Part One: Wrestlers, Rebels and “Others”
Some Preliminary Notes
1. I’m very grateful to Bethel College and the Menno Simons Lecture series for this invitation. I’m conscious of my presence as a privileged white male whose views and words are already on record, voluminously, though less read than published. Even stranger: here I am in a lecture series named for the man from whom Mennonites take their name, while what draws me most, for a long time now, is work that comes from almost everywhere but the official hierarchies of the Mennonite church and those who see themselves as the earnest defenders of a “tradition” understood to be singular and exclusive.
2. For those of you who may not be intimately acquainted with “Mennonite/s writing,” a somewhat awkward term that has nevertheless become the standard way of referring to this constantly expanding body of imaginative literature of all varieties, I will offer a quick overview, with special reference to two important critical analyses that were earlier Menno Simons lectures, both released later as monographs: John Ruth’s Mennonite Identity and Literary Art (1979) and Al Reimer’s Mennonite Literary Voices: Past and Present (1993). A good part of this first lecture will be devoted to a brief history of this movement – mainly historical but, in the spirit of both Ruth and Reimer, occasionally polemical as well.
3. But first, for those who may not have read my entire oeuvre in preparation for this occasion, I’ll take one more step back, and offer a brief summary of my critical work on Mennonite/s writing. In essays gathered into the books Walker in the Fog and Songs from an Empty Cage, I have written about many Menno writers (and many others, of course). I explored categories and motives for writing including desire, heresy, resistance, defiance and doubt, and argued that these categories, typically the “dark” sides of our usual binaries, are in fact indispensable to both creative work and true faith. I argued that the Anabaptist tradition should be understood as one that includes strong themes of resistance and renewal, and that it’s fitting and proper that Menno writers should side with the wild and the free and the rebels, with the oppressed and the silenced, and have little use for rigid defenders of orthodoxies, institutions and bureaucracies. And I argued for (and have tried to engage in) something called “theopoetics,” approaching our questions about God through the poetic practices of image-making, narrative and metaphor.
In two recent essays, I tried to make cases for a “poetics of identity” that would resist neat, tidy definitions of who “we” are as Mennonites and as human beings, and for “creative doubt” as a useful, even necessary, approach to the world, institutions and received wisdom.
Surprisingly to me, these arguments have drawn little overt opposition, possibly because of my tone of sweet reason and honeyed eloquence, possibly because of my lofty position as tenured professor, even more possibly because only a few people are paying attention. In fact, I’ve sometimes found myself mentioned approvingly as a “non-transgressive” writer, which I assure you I find quite depressing.1 I hope to remedy that impression at least somewhat in these lectures. .
4. My plan is mainly to examine what seems to me the most moving, alert, troubling, vital, well-crafted writing on the Mennonite scene today. Some of these writers are senior, some are very young; some are my close friends, some I’ve never met. I’ll surely miss someone I should have included; see Ervin Beck’s excellent bibliographies of Mennonite writing for much, much more.2
5. As I turn now to attempting to tell a story about Mennonite/s writing, what it has been and is and might become, I am acutely aware of the gusto with which the chainsaw of narrative chews at reality. It would be possible to carve all sorts of stories out of this large and disparate body of material, and easy enough to tell several stories that would be simple, clear and untrue. At the other extreme, it would be easy to point toward what is now a large body of fine writing – l more like a climax forest or a tallgrass prairie than a Kansas wheatfield – and say “There it is, go at it.” In between is the path I must create and walk with you through this scenic, variegated landscape, pointing here and there and doing my best to hurry slowly, as Italo Calvino said we should. Immediately after reading this, if you’re willing, nothing would make me happier than to have you order, borrow or otherwise acquire every book I mention, read them all yourself and write me a long letter explaining everything I left out or got wrong. Better still, write an essay or a book.
I’m especially aware that in choosing quotes I’ve often yielded to the need to pick the snappiest, most political or overt passages, and the most “Mennonite” texts and moments, even from books whose pleasures and purposes are largely on other levels. I can only beg forgiveness from both you and from the authors.
6. Still. If I have a thesis, it is something like this: that the most vital, necessary work being done by Mennonite/s writing imagines its way into, through and beyond all our differences and borders and sectarian impulses. It desires unity rather than separation, turning toward rather than turning away – but unity based in acceptance and celebration of our human peculiarities and perplexities, not in conformity or in exclusion. Of course it pursues this dream in any number of ways; it is diverse in location and particular locus, utilizes many literary modes and strategies. But it does all this, one way or another, in pursuit of the peace that passes all understanding, even as it recognizes how tattered and broken this world is, how elusive our dreams of harmony and delight, how difficult the task of sustaining a church or a community or a single, solitary life.3
I offer this with the fear and trembling that should accompany all master narratives, especially those proposed by straight white guys. But we do what we can.
