What do a genocidal African ex-warlord, an ambitious and fecund Buddhist man with sixteen children, and a middle-aged English professor-turned-suicide bomber all have in common? Well, nothing really—except that they are but three of a myriad of strange and lively characters you’ll meet in Randy Boyagoda’s teeming fictional worlds. Author of three critically acclaimed novels—Governor of the Northern Province (2006), Beggar’s Feast (2011), and Original Prin (2019)—a biography of the Catholic public intellectual Richard John Neuhaus, and a slew of academic and popular articles, columns, and reviews, Boyagoda has charted his own course for what writing in a pluralistic, secular, globalized twenty-first century looks like when written by a Catholic who takes his Catholicism seriously. (Which is not to suggest Boyagoda’s not wickedly funny; at his best he usually is.)
In a now infamous 2013 essay,Boyagoda took on the narrow canons of earnest Christians whose reading lists are often limited to “Christian fiction”: Lewis and Tolkien, O’Connor and Percy, Waugh and Greene. These writers are not bad, Boyagoda emphasized. All of them are excellent. But they are also all dead. And according to Boyagoda, the few living Christian writers deemed acceptable (think: Marilynne Robinson) set their fiction in a remote past so inaccessible to contemporary readers that it might as well be dead.
So does Christian writing need new voices today? Is Boyagoda one of them? Doug Sikkema sat down with him to find out.
Doug Sikkema: In 2013, you opened a now infamous essay with this barn-burner: “I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor.” As you’ve pointed out elsewhere, this has perhaps been responded to more than anything else you’ve written. What prompted this piece?
Randy Boyagoda: That essay was inspired by a failure I noticed, particularly among religiously serious readers of serious fiction, to see the Catholic tradition as something still alive. And just to be ecumenical in being sick of things, it wasn’t just O’Connor. It was Chesterton, it was C. S. Lewis, it was Tolkien. The source of my frustration came from having one too many conversations with people who, upon finding out that I was a novelist, immediately asked me if I liked O’Connor, Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton. The impression this gives is that religiously serious writing died when Flannery O’Connor died.
T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922. Most people know that. But in advance of publishing The Waste Land, he wrote an essay called “ Eliot makes the case for how a writer joins the great tradition and deepens and extends it. The essay is a manifesto that provides a key to reading The Waste Land. So he’s setting the terms for how we should understand the poem he then writes two years later.
So in a way, with something like “Faith in Fiction,” I was both drawing attention to and lamenting a situation, and then also creating a space and a context for the reception of my own work.
DS: In your essay, you also offer a critique of Marilynne Robinson. She is unapologetically and overtly Christian, she also enjoys a wide readership right now. Are writers like Marilynne Robinson, then, uninterested in keeping the tradition alive today?
RB: I love Marilynne Robinson. I teach her, I Gilead is as exotic to a First World Anglophone reader as a world informed and inspired by an Eastern religion would be. You can imaginatively affirm, engage, and be interested by religious experience if it is indigenous (perhaps in a Canadian or North American context), or if it is Eastern, or, more broadly, if it is just not Judeo-Christian. In those contexts, religious experience is exotic and has no purchase on you personally. The 1950s small-town and rural Christian experiences of Robinson’s fiction have no purchase on us.her, I read her religiously. But as a writer, I’ll say this: Robinson makes it too easy for readers to engage with religious experience through her fiction, because the experience is closed off from us—and in a subtle way, exotic. In many ways, Robinson is the most quietly exotic writer alive today, in that the world of
What I’m trying to do with my work, particularly with my latest novel, Original Prin, is write fiction where there is purchase, where you are reading about someone who’s pursuing a life that could, in fact, be yours, because it is a life lived in the chaotic, messy world of assorted extremities that pile up into life in the twenty-first century. This world is globalized in a jagged variety of ways and marked—especially for a religious believer—by a sense of First World urban life as constitutionally inimical to religion, which makes it hard to be a believer in such places. Harder still is weighing that sense of felt difficulty against the knowledge that there are people elsewhere in the world, right now, being slaughtered for believing in the same God.
