Marilynne Robinson’s quiet intensity and eloquent thoughts shone through during her recent visit to the capital, enthralling audience members as they listened to her discuss her work and afterwards, as they shared observations about the writing and publishing potential of the UAE.
The American author was in Abu Dhabi for a special one-day cultural exchange programme event organised by the United States Embassy in Abu Dhabi on January 19.
“It was my first visit to the Middle East, and I enjoyed it very much. Everyone was cordial and interesting, and the weather was a wonderful escape from the extreme cold we have had at home,” Robinson said.
“I was fascinated to see what was being done in the UAE to create a distinctive and sustainable society, using the exceptional opportunities the region has enjoyed ... it reminds me of American literature and English literature, when they began using their own literary language. It is a cusp in human experience that always yields something interesting,” she added.
Robinson also shared her views on the present fluctuations in the publishing world, along with the various trends that seem to be emerging, such as the rise of e-books, and the concerns regarding content quality due to the surge of online self-publishing services.
“This is something that will have to sort itself out. I have no idea what will happen — it will be interesting to watch. One thing it clearly does mean is that there are a great many people who want to write and read. I find this impressive,” Robinson said.
The Idaho-based author wrote her first novel, “Housekeeping”, in 1980, which received the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Her second book, “Gilead”, a fictional account of a pastor 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. Additionally, Robinson is one of ten novelists who have been nominated as the finalists for the fifth Man Booker International Prize in 2013. She was also nominated in 2011.
“A writer’s life is strange. The work is so intensely private, and then the product is exposed to all sorts of public attention — and the writer with it. I write the book that is on my mind, and readers have been very kind to my work so far. If they find fault with the new book, I’ll simply have to be philosophical about it, and remember to be grateful for previous kindness,” Robinson said.
Last year US President Barack Obama presented Robinson with the National Humanities Medal — an award given to individuals or groups for their work within the field of humanities. The president also lent a personal touch to the proceedings, stating that reading “Gilead” had changed him for the better.
“President Obama is a good man, whom I have known for many years ... ‘Gilead’ was a book that contains thoughts that were deeply on my mind at the time ... perhaps its endurance is because it highlights a quiet life, while also describing a place not many know about — Iowa,” Robinson said.
“I have always believed that it is the quietest lives, lived thoughtfully, that have an unlimited beauty — which draws people to them, to learn more and be a part of such experiences,” she added.
Her latest novel, “Lila”, based on the pastor’s wife from “Gilead”, is the fourth book in the series and it is expected to be released later this year. As with her other body of works, the novel features traces of the French theologian John Calvin, who Robinson follows. All of her books explore the connection between religion and humanity and often criticise the present detached and destructive demonstration of science in society.
When asked about the five-year gap between “Lila” and “Home” and about the inspirations and influences with her latest work, the 70-year-old author told Weekend Review:
“By my standards, a five-year gap is hardly a gap at all. I am not under any pressure to produce books, and I have found it a good thing to take my time over them. American writers are less prolific than writers in other countries, probably in part because so many of them teach, as I do. I write when I have a character in my mind, a voice. And this was true of [my] new book ... since my novels are so dependent on the voice and world view of a specific character, I try to have a ‘style’ that is reflective of his or her particular point of view, rather than one that is consistent from one book to the next.”
On copyrighted content — literature and arts — being increasingly reinterpreted online by passionate followers of various works, Robinson said, “This is another strange development that I expect to sort itself out in time. I’m always struck by the depth of engagement reflected even in these ethically dubious projects.”
Robinson said she always made it a point to carve out enough time for her to pursue any topic that is of interest to her, and once she was content with the gathered information, that would become the basis of her papers and discussions.
“I come across my subjects and characters. Something catches my eye or haunts my thoughts. I read widely, especially in history, just exploring with the expectation that the sense of a question or a problem will arise. This habit has had a great influence on me, and thinking things through, in fiction or nonfiction, has been an important education for me,” she said.
Robinson also revealed that she was in the process of reading up on, and researching, updated and alternative information regarding British literature and culture from the 16th century — a time that gave birth to some of the greatest English writers and playwrights, including William Shakespeare.
“[At present], I am reading literature from the period of Shakespeare, exploring. This might seem like an exhausted area, but in fact there is a great deal to be looked at and considered that scholarship has ignored. One of my recent essays is based on this reading,” she added.
Along with her novels, Robinson is also a well-regarded academic, having published several papers and nonfiction books for more than 24 years.
“I’m always engrossed in the work I have in hand, happy to be doing it whether it is fiction or nonfiction. And I enjoy the change from one to the other. It refreshes my mind,” she said.
“At the moment, I am finishing some lectures, which then become essays in my nonfiction collections, so in [a] sense, I am working on a book,” she added.
Robinson studied at Pembroke College, the former women’s college at Brown University, and received her PhD in English from the University of Washington. She teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, a position she has held for more than 22 years. For some, the concept of an author as a teacher may be strange, given that writers have been mostly depicted as those who only focus on their works, but Robinson enjoys her work as an academic. “I keep trying to retire ... but I love it too much! I taught a seminar on Herman Melville [recently] and it made me happy as it always does. I have seen an interesting change in my students, a greater openness to ideas, to metaphysics, [which] is wonderful,” she said.
Even as she continues to enjoy her well-earned success, Robinson is keen to encourage passion for writing, as everyone has a unique voice and story that has the potential to touch and connect with others. For the millions of hopefuls in the region and rest of the world who are interested in sharing their story, she has a few words of advice.
“My advice is always to write as well as you can, and to write something that matters to you, in your voice and in a style that is unique to you. Do not try to copy a ‘popular’ style, or write in a way that appears to have been calculated to please the market. This usually results in stories that are stale and derivative. And publishers are tired of looking at it,” Robinson said.
“Literature is strong and rich. It is hard to get a good sense of one’s own time, but I suspect that those who look back on it will find that it produced much excellent work. In every era and genre, there are people who have been touched by, or connected with, an author’s work. It is wonderful that such bonds are formed, and I am grateful they continue to endure,” she added.
Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.