+ By Leah Weiss + Photos by Alison Harbaugh
Peter Manseau wasn’t prepared for the flood of hate mail that deluged his email inbox almost immediately after his op-ed piece was posted on the New York Times website on February 9. Manseau, whose most recent book is One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), had never seen such a response to his work. But then, he hadn’t published anything about Islam that was so widely read. “Emotions are very high around that subject at the moment, and people who feel very strongly about it are very quick to hit ‘send’ on an email,” he says.
The op-ed addresses the cancellation of an imam’s scheduled appearance to recite a Muslim prayer to bless the opening of a rodeo in Fort Worth, Texas, due to the backlash brought on by a prayer he had offered a few days before. That backlash and the volatile emails Manseau received reflect the view held by many Americans that the United States is in the midst of a new “Muslim invasion” that threatens our culture. Manseau’s essay explains that, in fact, Islam has been part of our history for centuries and is actually as American as the rodeo.
Research for the essay came out of One Nation, Under Gods, which offers an alternative view of America’s 500-year history through stories from its religious minorities. “It’s always a matter of a number of competing and conflicting religious ideas negotiating together to create the national culture,” says Manseau. “Realizing that our history is more complicated than we often have been taught is a way of expanding our appreciation of what the country is.”
Religion, history, and identity are key themes in Manseau’s writing because they have deep roots in his personal story. Raised near Boston, Massachusetts, he is the youngest child of a former Catholic nun and priest who married as a protest against the Catholic Church’s rule of celibacy. Manseau was brought up as a Catholic, but never practiced. At college, he studied religion in part to understand his unique family situation. It was there that he decided to become a writer.
He was drawn to storytelling—and religion as his major topic—when a job at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, took him up and down the East Coast, collecting books from Jewish families. He felt a particular connection to Yiddish literature; many of its great writers, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, were raised in a religious tradition that they did not fully accept, but felt compelled to write about. “They were writing about where they came from, and using that as a way of thinking about the entirety of human experience,” he says.
After moving to Boston, Manseau started an online magazine, Killing the Buddha, with his colleague Jeff Sharlet. Its purpose was to create a deeper forum for discussing religion. “The way in which religion tends to be talked about in the media wasn’t doing justice to the complexity of it,” he says. “You would find stories that were either entirely positive or entirely negative, either stories about the church bake sale or stories about terrorists.”
He and Sharlet eventually went on a yearlong cross-country road trip to collect people’s stories about religion for a book. It was the first time Manseau thought of himself as a journalist, and he began to understand the social, interactive aspects to writing. “For someone in his twenties who had only imagined himself being a fiction writer up until that point, the idea of going out and talking to strangers was a real revelation and a challenge. It makes you get out of yourself and overcome any kind of shyness, because if you don’t talk to people, you can’t get the job done.” The book, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible (Free Press) was released in 2004.
Manseau then wrote a family memoir, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and their Son (Free Press, 2005). It was soon followed by his award-winning novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter (Free Press, 2008), a story of the last Yiddish poet in America—a writer and his dying language—and Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead (Henry Holt and Company, 2009), which explores belief through fascinating stories about religious relics from many traditions.
In 2011, Manseau and his wife moved to Annapolis to live near his in-laws on their family farm. His studio, a cozy unheated shed just steps from the house and chicken pen, showcases books, religious objects, and humorous handmade items from his two young daughters. He is currently curating an exhibit on American religions for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and working on his next book, a history-driven project that will have a religious element.
“Everything, if you scratch it enough, is a religion story in a way, because every story involves some element of belief, whether it’s belief in a traditional religious sense, or just belief in terms of what people think about the world and their place in it,” he says. “There is an element of that in every story you can tell.” █