Some History, Somewhat Literary
When John Ruth gave the Menno Simons lectures in the late ’70s, he could find no examples of “serious” Mennonite writers beyond Rudy Wiebe and Warren Kliewer, but he did engage a number of issues that remain significant and addressed them astutely. He wished for more creative expressions of “the” Mennonite story, and listed 15 elements of this story that he believes should be told. His list includes community, discipleship and the peace tradition; his descriptions are largely triumphal rather than agonistic, though “the apparently inevitable Mennonite schismatic process” turns up at #12 (20).
As Ruth examines the Mennonite “distinctives,” he claims, as Mennonite traditionalists long have, that every one of them is in tension with the production of art. Still, he insists that art is worth doing, if done right, by which he means “creative balance between critique and advocacy,” not “facile affirmation” of “the tradition” (63, 62). We should write like Hawthorne and Melville, he says, not like Irving and Cooper. (Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson earn glancing mention, but every author and critic that he discusses in any detail is a white male.)
Ruth’s analysis has remained of durable interest; it is conservative but smart, though time has revealed how closely it is bound to an eastern Pennsylvania version of “the Mennonite story.” By 1978, civil rights and feminism were transforming American culture and (more slowly) the Mennonite church, too, bringing its legacy of racism and patriarchy into the open. The gay rights movement was slowly gaining momentum as well. But Ruth shows little interest in any of these issues; like many traditionalists, his sense of “the tradition” is rather tidy and linear, and its gaps and lacunae seem more obvious with time. Still, Ruth’s effort remains important for those of us who still care about the pursuit of truth and justice and beauty and God, not necessarily in that order. “Wrestling through” and with our received traditions remains crucial, even though the results of that wrestling may not be as he envisioned them.
For we have not been outside “the world,” ever, any more than we can draw neat lines between a world full of abominations and a community full of purity and peace. Good and evil are more unevenly distributed than that. The worldly structures of patriarchy, racism and sexism have been part of “the tradition,” along with all our blithe claims to purity, defenselessness, humility and community. And the more progressive elements of “the world” have been essential in prying open those realities.
We should also remember that for many, Mennonite identity is hardly the all-encompassing and unified thing that is implied by a term like “the tradition.” Even among North American Mennonites (and I have been unable to find much creative writing from the wider Menno realms) the variations are manifold, as we must all know. Much of the best recent Mennonite writing exists in a much more complex context than Ruth imagined, one where the concerns on his list are supplemented or supplanted by other pressing matters. We will turn to some examples soon.
When Al Reimer came to lecture at Bethel in the early 1990s, the major flowering of Canadian Mennonite writing was well under way. Reimer found many more Mennonite writers to celebrate and, in good MB fashion, was not at all shy about praising authors such as Patrick Friesen and Di Brandt. Much less interested in maintaining “the tradition” than Ruth, Reimer celebrates those writers “most disenchanted with the Mennonite world . . . who write to expose it, to reject it, who endeavor to write themselves out of their Mennonite experience” (2).4
Reimer asserts the “essential ambiguity of language itself” against the Anabaptist attempt to make of the Bible a document “in which doctrine and history were clearly and unambiguously rendered as the literal truth” (5). He focuses especially on the Winnipeg renaissance, which he participated in with his historical novel My Harp Is Turned to Mourning. Reimer also devotes a full lecture to an appreciation of female Mennonite writers, who by 1991 could hardly be ignored. Reimer knows his advocacy of “outsider-prophet” artists is not like Ruth’s call for “creative balance”; in the last lecture, he expresses his own sympathies boldly: “Our officially sanctioned history is largely one of self-righteousness and pharisaical self-congratulation. Only now are we beginning to question our triumphalist view of our own history and achievements and taking a more critical look at ourselves” (57).5
Reimer ends by raising a different but surely important issue: how much attention, and what kind of attention, are Mennonites actually paying to Mennonite writers?6 As Reimer notes, and as is still the case, often the only time mainline Mennonites seem to notice their writers is when they do something objectionable, or when they somehow manage to sell a lot of books to a general audience. I will return to this point.7
A great deal has happened since, and I can only nod briefly at some of these developments. The conversation about Mennonite/s writing has been carried on with increasing depth and complexity in the work of critics such as Hildi Froese Tiessen, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Magdalene Redekop, Ann Hostetler, Ervin Beck and many others.8 Forums for this conversation have included seven major Mennonite/s Writing conferences in Canada and across the United States, and journals such as Mennonite Quarterly Review, Mennonite Life, Conrad Grebel Review, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Rhubarb, the Center for Mennonite Studies Journal, etc. And of course novels, poems, stories, plays, memoirs and creative nonfiction with a Mennonite connection continue to be published in increasing numbers, all across the United States and Canada.
