talk I'd given on my
second novel, March, whose protagonist is a minister with the Union
Army during the Civil War. My first novel, Year of Wonders, had
featured a clergyman leading a rural Derbyshire village through a year
of plague. My questioner had no way of knowing it, but the novel I was
just then finishing, People of the Book, also had a priest in it. And
a rabbi. And an imam. Sort of like the set up for a bad joke. I
hadn't consciously set out to write about religious people and yet
they kept popping up in my fiction like uninvited guests at a party. I
mumbled something about being attracted to stories of the past, when
religious leaders loomed so large in people's lives, shaping fates and
dictating behavior. But later I realized that answer was woefully

My life has been one big oscillation between the attractions and the
repulsions of faith. Raised Catholic in an old-fashioned, heady and
sensuous Baroque style (incense, Angelus bells, lace mantillas,
dripping wax and stained glass; the gleaming starburst of the
monstrance and the litanies of Mary that taught me metaphor -- Lily of
Valley, Mystic Rose, Star of the Sea) I had felt the disconnect very
early between what the prayers said and how the people around me
lived: "To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do
we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears"
was an odd sort of prayer for merry little schoolgirls growing up in
the sun-splashed, hedonistic paradise that was Sydney in the early
1970s. By the time I was a teenager I'd decided it was all a
patriarchal plot to suppress women and thwart positive social change,
buying people off with fairy tales about rewards in the next world
instead of a decent life in this one. And I hated the way religion so
often isolated people into little gnarly knots of Us and Them.

I was an atheist. So why did I pray? Whenever I heard and ambulance
siren, the little thought balloon would go up: "Please help them."
There was no recipient for this message, I knew that. Nor the other
kind: "Thank you for this" -- sunshine, seascape, flower, glass of
good wine, loaf of bread.

In 1984 I married a Jew and converted to his faith, not that he
actually had one, being an even more strident atheist than I was.
Most people were baffled by my decision: "You don't believe in God,
why would you do that?" God, I explained, had nothing to do with
it. It was all about history. Since Judaism is passed through the
maternal line (a fact I admired for its hard headed pragmatism as well
as its feminist implications) there was no way I was going to become
the end of a line of tradition that had made it through Roman
sackings, Babylonian exile, Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogrom and
Shoah. To have a child who would not be a Jew was, to me, the same
thing as adding one more loss to the toll of the Holocaust.

And I like the prayers: the mournful, sinuous melodies and the hard
plosive consonants of Hebrew words that sounded like a desert wind
slapping against a goat hair tent. They're my kind of prayers,
mostly; little noticings of the good things in life, like the bread
and wine, the first crescent of new moon, the dew on the grass in the
morning. And I felt comfortable with the fact that in synagogue, what
you bow to is not a deity, but a book.

Salman Rushdie once observed that there's a God-shaped hole in modern
life. I fill it by prayers that go wafting off to no fixed address,
and by writing novels about people who believe in a way that remains
mysterious, elusive and fascinating to me.

©2008 Geraldine Brooks

Author Bio

Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March and
Year of Wonders and the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and
Foreign Correspondence. Previously. Brooks was a correspondent for The
Wall Street Journal in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. Born and
raised in Australia, she lives on Martha's Vineyard with her husband
Tony Horwitz, their son Nathaniel, and three dogs. www.geraldinebrooks.com


Kaye said...

Hmmm Most interesting. Thanks for posting that. I read her book People of the Book but did not read March. I don't consider myself an atheist in any way shape or form but I can understand how she feels about some of what she said.

Teddyree said...

Definitely an interesting post.

There's an award waiting for you at my place to say thanks for your encouragement during the read-a-thon

Toni said...

I too thought it was interesting. I have felt a waning of faith in my life that has taken me on different directions. While my experience is not really too similar to hers I found that I could understand and relate to her article.

Thanks for the award Teddyree!

Tea said...

I am a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks. I had no idea she had written a book after "People of The Book." I loved "Year of Wonders." I've enjoyed your blog too.