What does it mean to think that through?
It’s easy to think about one or the other, but to put the two of them together, the way we think that through isn’t through an op-ed, or through a sociological study, or, God forbid, through a podcast, but through a novel, where the fullness of the human life and any one human story moves in orbit and collision with other human lives and stories. All of this is played out in a sustained, coherent, and supple way. That’s a novel. And I’m trying to do that, as you suggest, in the here and now. Because we live in the here and now.
Now, any writer can write about whatever she wants, whenever and wherever. But if I feel like my fiction writing has that kind of public purpose to it, or public vocation to it, I think it would be taking on the challenge of writing about religiously active experience in the twenty-first century First World settings, involving elite characters who are themselves part of the majority rather than the minority.
DS: These ideas come out powerfully in your latest novel. But you wrote your first novel in 2006. Can you backtrack a little and share a bit of your story that leads you to a point when you think “I want to be a writer”?
RB: I began self-consciously writing late at night, during my adolescence. The result was a lot of terrible autobiographical breakup poetry and pressured, forced intellectual stories. I started publishing short stories while at the University of Toronto, where I went for my undergraduate degree in English. These were stories in little journals, most notably “Rice and Curry Yacht Club” in Descant. I kept at that through graduate school at Boston University, where I started to be told that I couldn’t do these things together. I couldn’t pursue public writing, literary writing, and academic writing at the same time. But I kept writing through it.
By the end of graduate school, I was writing literary and cultural criticism for The Walrus. During that time, I had written a short story trying to imagine what would happen if a genocidal African warlord moved to Canada and became a member of parliament. It was inspired by a passing reference I found in a story about the civil wars of West Africa, which I was reading about in The Economist. The reference was to a Sierra Leonean warlord who used to be a professional go-go dancer and hairdresser.
The humanity of that person fascinated me as a writer. How could there be a man who was a brutal killer, a taker of innocent lives, who used to dance and cut hair for a living? I was really fascinated by that combination because it didn’t scan properly. I understand a warlord, I understand a go-go dancer and hairdresser. I couldn’t understand all of that together. The only way to do so was to imagine it, to tell it out, as a story.
DS: So you are a scholar and an academic but also a novelist. The University of Toronto has certainly produced a few of these, and each manages the balance differently. How have you balanced those two worlds—of scholarship and novel writing—to make you the writer that you are?
RB: Up until—which is a campus novel with some undeniable autobiographical elements—these worlds were very much discreet. And in and through that discreetness, they spoke to each other. For me, in some ways beyond my own literary criticism, being a professor is my version of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Being an English professor means drawing a regular paycheck to read great work, to make sense of it, to figure out what makes it great, and make a case for as much to students and peers. All of that is the work of a professor. That work, in turn, prepares me to add to that tradition, as a writer. I can do all of this in ways that are publicly respectable, in an immigrant context, and also provide for my wife and children. My vocation as a writer is always secondary to my vocation as a husband and a father.
DS: But if you put yourself back in the shoes of the person writing your earlier novels, it seems like you were in those days much more reticent to write about faith so explicitly—
RB: I didn’t know how to do it without, I think, either giving in to sermonizing or even romanticizing.
DS: So were you making conscious decisions, thinking: “I don’t want to be like one of these Christian writers.”
RB: No. At least, it wouldn’t be that kind of a consciousness. Instead, it would be more that the story has an integrity and dynamism of its own. Any and every good story worth telling and hearing has that. As a writer, you create it, and then to some degree, you have to live up to it. You live up to the promise that you’ve made to the world-of-the-story that you’re working within. And with neither Governor of the Northern Province nor Beggar’s Feast was there a context available for activating an explicitly religious sensibility.
That didn’t happen for me as a writer until I wrotea short story that appeared in Image in 2015.