There is so much of this material now, both creative and critical, that I am pretty sure no single person has read it all. Mennonite/s writing has gone rhizomial, as Deleuze and Guattari recommended,9 and spread beyond the capacity of any one person to grasp fully. The conferences, academic and literary journals and networks of personal connections still matter, but there’s a lovely excess of writing and writers, some of whom show up in such places and others who keep their distance from these networks. There are so many vibrant, varied voices echoing through the halls and corridors of Mennonite/s writing these days that it’s impossible to do justice to them all even in a series of lectures like this one. Still, one must try.
In his keynote address at the Mennonite/s Writing conference at Fresno Pacific University in March 2015, critic Robert Zacharias acknowledged the difficulty of generalizing accurately about the burgeoning landscape of Mennonite/s writing, listing nearly two dozen recent and wildly various books, some obviously “Mennonite” and some much less so. Much of Zacharias’ discussion is self-consciously theoretical and “metacritical,” even as he makes a clear effort to engage with creative texts and authors.10 Indeed, much recent critical work about Mennonite writing operates at a fairly high level of abstraction, paying relatively little close attention to specific texts. This may be necessary in constructing large theories and theses, but here I will mainly avoid lofty theory in favor of a lower-level survey of recent texts and authors. There will be categories and classifications and claims, some of them (I hope) provocative if not controversial. But I have come to see Mennonite/s writing as a beautifully messy, sprawling realm of voices and visions, one that includes the pastoral hills of Lancaster County and the villages of Manitoba, to be sure, but also vibrant city streets, sad back rooms and shores and seas that exist only within the pages of books and the collective imaginations of writers and readers.
We Say “Peace,” But . . .
Here is another thesis, with thanks to the late John J. Fisher, whose essay bemoaning the recent lack of “Mennonite peace poetry” started me exploring along these lines, If there is a single thread running through Mennonite/s writing from Peace Shall Destroy Many to the present, it is indicated in Wiebe’s title: that peace is both essential and difficult, and that Mennonites have often been ill-served by a narrow understanding of “peace” as refusal to go to war, and failed painfully at the love for the neighbor and each other that Jesus said is our true calling.
Often this theme is not stated directly . . . but often it is, too. Especially, it emerges from the writing of those whose voices have been stifled or marginalized or excluded by Mennonite churches and larger entities: women, LGBTQ folks, free thinkers and rebels of other sorts. Di Brandt accurately characterizes this kind of work, noting that it “exists as transgression, a violation of the authority of God and the Bible and the father. It begins to give a voice to the children and women silenced by the tradition.” Beneath the “official story,” Brandt suggests, like “the stories underneath of our real, aching bodies in the world. . . . What the new Mennonite poetry does is to bring the story home, back to earth, where hurt is really hurt, and death is really death, and desire is really and truly desire” (Dancing Naked 34). By now we all know too much about authority figures who preach peace and love but practice and rationalize interpersonal abuse and violence.
Particularly for women, writing has become a way of claiming voice, power, authority. In her influential (and skeptical) essay about the martyr tradition, first published as part of a fascinating symposium in Mennonite Life, Stephanie Krehbiel argues against those Mennonites (often those who do in fact wield real power) who have sought to deny or evade that power with “defenseless” rhetoric: “I think it’s time to claim our power, to stop thinking of ourselves as ‘defenseless Christians’ when in fact our decisions impact this fragile planet as much as those of our neighbors. We are of the world, and the world can’t wait forever” (144).
More recently, Krehbiel has completed a dissertation critically examining the Mennonite church’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals, and argued vigorously in The Mennonite that the church must “make it safer for victims [of sexual violence] to name predators. But nothing causes political controversy quite like marginalized people demanding accountability for the way they have been treated. A church leadership that is studiously neutral and pathologically fearful of division is not equipped to confront the ramifications of predators made public.”
In this context, fiction and poetry may be useful, not as replacements for direct reporting that leads to justice, but as relatively safe ways of raising consciousness. And if “transgression” means not “breaking the sacred rules” but “refusing to remain silent about abuse and violence within the community,” its significance changes radically, does it not? More on all this soon.
Parenthesis: Why all this “anger”?
So, it is often asked, what’s up with all this energy, all this rebellion, all this anger against “the church” and leaders who are, surely, doing their best? Shouldn’t “these people” focus on the positive, not be so hostile and bitter, appreciate what they’ve got? It is surely no accident that most of this resistant writing comes from those whose voices and identities have been suppressed by dominant Mennonite culture, and the white men who have ruled it. Let’s look at some examples of what those guys have to say about art and writing.
