This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Marilynne Robinson is one of the finest novelists writing in America today. Her book Housekeeping (1980) received the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Gilead (2004) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, while Home (2008) received the Orange Prize for Fiction. On October 17, 2014, Robinson and the staff of The Nation had a conversation about her work, including her new novel Lila. A full recording can be found here. What follows are edited excerpts. —john palattella
Politics figures in your novels, but the language of politics does not.
It’s hard to use modern versions of earlier language with precision. Also, there are words that trigger conditioned response. If you use a certain word, people think they know a great deal about what you mean, so what you want to do is avoid the word and say what you mean. I’m as careful as I can be to avoid language that seems to me can’t be refreshed, that in a certain sense has to be evaded.
Might you give an example?
There are sorts of words that, off the top of my head, I specifically rankle at. One of them is “Calvinist.” One of them is “Midwest.” The word itself implies that everything that needs to be known is known. You have to break these things open and look at what they actually are.
What is the proper role of religion in the public sphere?
I don’t think it’s realistic to think that they can be separated. People use political standards to judge religion, and they use religious standards to judge politics. I think that so long as religion encourages generosity, and so long as it encourages a sense of obligation to the culture, to one another, that’s very good—and it doesn’t matter which religious basis produces that.
We have lived through a period when we can see religion used very harmfully in society, which is of course not unusual in human history, either. Perhaps it’s typical, because history is kind of a mess. The thing that I think it is important to remember is that every question is always real. People can’t be passively religious. They have to be critical of what is being presented to them as religion. They can’t be passively liberal. They have to think about the consequences of what they are assuming to be liberal values. Human existence is so complex and so volatile that there is never any fixed solution. There is never any fixed understanding. Everything requires moral scrutiny over again, always.