That was, in a lot of ways, the first time I really took on the question of how faith could explicitly inform my fiction. This wasn’t because I wanted faith to inform my fiction. This was because I had in my mind the story of a child who had a condition that meant that he could feel no pain, a nerve condition. That child then becomes the father to a daughter who inherits the condition and could feel no pain. She becomes a kind of freak show attraction in cable news America. He takes her away from that, to a country in South America, where the family’s nanny came from. Eventually this daughter, Maisie, finds her way into a convent, where she converts and then lives a life of pain-free devotion that eventually becomes a case for sainthood.
As they do, that case for sainthood traveled over time and around the world. It eventually takes us to a Christian family living in Pakistan, who is attacked for being Christian. They have a certain devotion to this would-be saint that they live out when their lives are endangered by certain pain.
I saw in that story, which just began with a child that could feel no pain, I saw something there that required a fuller accounting of human experience. This accounting necessarily activated faith as a meaningful part of the arrangement of elements in the story.
DS: It almost sounds like the seeds of Original Prin were sown in this story. In a way Prin is the typical modern man: He wants to be comfortable, secure, free of pain. But then his world is rocked by the news of prostate cancer and the potential closing of his university. Pain comes crashing in.
RB: That story made available a new context for writing. I found a way to write about religious experience in an active and full way, from first principles down. But it was still remote from me: the geography, the presences, the characters, the trajectories. It still felt like what some of my editors and readers have accused me of, which is the ability to perform well, but with little of myself at stake in the work. I can deploy this, I can deploy that, I can give you this, I can give you that. Almost any writer can do that. But to some degree, I think with my first two novels, I was performing things that were intellectual and literary.
Following my first and second novels, I wrote a biography of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things and a person who had a remarkable trajectory of his own, from small-town Canada to Manhattan, Washington, and Rome. That was a completely different exercise, a completely different experience, from writing fiction. In some ways, Prin actually came out of the experience of writing a biography. To work on that book, I had to do two things across five years. I had to immerse myself in another person’s life, and I had to think about what it means for faith to be made publicly available as a positive and important component of a thriving public life in terms of politics, in terms of culture.
At the same time, I sensed that I’d just spent years thinking about someone else’s life, and my imagination pushed back and said, “What about your own?” That coincided with maybe a fuller and more honest reckoning with the limitations of the performance-based approach to writing literary fiction. I can write South Asian literary fiction, and I can write Canadian multicultural satire, but where am I in that? What are the stakes for me in that?
Original Prin is a work of cracked autobiographical fiction. I could imagine inhabiting the main character’s life. There are a lot of clear parallels to my life. And suddenly the stakes are very different if you’re writing about someone whose life you could imagine inhabiting.
And if I’m going to write about somebody whose life I could imagine inhabiting, that’s going to be a religiously-informed life, a life in which faith matters in ways that are serious and meaningful, but not too serious, not too meaningful that you lose your place in happy, bourgeois, materialist culture. You experience suffering, but it’s a very First World academic kind of suffering, until suddenly it’s not. That’s Prin’s situation.
DS: Amy Hungerford, in her study of contemporary American fiction Postmodern Belief, argues that we have become obsessed with the phenomenology of belief. We are interested in it as a way of experiencing the world. There’s some hope to that, but it also becomes, as we’ve talked about before, a barrier to seeing faith as a publicly manifested self.
RB: But also a fullness of experience in that the interior life and the exterior reality are joined, and they are joined in terms beyond our own. It’s not how I want to be religious—it’s that I am religious, and in being open that way, it means that I have to be open to two other things: One would be the expectations and demands of the people around me, and the other would be the expectations and demands of God. How are these perceived and how are these responded to? I think that’s what Original Prin is about.
DS: Being open to the claims and demands of God is hard for people to grasp—Christian or otherwise. In the secular age, it’s often assumed that God is silent. The believer might find this frustrating. The unbeliever might find this to be business-as-usual.
But Prin’s character, a “good” Catholic, believes he hears God, God tells him to do things.
RB: Yes. God tells him to go.
DS: But Prin isn’t clear about just what this means. And then you have Dawud, the radicalized young Muslim who also claims to hear God’s voice, the voice of Allah, telling him to blow himself up.