First, consider this passage from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online’s 1955 article on Mennonite art signed by Nanne van der Zijpp, Dirk Kossen and Harold S. Bender:
“There are those . . . who doubt whether much great art can be produced in a group which has a strict standard of Christian morals and a strong sense of separation from the ‘world’ . . . . There are also those who hold . . . that the autonomy of art is a danger to a truly profound religious experience and that one or the other must be sacrificed.” (Zijpp)
The magisterial impersonality of this is impressive. Bender and his fellows felt, apparently, no need to name these doubters of art, though they seem obscurely authoritative. Still others, however, might point out that that most of the world’s great religious traditions have produced art – painting, music, literature – that has often been experienced by millions of people as “truly profound.” Think Raphael, Bach, Dante, Milton and Rumi, just for starters.
Here’s a slightly more out-of-the-way but even more radical statement from prominent Mennonite sociologist Calvin Redekop:
“A central dilemma of Mennonite society . . . is that self-conscious reflection – by way of the arts and through giving free and creative rein to the intellectual impulse – eats at the very heart of the sectarian commitment. The intellectual and aesthetic impulse, nurtured both in the process of handing on the tradition and in the process of maintaining and defining the boundaries of a society, tends, however, to question both. . . . the freedom of aesthetic and intellectual experience that is craved by many, if not most, Mennonites may well prove to sound the death knell for the Mennonite ethos and reality.” (126)
Redekop does flirt with the possibility (I am not making this up) that some Mennonite imaginative writing might be permissible, but only if it were “not given free rein, but must be tied to an ultimate foundation or faith . . . This situation is not unlike the status of the artist intellectual under Soviet communism” (121).
The only possible way of reading Redekop’s argument, it seems, is that he fears the Mennonite ethos (and/or its power structures) is so fragile, so full of flaws and internal contradictions, that it will collapse if looked at freely and squarely. If this were true – and I do not think it is – then the obvious question is, why should such an ethos be maintained anyway? Is Mennonite society indeed like the Soviet empire, dependent on repression and top-down control for its very survival? And if it is (and again, I don’t think this is entirely the case), will we side with the Party and the oligarchs, or with those who seek to throw off the oppressors?
Recently, another intriguing expression of conservative angst turned up in The Mennonite. Novelist and longtime Herald Press editor Levi Miller, waxing nostalgic for the patriarchy and the buggy, bemoans the “liberal litany” that has led to the (partial) demise of traditional markers and values: “prayer coverings and plain coats, restrictions against radios and TV, divorce and remarriage, women pastors and nonresistance to justice.” While plain Anabaptist groups are growing fast, Miller notes, the “liberal” Mennonite Church USA bickers and shrinks, and he assigns blame to what he calls “the liberal litany,” which “assumes tolerance and innovation as the greatest virtues of the Christian faith.” “Conservatives have the tradition as a bulwark against what comes labeled as innovation,” Miller informs us, but feckless liberals are at the mercy of whatever cultural innovations sweep over them – so when worldly aberrations such as same-sex marriage, rock music or women in ministry come along, they are haplessly carried along by the tide.
Not surprisingly, one of Miller’s key examples of the fine old ways has to do with women’s dress and sexuality:
“When the Ben Affleck character’s love interest in last year’s movie Gone Girl dresses up with a white, buttoned-up blouse (we’re supposed to think virtue and health), she is called a “****ing Mennonite.” Still, her conservative image is closer to the Anabaptist norm of fertility and future than would be her liberal number.”
Miller does not to want to give up his own car or his internet connection, but suggests he would like to see Mennonite women be . . . . well, what? More Amish? I will confess to being considerably perplexed by his essay, which seemed an odd blend of grumpy fatalism and what I have learned to call “mansplaining.”
But enough with the stuffy old white guys. I’m an old white guy myself, of course, but I want to go on record with the claim that we are not all like that. Note that I do not recommend that any young Mennonite women who may read this take the main female character of Gone Girl, who is quite terrifying, as your role model . . . in fact, if I have any advice for you, it’s that you not pay all that much attention to my advice. Better to listen to the many young Menno writers and thinkers of all stripes who are not to be defined by their fertility. One who offers a significant contrast to Bender, Redekop and Miller is Anita Hooley Yoder. Her recent essay “I’ve Read Too Much Poetry for That: Poetry, Personal Transformation, and Peace” traces and celebrates the way the poems of Mary Oliver, Rumi and Julia Spicher Kasdorf opened her mind.
“These poets converted me to the idea that to follow a fully peaceful path, to be someone who embraced the world with warm, welcome arms, I needed to reconsider (or simply consider) topics that received little helpful attention from my church tradition – topics related to the queer community, religions other than Christianity, and the complexity of my own religious heritage.” (455)
As Hooley Yoder demonstrates persuasively, the drive for justice, peace and equality that Miller dismisses as the “liberal litany” has much more substantial underpinnings than mushy tolerance and change for the sake of change. To encounter the voices and lives of “others” outside of and within the closed community, to listen intently to our neighbors near and far, is to recognize our shared humanity and that we have no monopoly on God or on truth. To encounter those who have dealt most deeply with the complexity of Mennonite communal life is to recognize that it must not be mystified or mythologized as some sort of Edenic garden.
