x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Award-winning author Marilynne Robinson in Middle East for first time

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Marilynne Robinson, who was in the UAE last week, waxes eloquent on everything from creating Emirati literature, science religion, and writer's block.

The American author Marilynne Robinson. Clint McLean for The National



Story: Marilynne Robinson

Photo Editor: Olga Camacho

Reporter: Afshan Ahmed
The American author Marilynne Robinson. Clint McLean for The National Story: Marilynne Robinson Photo Editor: Olga Camacho Reporter: Afshan Ahmed

During her first visit to the Middle East last week, the Pulitzer Prize-­winning novelist Marilynne Robinson faced a barrage of questions from local university students about how to create Emirati literature.

But the 70-year-old author, who received the National Humanities Medal in 2012 from the US president Barack Obama, denies having the ­answer.

“I think there is an interest here in creating Emirati literature and recording the remarkable circumstances of Emirati people,” says Robinson, dressed in a black suit, evidently exhausted after the meet-and-greet schedule organised by the US embassy. “It is very basic human nature,” she explains. “How do we identify ourselves as a culture and on the other hand as individuals within the culture? How do we receive and inherit and at the same time how do we make statements that assert the present and the identity we feel now?”

The Iowa City-based Robinson, who teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa’s writer’s workshop, believes that addressing those issues will result in a fascinating outcome.

“It reminds me of American literature and English literature when they began using their own literary language,” she says. “It is a cusp in human experience that always yields something interesting. It seems like people are poised for that moment and it is very exciting.”

Though there is much talk about preserving Arabic in the UAE, Robinson, who has a doctorate in English from the University of Washington, says there shouldn’t be any anxiety about the language used to build this literature.

“It would be valuable to write in Arabic,” she says. “But it is sort of like when Americans were creating their literature, English was a relatively isolated language. French, German and Latin were exceeding it. But they took English as their model. I think the givenness of circumstances that you live in a culture that is cosmopolitan, that is the Emirati experience.”

She says every culture has a different relationship with language. “Cultures are producing literature in English which is very much specific ethnic literature. If you are writing out of a deep feeling, the language needn’t matter.”

The Idaho-based author wrote her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, for which she received the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Her second book, Gilead, a fictional account of a reverend writing to his young son, won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. For Home, an extension of Gilead, she received the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction in 2009. Her fourth book Lila, based on the reverend’s wife in Gilead, will be out later this year.

Robinson, who still writes a lot of her work by hand, says she does not work with a plot. “I try to concentrate on the paragraph or the sentence I am writing and see what seems to be implied by that as the next stage in the narrative,” she says.

In the 24 years between her first two novels, Robinson wrote non-fiction and spent time researching varied topics for her next piece of work, but says she missed the characters of her first book. “I mourned their loss for a long them and when I finished Gilead I found that I mourned them, too. But then I thought, if they want to have a life, let me give them a life,” she says, talking about the books that followed Gilead.

Robinson believes writer’s block must not be taken as a sign to abandon the creative process. “What it means is that you do not know how to answer the question you have asked yourself. Forcing a solution is a bad idea. Just be patient and go through the period of unknowing,” she says.

Robinson is a follower of the French theologian John Calvin’s notions, also evident in her books that explore the connection of religion and humanity and often criticise the current detached and destructive demonstration of science in society.

“Science and religion are not at odds. There are people who act as if they were and act as if they are speaking usually from the side of science. I think a lot of power in science is inspired from religious thought, much like the Babylonians watching stars where it became both science and ­religion.”

Texts and literature, says Robinson, provide an opportunity to foster positive action. “Great texts stand at the beginning of every culture,” she says. “They are used selectively, unfortunately. I do not quite understand the importance of books but there is nothing in history to make you dismiss the importance of them either.

“I always tell my students that they are assuming a great responsibility. You are doing something that will have consequences. So make them good because books are powerful.”

aahmed@thenational.ae