Saturday, June 22, 2013

Live blogging from HNS 2013: Religion in Historical Fiction

Well, sort of live blogging. Hello from beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida! I know you might be thinking, "Wasn't she just on vacation in Barbados? What's she doing in Florida now?" Or not. I am very happy to be attending the 2013 Historical Novel Society's 5th Annual North American conference. This one is occurring at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort. I've been to the HNS conferences before, but after several years' lapse, I'm here and a member of the society again. I missed the Friday night banquet due to some luggage and travel issues - miffed, but I got over it. The setting has veered between being hot as all hell to a torrential downpour in a matter of minutes. Gotta love that unpredictable Florida weather! To make up for all that, the sessions have been spectacular! I'm sharing a few highlights of each one I've gone to so far.

Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction, presented by Stephanie Dray (Lily of the Nile), Kamran Pasha (Mother of the Believers) and Mary Sharratt (Daughters of the Witching Hill), and moderated by Teralyn Rose Pilgrim. 

As you may know, I have written about Muslim, Jewish and Christian characters, so I'm particularly sensitive to this topic. I'm a huge admirer of author Sherry Jones, but each time I write part of the Sultana series, I can't help remembering the tribulations Sherry so graciously endured when her Jewel of Medina was published. How does an author tread the fine line between engaging readers and courting controversy by discussing religion in novels?

As the discussants all mentioned, religion matters. Belief has shaped society and given it purpose. Authors at times are afraid to offend or think the characters of various religions will seem almost alien and won't foster connections with readers. Stephanie talked about how ancient world religions are foreign to most, yet she discovered in writing about Cleopatra's daughter that Isis worship is a forerunner to Christianity and many would be surprised at how some of its practices mirror those of the past. Scandalous! Kamran, as a practicing Muslim, is quite conscious and sensitive to the need to write with authenticity about his own religion, as well as the others he depicts. The biggest takeaway he offered was about overcoming one's own prejudices to write about belief faithfully. In his words, "Be cool with what you got" which means that if you are grounded and comfortable in your own convictions as an author, you can write with ease about other religions. There is the image we each hold of a religion and then there is the experience of that belief system, two very diverse concepts. Mary suggested that in writing about religions, authors refrain from criticism of beliefs which diverge from their own; personal conviction should be treated with respect because everyone has different POVs. Sound advice.

As with any controversial topic, some readers are liable to take offense where religion is involved. The panelists all suggested that this risk only adds to the discussion, so authors should not be afraid to take on the topic. Religion divides and unites universally. I think Stephanie put it best, "All spiritual people seek the same thing. Religion is a human experience."

Do you read or have you written works that incorporate religion and practices of faith? What do you think of novels that do this? How have your own personal beliefs been affected by what you have read? Are there recent novels you can think of which have handled religion very well?

Later, weapons in historical fiction, with pictures! Yours truly got to handle a broadsword, rapier and axe (I swear, no fellow attendees were harmed in this attempt).       


Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

Thanks for this article! I look forward to reading the rest, especially the ones about panels I missed.

If you're looking for more religious books, my absolute favorite is Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross. I also adore Peony in Love, which is mostly about Chinese beliefs in the afterlife.

Lisa Yarde said...

Thanks Teralyn, Pope Joan has been on my TBR list for a bit, so I need to move that up. I've told everyone I could about your Vestal Virgin routine at HNS - hilarious! Wishing you all the best.

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