“Many Long Dumb Voices . . .”
White males in the West have inhabited a privileged place for a long time, if (and this is not a small if) they were willing to maintain power structures and hierarchies of authority. Some, of course, have always resisted the official wisdom. And here I want to make a great leap to one of those resisters, leaving the sectarian Mennonite world with its long insistence on boundary maintenance and the importance of good fences, and visiting the great American poet Walt Whitman, who demanded that we “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” Section 24 of “Song of Myself” continues in this radically inclusive vein:
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
[ . . . ]
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
[ . . . ]
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.
I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
The ecstatic, exuberant, arrogant, pansexual Whitman may seem a strange companion for a farm boy like me who once wrote a whole essay praising the Mennonite virtue of humility. But in his insistence that all the voices of the human community must be heard, Whitman speaks for many Mennonite/s writing, who insist, above all, that their voices be no longer silenced, their bodies no longer shunned, their spirits no longer forced to cower or to flee from the perils of the closed communion and the repressive community.
Yes, “healing and hope” is part of the recent Mennonite mantra, and a brave and worthy one it is, especially if we can truly practice it.
Sex, Gender, Patriarchy, Abuse and All the Rest of That
Several more theses, then, in rapid order: such healing requires the recognition that much Mennonite experience has been under-represented and many Mennonite voices have been silenced. And it requires listening to those voices. Much of the most important recent Mennonite writing comes from pain, from desire, from the effort to bridge the gap between vision and reality, between ideology and experience. Ultimately, even the darkest of these texts – and some are quite dark – is a gesture of hope, a claim that language may somehow bring us closer together, may begin to make healing possible.
The recent renewal of attention to John Howard Yoder’s sexual misdeeds, and further revelations of just how bad they were, should remind us how common it is for “great men” to fail to notice, or attempt to rationalize, the disjunctions between their ideologies and their behavior, especially toward women. Among others, Mennonite poets and writers have been crying out against abusive behavior for some time. I will never forget hearing Di Brandt, her voice trembling and low, read her poem “nonresistance, or love Mennonite style” at the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Winnipeg in 1990. It ends with these lines:
you understand how love is like
a knife & a daughter is not a son & the
only way you will be saved is by
submitting quietly in your grandfather’s
house your flesh smouldering in the
darkened room as you love your enemy
deeply unwillingly & full of shame (Agnes 39)
Brandt recognizes here that the Mennonite ideology of nonresistance and submission can and has provided cover for terrible wrongs. Julia Spicher Kasdorf addresses this issue as well, especially in the essay “Writing Like a Mennonite.”.
“When the man was done, I would let his wood-framed cellar door slam shut and walk home through the backyards, thinking, ‘Well, that was not so bad. It was only my body.’ I think that the martyr stories taught me that wonderful splintering trick: it is only the body.” (The Body and the Book 170)
“Writing is a process by which suppressed feelings come to consciousness,” Kasdorf writes later in the essay. “The wound becomes a mouth that finally speaks its testimony, thereby transforming a mute, confused victim into a subject with a clear vision of her experience and a literate voice” (The Body and the Book 177). Such writing, Kasdorf suggests, includes the “testimony” element of the martyrs, but rather than ending in death it enables a kind of birth, or at least a transformation from mute victim into empowered speaker.
Another angle on the problem of expression as a gendered one comes from Sandra Birdsell’s novel The Russländer:
“All right, then. She would come to need personal care, and to live among other survivors of that time in Russia, women mostly, who had stories to tell, but no words to tell them. Just as their recipes had lacked concise instructions and measures, their Plautdietsch language lacked the necessary words to give shape to the colours, describe the nuances, the interior shadows of their stories. Perhaps they would have been better off trying to sing them . . .” (170)
Birdsell makes the experience of Mennonite women in the Ukrainian crisis and its aftermath the focal point of The Russländer. Some are raped, some victimized in other ways, all traumatized by their experiences, yet they are often quite resilient as well; the narrative rejects easy categories and sensationalism for the kind of subtle, patient characterization displayed in the passage above.11
In their varied ways, all of these writers insist that attention must be paid, not only to creeds and doctrines, but to the lived experience of human beings within and without churchly structures and institutions. In a recent essay, theologian Scott Holland suggests that this impulse can be traced back to Emerson. Holland suggests that 19th--century pastor and abolitionist Moncure Conway “learned [from Emerson] the difference between what Emerson calls the bookworm and the active soul. The bookworm lives his life in a sacred or scholarly text, whereas the active soul, attentive to both the body and the book, sees that ‘in every great work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts coming back to us with a certain alienated majesty.’” (505)
I suspect that Holland, a close friend of Julia Kasdorf, had her in mind when he mentions “the body and the book” here. Kasdorf’s essay collection, and much recent Mennonite writing, create spaces for human encounters of intense and particular kinds, encounters that blur the line between testimony and scholarship, fiction and memoir, argument and confession. These texts may argue, but they are just as likely to tell stories, to reflect in ways that invite rather than demand assent, or to foreground their own conflicts and perplexities. They may make use of inherited modes of discourse and of being, or question them more or less gently, or rebel more or less completely against the ways that things have been done. Some define the world in ways we must either accept or reject; others allow – or create – gentler and less dualistic encounters with the people and scenes that dwell within them.
