A mosaic, a shattering

Issue 2023, vol. 77

Review of The White Mosque: A Memoir by Sofia Samatar (Catapult, 2022)

  1. Sofia Samatar recalls that when the story of the apocalyptic Mennonite prophet Claas Epp Jr. first captured her two decades ago, she “was accustomed to living a fragmentary life. I was a Mennonite, a Somali American, a recent student of African literature, and a writer […] I had learned that these things, while they might stand beside one another, could never be combined. There was really no way to put them together, except as mosaic: that is, as a shattering” (11-12). Her memoir, The White Mosque, is an attempt to put these pieces of herself together in some way that will fit, or to show how you live a life when they don’t fit.
  2. To do so, Samatar takes a literal journey that the book uses as a frame for flashbacks to the rest of her life. She goes on a trip with a Mennonite tour group who retrace the Great Trek, the pilgrimage a group of Russian Mennonites began under Epp’s leadership in 1880 to what is now Uzbekistan because Epp believed that Jesus’s Second Coming was about to occur there. She is led to do so because of the name of one of the villages founded by members from Epp’s group, Ak Metchet, which translates as “the white mosque,” named for the white-walled church the Mennonites built. In this Muslim-Mennonite intersection, Samatar sees a space that might serve as a conceptual home for her as the child of a Swiss (i.e., white, ethnic) Mennonite mother from the United States and a Black, Muslim father from Somalia. Her parents’ “implausible” meeting and the “almost daily” questions Samatar receives about it sometimes make her “feel like a mistake,” which in turn makes her “a devotee of the bizarre,” a devotion that leads her to the Great Trek (12).
  3. Of course it is white Mennonites’ reactions that make Samatar sometimes feel like a “mistake.” Samatar documents numerous experiences of Mennonite racism, whether as a student at Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite High School (273, 281), at a Mennonite writing conference in Fresno, Calif. (140), or on the tour itself (72-73). She laments that even though her current congregation in Harrisonburg, Va., “almost looks like my idea of utopia,” out of 300 people only about ten are people of color (292). The White Mosque fills me with joy, but it also fills me with anger at how racist the North American Mennonite community remains. White Mennonites continue to have a lot to answer for.
  4. I have been reading Samatar’s writing since 2013, when I heard about her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, via an article in the alumni magazine of our shared alma mater, Goshen (Ind.) College. We also both went to Lancaster Mennonite High School, though our times at LMH and GC were separated by nine years. Akin to Samatar’s parents, my Swiss Mennonite mother met my Puerto Rican father while doing mission work. As writers, Samatar and I are both suspicious of literary criticism. I mention these affinities to let you know that this is not an “objective” review. But of course it’s not: in addition to the book under review, book reviews are always about the book reviewer, whether the reviewer acknowledges it or not. I feel gutted by The White Mosque because of the ways it resonates with my own story. Samatar writes that she is drawn to the margins of the Mennonite story, to people who are “the drifter, the freak” (82, 91). I also feel this impulse. We want the margins because they help us make sense of ourselves. The question is whether we feel at home there because Mennonitism at its best values the margins, or because we have been pushed to the Mennonite margins by the rest of the community, so we’re trying to figure out how to survive there.
  5. The White Mosque is a story about figuring out where you fit, which is a universal question, not just a Mennonite one. Readers are implicated one way or another in the inside/outside dynamic. If non-Mennonite readers think Claas Epp was weird, wait until they read Samatar’s discussion of the Martyrs Mirror! It comes complete with reproductions of some of Jan Luyken’s illustrations, including, inevitably, Dirk Willems (175). The book’s primary audience is non-Mennonites, and it has been successful enough that it was a finalist for the 2023 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, but lost to Percival Everett’s Dr. No.
  6. Early on, Samatar explains that when she uses “that magic phrase: ‘My mother was a Glick’” (29), the common Swiss Mennonite name is a shibboleth that allows her inside the Mennonite boundary. But on the tour, she remains an outsider because the rest of the Mennonites are Russian Mennonites. “[T]hese murderous borders” pop up everywhere (163). And yet, Samatar is inescapably Mennonite. She tells us that “[t]he longer this trip goes on, the more I feel I belong to the Ak Metchet Mennonites […] because the same stories formed us,” the Bible and the Martyrs Mirror (176). There is a relationship marked by something other than biological kinship.
  7. The entire Mennonite story is incredibly weird – not necessarily a bad thing – and the Great Trek is one of its weirdest episodes. And yet, it is about as Mennonite as you can get: its protagonists moved without worrying about what others thought because their faith told them to. Samatar skillfully retells this frequently forgotten episode via excerpts from memoirs written by trek survivors later in life after they had moved to other countries. Her weaving of these and other excerpts into a book that becomes a mix of memoir, history, sociology, and literary criticism is one of The White Mosque’s most enjoyable features. The White Mosque’s craft is exquisite. Every word is the right one. It reaffirms my belief in the power of writing.
  8. In my favorite passage of The White Mosque, Samatar speculates about how “Mennonite writing” could help create the inclusiveness she wants for the entire community. She imagines “editing an anthology of Mennonite writing […] in which Mennonites of color are not referred to in parentheses, in which the global majority is not a special issue […] preparing a book called Three Thousand Mennonite Poets […] Reading this book, you will not wonder whether all the Mennonites of color have disappeared from the face of the earth” (137-38). This prophetic passage reminds us that there are different ways we can be. The question is whether the community will listen. Everyone who calls themselves “Mennonite” – whatever that means to you – in North America needs to reckon with the questions about Mennonitism that The White Mosque poses.