Review of Daniel Shank Cruz, Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community (University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019)

Brad Born
Issue 2019, vol. 73

In Queering Mennonite Literature, Daniel Shank Cruz weaves together reflections on his own personal identity, his appreciation for several self-identified Mennonite authors whose “activist” nature he finds compelling, and the intersection of “queer” and “Mennonite” perspectives that he discovers in these texts.

For readers unfamiliar with queer theory, which emerged in the 1990s from earlier feminist and gender studies theories, Cruz’s “Introduction” provides a helpful summary of this academic field. He acknowledges that queer theory has not always been explained well to those outside academia, and he attributes to Mennonites an appreciation of “plain language.” Accordingly, he adopts a methodology informed by queer theory but not “ensconced” in it. In explaining his methodology, Cruz writes:

While obviously theory can be useful, it sometimes gets so abstract that it loses touch with the gritty reality of everyday life, and reading and learning from literature is one way to bridge the gap. Literature has the power to change us because it allows us to learn about ourselves through the stories of others, opening us up to new experiences; therefore, offering the attention to stories that is inherently a part of close reading helps make oppressed groups visible and helps offer visions of better futures (16-17).

Here Cruz offers a plainspoken statement of what he wants to achieve in this book. He hopes that his close reading of nine authors who are both “queer” and “Mennonite” will open up readers to better understand the lives of characters who range across a spectrum of nonheterosexual, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) identities, and to inspire readers to activist work against oppression and advocacy for social justice.

Cruz provides his close readings of particular authors in Chapters 1-6: Chapter 1, Christina Penner’s 2008 novel Widows of Hamilton House and Wes Funk’s 2014 autobiography Wes Side Story; 2, Jan Guenther Braun’s 2008 novel Somewhere Else; 3, Jessica Penner’s 2013 novel Shaken in the Water; 4, Stephen Beachy’s 2011 novel boneyard; 5, Corey Redekop’s 2012 novel Husk; and a sixth chapter, entitled “Trans Mennonite Literature,” in which Cruz analyzes Casey Plett’s 2014 short story collection A Safe Girl to Love and Miriam Suzanne’s 2015 Riding SideSaddle*: A Novel.

In his “Epilogue: The Future of Queer Mennonite Literature,” Cruz considers the writing of Sofia Samatar – the child of a Somali father and a white, Swiss-Mennonite, American mother – to suggest that a “queering” of Mennonite literature should take a postcolonial step out from the center of North American Mennonite experience to the margins of other, alternative, and global positions.

Cruz’s recognition in his “Epilogue” that any definition of “queer” or “Mennonite” must remain open and contested illustrates a central concept of queer theory. As an academic discipline, queer theory emerged from the post-structuralist theory of the 1980s with tools for deconstructing male-female gender binaries and heteronormative sexual assumptions as ideologies that excluded, and damaged, people whose fluid gender identities and non-heteronormative sexual identities simply didn’t fit those socially constructed binary systems. Ever cautious not to become its own fixed, closed set of ideological certainties, queer theory by definition resists final definition. Cruz prefers plain language to capture this feature of queer theory – invoking not the abstract or academic jargon of post-structuralist theory, but instead frequently calling queer theory “slippery.” As he explains, “The slipperiness of the term queer allows the boundaries of its community to be permeable rather than enforcing an inside/outside dichotomy” (16-17).

Perhaps it is fully appropriate, then, that at the center of this book is an analogy between “queer” and “Mennonite” that is itself slippery. They intersect, argues Cruz, in that both are concerned with the marginal, both investigate mainstream assumptions, both fight oppression, and both suggest a vision of a transformed society. Cruz also finds in the multiple ethnicities of Mennonites a transnational nature that might be compared to queer ideas of transgressiveness and openness. The language Cruz employs in asserting this intersection of “queer” and “Mennonite” is itself telling. He suggests “resonances” between queer theory and Mennonite thought. His queer/Mennonite analogy is “not a dogmatic one,” he suggests, “but one that embraces leisurely perambulations” (9).

Much as Cruz depends on a queer/Mennonite analogy that proves slippery, he depends too on an assumption of “Mennonite” identity that resists his own definitions. Naming “Mennonite literature” and “Mennonite literary criticism” as coherent fields of study is necessary to his enterprise, yet the “Mennonite” of his text is also slippery. He insists that it can’t be defined by a theological center, since that would exclude those who claim a Mennonite identity but reject any religious affiliation. Resisting a theological center for “Mennonite,” Cruz nevertheless asserts that “[Mennonite] always means acting ethically in order to build and sustain some form of community” (23). He acknowledges that his focus on works by “Swiss Mennonites” and “Russian Mennonites” privileges an ethnic assumption that is also problematic. When forging the queer/Mennonite analogy, he insists that Mennonite ideals reject binaries and resist oppression, yet elsewhere he calls out “the two most liberal” North American denominations for oppressing congregations that welcome sexually active LGBTQ people. He offers an intriguing suggestion that the sexual bondage practice of submission “echoes Mennonite descriptions of surrendering oneself to Jesus,” then in the very next paragraph suggests that bondage also “echoes the same patriarchal values found in traditional Mennonite theology” (14). The boundaries of Cruz’s term Mennonite prove highly “permeable.”

Cruz may be well aware that his deployment of the term “Mennonite” is slippery, problematic but useful. About “queer,” the gender theorist Judith Butler once wrote, in her book Bodies That Matter:

If the term “queer” is to be a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings, it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes.

Adopting Cruz’s strategy of finding “resonances” and “echoes” between queer theory and Mennonite literature, I suggest these words by Butler evoke the central purpose and achievement of this book. True to his title, Cruz queers his reading of these authors – Mennonites them, if you will – redeploying these concepts as verbs of active contestation, turning them to his purpose of advocating for change that will engender communities in which the identity “queer Mennonite” has become unremarkable.