I have no interest in prescribing one right way to construct a text; as my sometime hero John Caputo once suggested, the idea of one true poem and of one true religion both make about equal sense. I am interested in claiming that we need to keep nosing around, discovering all that we can, listening to each other and the voices within and without us, seeking to make new beautiful things out of words.
As I wrote this, I thought of Thoreau, and the mysterious end of the central chapter of Walden he called “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”:
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. . . . My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”
There is a beautiful open uncertainty here, a determination to explore and an awareness of how much remains unknown, secret, hidden in the sky and the hills. Revelation is ongoing, Thoreau believed, as did Emerson and Whitman; God is not done with us yet, and there is more day to dawn.
Let me end this first lecture with a poem. I wrote this on Kelleys Island in Lake Erie, under the spell of a dizzying book of essays titled A God in the House, in which contemporary poets write about religion and things of the spirit. I had just read a somewhat brusque essay by G.C. Waldrep, who has pulled off the rather astonishing trick of both converting to plain Anabaptism and becoming a significant American poet after getting a conventional Ph.D. in history. G.C. excoriates the “acculturated Mennonites” he knows as “vacuous,” given to “postures” and living fractured lives, now as consumers, now as workers, now as churchgoers or occasional activists (186, 195). God is “not a butler to the soul,” he insists, and requires a deeper commitment of us. Fair enough, I thought . . . and then I went for a walk, and this poem came into being – not exactly in disagreement, but in conversation.
The wood smoke smells so good it’s like a meal.
The beach open and empty, a few gulls bobbing,
one fisherman. Wavelets ripple in with their small news:
the world still awash with inscrutable information.
Half-heard voices from under the rainfly, three young men
at ease between breakfast and lunch, clink of the campstove,
Yeah, good idea. Ow, Lord! Scuffed tracks in the sand.
Horsefly shares the bench with me, just a moment.
A. said she wrote about goddesses for years, and never
even noticed. Really, she says, I recognized myself
just last Saturday for the first time. The alphabet
took us into the rigid plain of our left brains,
like a thousand-acre cornfield, and we’ve been
stuck in the flats among the monochromes and
right angles, people of the line and the book.
The world has only one page. It is not best read
left to right, top to bottom. It has many seams and edges,
places where secrets and treasures may be found if one
walks slowly, alone or with a lover or your dogs
whose names are Norman and Under. We all make
something out of nothing, said G.C., a true believer.
Unlike him I’m full of earnest doubt, and sure I can
make nothing except out of something, especially
when I cannot say just what that something is.
Part Two: Villages, Cities and the So-Called Real World
One way of telling the story of Mennonite/s writing is as an “assimilation” story. Young Mennos, as this one goes, grow up in the benign safety of the farm and/or the village, but are lured away by the bright lights and many temptations of the city and the university, where they fall under the sway of dangerous, worldly ideas, start to drink beer, read dangerous books, have all sorts of unsanctioned sex and fall away from the simple true faith of the fathers, or Fathers.
Like most inadequate stories, this one isn’t entirely false. It’s true that for most Mennonite writers, entering the community of practicing writers creates at least some distance from the “pure” Mennonite tribe. (But it’s increasingly true that younger Mennonite writers are at least one, if not two or three, generations removed from the farm and the village.) They go to the city, to the university, and discover that life there is complicated and sometimes difficult or terrifying, but that the people there are not uniformly evil but in fact bear the spark of divinity and the capacity for disaster within them in very much the same proportions as those back in the village. Di Brandt made this condition the title of a fascinating book of essays: “so this is the world and here I am in it.”
But in the world, you inevitably find yourself among strangers. You don’t have to give up “being Mennonite” to join another community, or several, as well. But which one(s)? Maybe a larger fellowship of Protestants, or evangelicals, or Catholics, or some sub-group of the diverse set who call themselves Christians. Indeed, many conservative Mennonites, including many of those who complain the loudest about the “acculturation” of their progressive kinfolk, have been deeply influenced by American evangelicalism, the Religious Right and Fox News.