To circle back to the opening of our talk, you mentioned being read seriously by a non-religious audience. And I think for the non-believing audience who’s reading this, the voice of God for both the Catholic and the Muslim in the story is terrifying.
RB: Yes. But I would say the voice of God is terrifying for the believer, too, right?
DS: Right. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his child. He asks Noah to build a boat on dry land. He asks his disciples to go out and expect to die for their faith.
RB: Yes, exactly.
When Prin hears the voice of God in this novel, it’s after he has had successful treatment for prostate cancer, and after he’s learned that his Catholic college in downtown Toronto is going to shut down unless it opens a satellite campus in the Middle East. Prin hears the voice of God say, “Go.” But it’s not in a pure and clear way, because when is religious experience ever pure and clear? Rather, the transmission is disrupted. It’s disrupted by Prin’s fallenness, it’s disrupted by his own motives, by the world he’s in, by the fact that he’d be going with his sexy ex-girlfriend from graduate school, Wende.
So he hears it and then he has to do two things. One is convey to other people that his motivation is not his alone, but has a higher source that is strange and embarrassing to describe.
Prin has to convey that experience to others—particularly his wife Molly—and then Prin has to live it out. And he has to do so, as you say, in climactic terms, alongside and against a young Muslim man named Dawud, who also hears God telling him to go. My effort in the novel is to provide a full account of religious experience beyond Prin’s own that’s true to who each character is. In other words, Prin’s double at the end of the novel is not a bourgeois academic or mediocre cradle Catholic or self-styled religious intellectual. It’s a “gym bro.” He’s kind of a dumb-dumb who’s been radicalized.
If an earlier version of me as a writer were to make sense of this situation, it would have been two professors offering coherent and cogent arguments about God and intention and action and justice. But that’s probably not the guy who’s going to be radicalized to go to the Middle East and attack an airport. It’s going to be a dumb-dumb that hangs out in the gym all the time, and then gets taken in by this call.
In terms of conveying a variety of religiously-informed characters in the novel, before Prin encounters Dawud, he has a charged moment with Wende (said sexy ex-girlfriend from graduate school). The conversation takes place on a rooftop in a secure part of the capital city where they’ve come to open a satellite campus, and it happens after Prin gives in to temptation and has a moment with Wende that he regrets very quickly. That regret has to do with his marriage and with his faith. Prin’s talking about this leads to a fuller conversation, in which Wende basically tries to make sense of why she was raised Jewish and Prin was raised Catholic, and they both had memorable childhood experiences of faith, and Prin’s led to his believing in God, and Wende’s led to her becoming an atheist. And my challenge there was to make sure that I did justice to Wende’s atheism. Because if Wende’s atheism isn’t as full and believable as Prin’s belief in God, then I’m not fulfilling my vocation as a novelist.
DS: When they’re having that exchange, you write these beautiful and perhaps somewhat depressing lines for Wende: “I look up at the stars, I see nothing, and someone sees it all, Abraham’s descendants.” And then Prin says about their lapse in judgment: “What happens next for you and what happens next for me is what makes the difference. You’ve concluded an experiment. I’ve broken a bond.”
This exchange points out that fundamentally we’re narratival creatures. We are embodied and embedded into the stories, the myths, and the religions we are told and we continue to tell. Wende the atheist literature scholar, Dawud the gym bro, and Prin the struggling Catholic are all oriented to the world through their larger stories rooted in belief.
Original Prin is a novel about being religious in a pluralistic world. But what you’re doing is different than, say, Yann Martel, another Canadian novelist. In Life of Pi, he also has pluralism in his sights. At the end of Life of Pi, Martell suggests that what unites all of the main faith traditions is that they’re all telling a better story, and that’s the way of God. God gives us these better stories; they’re all different, mind you, but they’re leading us to something that’s at least better than the nihilism at the heart of materialism.
But you don’t take this syncretist route. Dawud’s story, Wende’s story, and Prin’s story are different and not equal. How do you articulate your role as a Catholic writer speaking to the clash of civilizations in our pluralistic twenty-first-century world?
