We don’t get much intellectual stimulation in the lovely Midwestern city where we live.
And so last night my husband and I traveled to the Iowa City Book Festival to see Marilynne Robinson in conversation with Ayana Mathis.
The brilliant Robinson, surely the best American writer working today, has taught for 25 years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City (my hometown). She is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for Housekeeping, the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, the Orange Prize for Home, and the National Humanities Award.
Although Iowa Citians can presumably see Robinson doing her ordinary daily stuff around town, the Englert Theater was packed. We got there at 7 to get a good seat. People piled in, especially gray-haired and white-haired people like ourselves. (We’re the audience.) One endearing thing about Iowa is that everything starts on time. The event started on the dot of 7:30.
Robinson read from her new novel, Lila, a sequel to Gilead and Home, all three set in Iowa. She is a superb reader, and chose a dramatic scene with a lot of dialogue. Lila, the heroine, who eventually marries Reverend Ames, the narrator of Gilead, converses with a homeless boy who has found her money under the floor of a shack.
Like Silas Marner, I thought. But it is only $40, which has taken Lila a long time to save. Lila tells the boy he can keep the money and offers him a place to stay because the shack is cold. The boy says he is a killer, and wonders if she has ever known a killer. She says she has. She knew a woman who killed her abusive husband.
I have not read Lila (the publication date is Tuesday), but the novel, or at least parts of it, are set during the Depression. Both Lila and the boy are drifters. Lila, neglected as a child, was eventually kidnapped by the well-meaning Doll, another drifter. And, homeless in Gilead, Iowa, years later, Lila makes friends with Reverend Ames, who is simply besotted with her.
After the reading, Robinson had a “conversation” with her former student Ayana Mathis, whose novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was an Oprah club selection. Unfortunately the theater was pitch-dark, so I could not take notes. Apologies for anything I got wrong.
Mathis was a bit nervous (she seemed in awe), and her questions were really comments on literature rather than straightforward questions.
Poverty is an important issue in Lila. Mathis asked about the difficulties of describing the extreme poverty during the Depression, and Robinson replied that there is also extreme poverty today, only it is taboo to mention it. She says that every time she gives an interview, she can count on her remarks on poverty not appearing in the article.
She dedicated Lila to Iowa, and says that she has learned a lot from living here. After researching a subject, she usually concludes that everything she has thought and most of what is written is wrong. She says that because Iowa is a flyover state, very few people know anything at all about it. She says that is also true of northern Idaho, where she grew up.
Here is an approximate quote from Robinson: “They think they know everything about it BECAUSE they’ve never been here.” There was much laughter.
She added that the University of Iowa was the first university to give an MFA to an African-American woman: the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, in 1940.
“That’s very Iowa,” she said.
When she researched the history plays of Shakespeare for her dissertation, she concluded that everything written on the subject was wrong. But she wrote 300 pages anyway, “all of it wrong,” she said.
Many of her essays deal with religion, and it’s clear that the intellectual Christians had flocked to the theater. During the Q&A period, someone asked a question about divinity in literature. (And I’m sure the question was a great deal more complicated than that, but I couldn’t quite hear it.) She says that Rev. Ames is her Northern star (or perhaps she said lodestar) for Christianity, despite his faults.
She spoke of small acts of kindness being examples of the divine.
“We never know why things happen,” she says.
A woman mentioned that Robinson was compared to Dostoevesky and Tolstoy in Joan Acocello’s excellent review of Lila in The New Yorker.
Robinson seemed a bit confused by this. “A writer compared me to these other writers? I’m always glad to be in good company.”
Somehow I thought of Doris Lessing, my favorite writer. I never heard her speak, and I wish I had. Both Robinson and Lessing are great independent thinkers, powerful women.
Robinson will be reading and speaking in the U.S. and England this fall, so check your newspaper’s listings.