But maybe instead you find yourself in a setting where people of many backgrounds and cultures and sexual preferences rub shoulders in a reasonably livable way, a place where boundary maintenance seems less important than figuring out how to get along. You work and live among more diverse people, and discover, not surprisingly, that they are sometimes wonderful, sometimes difficult, sometimes dangerous. If you read a lot, if you aspire to write, you discover whole ranges of techniques, skills, antecedents and possibilities for making art, and all sorts of wondrous and astonishing, shocking and beautiful voices that have come before, of every imaginable variety. You discover that while the Bible and the Martyrs Mirror are great books, even irreplaceable books, there are good reasons to think that God’s work in the world might be found elsewhere as well. As your personal canon expands, it becomes less and less possible to return to the old, simple days.
Yes, a person can live without all those books, all those voices, as a person can live on bread and water, as a person can live and die in a single place, even a single room. Did God give us this broad world in hopes that we would turn our backs from it? The quasi-monastic argument for poverty and simplicity has its appeal. Even my sometime hero Thoreau loved to sermonize about simplicity. But he lived a very complicated simple life, full of the particulars of his beloved New England woods and the heterogeneous ideas he gathered from his wide, wide reading.
So the crucial question is no longer (if it ever was) whether Mennonite/s writing will include “the world,” but what versions and aspects of the world this work will engage, and how. And so much of what I will discuss in this lecture (the emergence of women’s voices, of LGBTQ voices, of non-realistic modes of writing, of theopoetics) is nearly or entirely invisible in John Ruth’s list of Mennonite themes and issues. It’s not because the struggle to be a responsible human being and perhaps even a Christian within the particular Mennonite complex of themes, pressures, memories and edicts does not continue. But the most vital and energetic recent Mennonite/s writing, it seems to me, comes from points of view and voices that have barely registered on those who live too comfortably within the heart of “the community.” And it follows that people like me, a straight male with tenure, a comfortable small-town life and a substantial retirement account, have a lot to learn from those whose life-worlds are quite different.
Hildi Froese Tiessen was right to deconstruct “the binary” of a simple opposition between those within and without some singular Mennonite community. Even so, we do all exist within particular social locations that matter to our lives and the writing that we produce. To choose extreme examples, we would hardly expect the same memoir from a former Mennonite college president, comfortably retired and firmly ensconced in the Menno hierarchy, or from a transgender individual whose home community has neither respect nor understanding for those in such a situation, and who cannot even imagine being hired by a Mennonite institution.
I don’t want to suggest that social location is entirely determinative. Much more is at work in what emerges from any particular writer, in the forms and themes and risks that he or she takes. My own conviction is that in one way or another, every real writer is always out on some edge. It may be speaking terrible truths, or doubting the most sacred doctrines, or the less dramatic but no less intense struggle to bend and maneuver language into some worthy gesture toward the most complicated thoughts and feelings. It is also my conviction that if it’s fully real, uncompromising writing that we are chasing, the claim that somehow doctrines and definitions can come first, can rule all else, is unlikely to last long, despite one’s best intentions,.
With this as preface, I will next trace several categories of current Mennonite/s writing. They are imprecise and overlapping, but they will provide some structure for my primary goal, which is to present and to invite you to experience some of the best work that is being done.
Best Sellers (and Some Other Women)
There are so many important Mennonite writers who happen to be women, many of whom I have already mentioned and others to come, that it would be absurd to ghettoize them as “women writers.” In poetry, fiction and memoir, women have produced much of the most significant Mennonite/s writing – and were we to add in genres such as the Amish romance, it would be even more so. As I have already suggested, a good deal but by no means all of this writing is driven by a sense of injustice and oppression. Yet often, I suspect, the first impulse is simply the desire to give voice and shape to experience – the impulse that drives all writers – although the results are notably and rightly varied. Still, I will single out a few significant and perhaps representative women here.
Let me begin with the two most visible Mennonite writers to emerge in the last decade. Miriam Toews and Rhoda Janzen are hardly twins, but both have sold a great many books, both create strong, often funny, intense female characters and voices and both depict Mennonites in ways that range from horrifying to darkly comic to caricature. While both maintain some contact with Mennonites, both have found their artistic identity at a considerable distance from the village – a distance, safe or not, from which they can turn back to tell their stories.
