Lesley Hazleton, delightfully, does not put up with anyone’s bullshit. If you’ve seen her read, you’ve probably seen her dismantle some lazy idea using just her smoky voice and easy laugh. If you follow her on Twitter, you’ve seen her talk proudly about her abortion, and against the tyranny of the zealots who somehow seized the moral high ground by claiming the name “pro-life” for themselves. (Hazleton has been involved with Amelia Bonow’s #ShoutYour Abortion movement from the very beginning.) At a reading for the whitewashed Seattle: City of Literature anthology last year, Hazleton discussed Seattle’s unspoken racist tendencies with a tenacious inquisitiveness that made some of the more delicate panelists and members of the audience turn even whiter out of mortification. She is, to put it simply, the kind of truth-teller we need more of in this town.
She’s just as cheerfully boisterous on the page, too. Hazleton writes books about the one subject that most authors would be afraid to touch—religion. Her trilogy of historical religious biographies—Jezebel, Mary, and The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad—recontextualize some of the most controversial figures in history through a blend of scholarship, first-person reportage, and literary criticism. Another book, After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, investigates a topic that most Americans would rather ignore, or at least stereotype beyond recognition.
So after years of writing about religion and the Middle East and abortion, what’s left for Hazleton to tackle? Well, she’s staking a spot directly in some of the most contentious territory imaginable, smack in the middle between religion and atheism. Hazleton’s newest book is titled Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: a full-throated defense of a stance, as she puts it in the title of the book’s first chapter, “Beyond Either/Or.” She’s celebrating Agnostic’s release with a big launch party at Town Hall this week, and attendance is mandatory, whether or not you’re religious or an atheist
Agnostic is, like all of Hazleton’s work, meticulously researched—she spends so much time at the UW’s Suzzallo Library that they really ought to name a reading chair after her—and unafraid to take a stance, even if that stance is not taking a stance between belief and disbelief. She calls it “an exploration of the agnostic perspective, or the zones of thought that open up once you break free of deceptively neat categorizations, and that then feed back into each other in fresh and unexpected ways.”
Agnosticism has always gotten a bad rap; nobody likes a fence-sitter. But when someone as hugely intelligent, curious, and fearless as Hazleton embraces agnosticism, it should encourage even the most ardent atheists to take notice. In 2015, most people form opinions in whatever amount of time it takes to craft a tweet; Hazleton is demonstrating an inordinate amount of guts by embracing “I don’t know” as a cause. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., 652-4255, townhallseattle.org. $5. All ages. 7 p.m. Tues., April 5.
Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.