RB: I think the first matter is to humanize such conflict. In a novel, the clash of civilizations wouldn’t be millennia-old religious traditions empowering armies to fight each other. It would be two people who met in grad school, or two guys hiding in a duty-free shop. That’s where you really see the full, rich, ordinary realities of civilizational clashes, and the personally felt costs of them.
DS: Or university faculty meetings.
RB: University meetings, exactly!
I think the other thing that I am trying to do is not come up with, as you say, the “Life of Pi solution,” which is to affirm the idea of religion and make a second order positivist case for why religion is good. It provides good stories. I don’t deny that.
You can argue that religion, understood as the system and structure of our ultimate beliefs, is indeed a human creation. God is not. We create religion, but God created us. And those two things are not synonymous. Nor are they easily harmonized, as more than two millennia of experience tells us.
DS: Right. And that leads to a humility, on the reader’s part, that God’s voice is ultimately not our voice, and when he speaks and how he speaks and to whom he speaks remains mysterious.
RB: Prin doesn’t know why God spoke to him. Prin senses he hasn’t even heard him correctly. But something that didn’t come from him came to him, which is, in some ways, what religious experience can be for us. And that can be exhilarating and uplifting, yes, but it can also be terrifying and confusing. And you can’t deny it, you can’t ignore it. I made God an active presence in the world-of-the-novel, made manifest through these imperatives that Prin experiences. I do not think God is made manifest to Dawud. I think Dawud is ultimately a character motivated by human concerns, by fallen human concerns. Prin is a fallen human motivated by fallen human concerns as well, but he’s spared from just being that because God is an active presence made manifest to Prin. The higher drama of the novel resides in Prin’s answering God’s speaking to him.
DS: But I think toward the end, when God reveals himself and becomes a real presence, he explodes onto the scene. The Hebrew concept of ruach, God’s wind, breath, and spirit, comes crashing in.
RB: The breath of God, almost.
DS: The breath of God. But you’re also left on that note that it is the better story, that despite all the fallenness and his confusion about what God’s saying, there’s just a simple reassurance—
RB: That God is there.
DS: God’s there and “all will be well.” Prin finds comfort not outside of his pain, but right at the heart of it.
RB: Yes, and in that, God is there, which gives meaning and purpose to one’s life. That doesn’t mean that one’s life is necessarily happy. It certainly doesn’t mean one’s life is perfect. But it means that that life has meaning to it, and it’s a meaning made possible by a source and power beyond yourself.
DS: Your novel deals with the classic problem of pain, or theodicy, but it’s decidedly not an apologetic. It’s not The Shack. It’s, to go back to David Adams Richards, a story that ultimately simply assumes “God is.”
It’s in the Jewish tradition we find in Genesis and Job. “In the beginning, God . . .” His presence is not rationalized or explained; it’s assumed. At the end of Job, God doesn’t try to answer Job’s questions, he simply asserts his being and then turns the tables, asking Job the question: “Where were you . . . ?” In a similar way, you are not defending God or making a case for him. You’re assuming his reality and then exploring what happens when God actually shows up.
RB: That’s a great way to explain it. That’s what the novel is in many ways concerned with. What does it mean that God is? When I first submitted the novel to my editor, he enjoyed it for a lot of reasons, but he said his problem with it was that it wasn’t theologically serious enough. He said, “Look, it’s great that you got the religious experiences, the smells and bells, the family experience, and whatever; but the reader has to believe that Prin believes in God.” In order for me to convey that, I made the decision that God would be in the novel.
DS: And God is an iconoclast, right? God comes in and breaks down all the images that we have—that Prin has—of him.
RB: Exactly. This is maybe the most important thing for the secular and religious reader alike. God’s presence in the novel is mystifying, not clarifying. If it were clarifying, life would be easy. “Oh, that’s what I should do and that’s what’s going to happen.” But God’s presence in the novel, as is the case in our lives when it’s felt that directly, is a source of deeper and fuller mystery, and it’s left to us to clarify what it means as we go, and God is.