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Festival of Faith and Writing: the conference that brought John Updike, Salman Rushdie to western Michigan

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Luis Alberto Urrea, whose new novel, “Queen of America,” is a sequel to his acclaimed “The Hummingbird's Daughter,” gave the most dynamic talk I heard at the festival, an hour-long tour de force about faith, prejudice, and the border, starring his spiritual adviser, an 86-year-old Baptist preacher with, Urrea said, the disposition of an Old Testament prophet.

"This is a festival made for me. I don't often get to talk about things like faith," said Urrea. Where he teaches, at the University of Illinois, Chicago, "God isn't on the docket very much."

But, Urrea insists, a discussion of faith puts him squarely in his native territory. "I'm often mistaken for a political writer," said Urrea, since he writes about the Mexican-American border. "I'm a theological writer. I'm interested in the eternal soul. That's what I write about. To me, writing is prayer. I pray all the time."

“Everybody has a faith in something,” says attendee Deborah Schakel, a retired teacher of theater and American literature who stages a one-woman show about Beatrix Potter for elementary schoolchildren. Schakel, a resident of the Grand Rapids area, says she first came years ago to hear Madeleine L'Engle speak. “I don't come specifically for the faith, but this conference brings in such spectacular writers, and all of them have a reverence for life. Let's call it that.”

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