Reflections on Mischa Berlinski

17Apr08

So, here are some initial reflections on the talk today by Mischa Berlinski at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College ….

First, I was a wee bit amazed at the number of people that came to hear him. It was a drop-dead gorgeous spring afternoon in Michigan today — sunny, a robin’s-egg blue sky, temps in the low 70s, the kind of day destined to pull people outside. Yet at 1:45 in the afternoon some 250+ people (it was literally standing room only) crowded into the subterranean Commons Lecture Hall to hear an author talk about his work. Incredible.

Berlinski seemed a little taken aback too. As he began he asked how many people in the room owned a copy of his first novel, Fieldwork. Probably three-quarters of the hands went up. “Wow,” he deadpanned (Berlinski is pretty droll), “you can’t all be my mother.” He got a good laugh with that line.

Having overcome his amazement at the size of the audience, Berlinski then proceeded to spin together 40 minutes of fairly flawless, note-free storytelling — basically the back story to both who he is and to the roots of Fieldwork, which explores the work of missionaries and anthropologists in the villages of Northern Thailand and last October was named a finalist for the National Book Award.

I was interested most in Berlinski because of his background as a freelance journalist. Having begun my career as a freelance journalist, and having worked with journalists for the last dozen years or so as Calvin’s media relations person, learning more about journalism and journalists is always of interest. And hearing a little more about Berlinski’s journalism experiences was quite fascinating. I was a little chagrined to hear him talk about working at the Asia Times as a feature writer in the 1990s and being able to interview someone one afternoon and then crank our a 2,000-word feature the next morning! Let’s just say I had a hard time relating to that! I did enjoy him talking about Tom Wolfe’s classic book The New Journalism and how that impacted his dreams and desires as a writer.

Berlinski talk strayed lightly into topics of faith, but in ways that will continue to stay with me for some time to come. His take on the connection between one’s Christian faith (a faith he does not himself have) and the impulse to be a missionary was quite interesting. For now I’ll conclude with one of Berlinski’s most interesting lines from today: “Fieldwork is to anthropology what the blood of martyrs is to the church.”

~posted by Phil de Haan, director of communications and marketing

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