Anything Other than What I Am

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Kate, Hannah Williams (our host at Waterstones Covent Garden), Sophie (with Sylvia Plath in the background!)

I’m still in a wonderful mood after yesterday evening’s joint reading with the German novelist Sophie Hardach. It was a crazy gambit – someone who knows both our work suggested we should do a reading together since both of our books are ‘about religion’. Part of me thought that it was not much of a connection – probably half of world literature is about religion in one way or another! But I loved the idea of history and fiction as two different ways of thinking about the same thing. Then I read Sophie’s first novel, The Registrar’s Guide to Detecting Forced Marriages, and I thought, ‘Hang on – this could work!’

Still, last night was very much an arranged marriage, or perhaps a blind date. Like many modern relationships, we got to know each other over the internet – I read her blog, she read my blog, we tweeted to each other. Then, finally, we met – in a safe public place with lots of witnesses – the basement of a central London bookshop (Waterstones Covent Garden). Following the best dating advice, we agreed to a short, defined conversation. (Though as it happened, long after the reading was over, we had to be thrown out of the bookshop because they were locking up!)

The experience turned out to be magical. We had agreed to look for points in our ‘stories’ (her novel, my history) where tensions between ‘faith’ and ‘love’ crop up. Both of our books have numerous stories about the way religion gets handed down in families, but also about how parents and children can be divided by religion. But when Hannah, our host, asked us which passages we had chosen to read from, we discovered that we had each chosen an interrogation scene, in which a daughter or son on the verge of adulthood tries to defend a worldview that is considered dangerous by the state.

My story comes from the prison diary of Perpetua, written as she was held for questioning (before eventually being executed as a martyr) in the year 203. Sophie had chosen, entirely without consulting me, a scene in which Paul, a young Quaker, finds himself called to defend his family’s tradition of pacifism at the beginning of World War Two, when he is called up for service and faces a tribunal to establish whether or not he can be registered as a conscientious objector.

Sophie’s scene is bittersweet but quite funny – she invites you to listen to Paul’s thoughts as he faces the tribunal, trying, in a fumbling sort of way, to defend the Quaker pacifism of his parents and ancestors – a position he believes to be noble, but which he can’t, himself, quite manage to hold onto.

By contrast, Perpetua’s prison diary has the heroic quality of a young person who has broken free of the tradition of her family, and found a faith she can embrace so passionately that she is ready to defend it with her life. In a poignant scene describing the eve of her first interrogation, Perpetua describes a visit from her father.

While we were still under arrest [she said] my father out of love
for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution.

‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot
or whatever?’

‘Yes, I do,’ said he.

And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than
what it is?’

And he said: ‘No.’

‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’

At this my father was so angered by the word ‘Christian’ that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that, and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments. For a few days afterwards I gave thanks to the Lord that I was separated from my father, and I was comforted by his absence.

As one reads on in the diary, one discovers that this unsuccessful encounter with her own father served Perpetua well. The questions which her father asks during his visits help her to prepare for the questions she will face when she has to give account in her formal interrogation. After the interrogation, she confesses that she is elated that she managed to stand firm.

I have always found Perpetua a bit scary in this scene. But now that I have teen-aged daughters myself I recognize that the special fierceness which a young person displays toward an uncomprehending parent is often a way of steeling herself against the suspicion that the parent may know something after all.  It is terribly difficult to break free of a parent’s worldview, and as you have to recognize that breaking free is often the first step toward real understanding.

History does not record whether Perpetua and her father were able to resolve their differences before her execution. But in listening to Sophie’s story of Paul’s hapless attempt to obey his parents dutifully even when he did not understand them, I found myself thinking how lucky Perpetua’s father was to have a daughter who cared enough to try to make him see what she was trying to make of her life – and how lucky she was to have a father who loved her enough to rehearse her lines with her – even though he could not agree with what she wanted to say.

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