I cannot do justice here to the tonal and thematic riches of Miriam Toews’ novels, especially the explicitly “Mennonite” A Complicated Kindness, Irma Voth and All My Puny Sorrows. (Her memoir Swing Low, written in the voice of her beloved father, whose depression eventually ended in suicide, also demands at least a mention here.) One main signature of Toews’ novels is central female characters who are witty, resilient, capable and placed in nearly impossible situations. Nomi in Complicated Kindness, only 15 when the novel begins, is stuck in a Mennonite village in southern Manitoba (clearly modeled on the real-life Steinbach). Her mother and sister have vanished, her father is severely depressed and the Mennonites who run things are harsh and dogmatic:
“We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager . . . A Mennonite telephone survey might consist of questions like, would you prefer to live or die a cruel death, and if you answer ‘live’ the Menno doing the survey hangs up on you.” [ . . . ]
“Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock ‘n’ roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewelry, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.” (5)
What do you do with suffering that’s not just the usual struggles of life, but deepened and worsened by patriarchs and preachers (the categories overlap considerably in her books)? Toews asks this question over and over, in a variety of ways. Some of her harshest and most telling invective is reserved for preachers of the sort who wounded Yolandi (the narrator of All My Puny Sorrows) and her gifted but suicidal sister deeply as a child:
“Mennonite men in church with tight collars and bulging necks accusing me of preposterous acts and damning me to some underground fire when I hadn’t done a thing. . . . You can’t flagrantly march around the fronts of churches waving your arms in the air and scaring people with threats and accusations just because your family was slaughtered in Russia and you were forced to run and hide in a pile of manure when you were little. . . . You can’t go around terrorizing people and making them feel small and shitty and then call them evil when they destroy themselves. You will never walk down a street and feel a lightness come over you. You will never fly.” (178)
Yolandi’s sense of her place in the world, and the blame she puts on particular men and patriarchal power structures, would seem “hysterical” if it didn’t reflect so accurately the lives of millions of women, Menno and not. Again, Yoli’s invective is brilliantly, darkly comic:
“Sheila’s family and my family are part of the Poor Cousin contingent. We have Rich Cousins who are extremely rich because they are the sons of the sons (our uncles, all dead) who inherited the lucrative family business from our grandfather . . . . In the Menno cosmology that’s how it goes down. The sons inherit the wealth and pass it on to their sons and to their sons and to their sons and the daughters get sweet fuck all. We Poor Cousins don’t care at all though, except for when we’re on welfare, broke, starving, unable to buy cool high-tops for our children or pay for their university tuition or purchase massive fourth homes on private islands with helicopter landing pads. But whatever, we descendants of the Girl Line may not have wealth and proper windows in our drafty homes but at least we have rage and we will build empires with that, gentlemen.” (224)
Yes, it’s no wonder that writing like this makes some people nervous. Maybe it should make me nervous, as one who’s not a Poor Cousin, if not quite a Rich one either. But really I just want to pump my fist and say “right on, sister.”
Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress successfully inhabits (I considered but rejected the word “exploits”) the genre of the “recovery” memoir. (I am also resisting the term “chick lit.”) Abandoned by her husband for a man, Janzen’s hip-but-wounded narrator retreats home to Fresno, where she finds support, cracks jokes and makes (gentle) fun of her Mennonite family as she gets her groove back:
“My father, once the head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States, is the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf. In the complex moral universe that is Mennonite adulthood, a Mennonite can be good-looking and still have no sartorial taste whatsoever. My father may actually be unaware that he is good-looking. He is a theologian who believes in a loving God, a servant heart, and a senior discount.” (2)
The book’s many readers have come mostly from outside Mennonite circles, drawn by the wit, frankness and genuine feeling of Janzen’s narrative. Only a relative few, even among Mennonites, have been put off by the breezy looseness of passages like this one, which conflates the Mennonite Brethren with all North American Mennonites. Only a relative few know that if there ever was a Mennonite pope, it was certainly Harold S. Bender, not anyone named Janzen.
A younger writer who also deserves mention is Carrie Snyder. Her semi-autobiographical The Juliet Stories traces the life of a girl whose family spends several years in central America with a peace group modeled after Witness for Peace, here called “Roots of Justice.” This life is less disastrous than Katya’s in The Russländer, but still complicated:
“It seems to her that she lives in an unknowable world, on this side of a great divide; on the other side are the grown-ups, who know everything, who hold the answers to the gigantic questions that plague her: How do you know you’re in love? How can you be sure about God? What if you’re wrong? But she doesn’t really want to cross that divide. She doesn’t really want to know, for sure, that they don’t know either. Someone needs to know. Someone needs to be sure.” (133)
Her idealistic but frazzled parents squabble, struggle and finally divorce as they try to navigate the complex, sometimes violent, politics of Central America and keep the family together. Her brother gets cancer, creating further tensions and challenges and as Juliet grows up, Snyder skillfully traces the complicated path she must thread toward some kind of relatively settled adulthood.
I will end this section with Becca J. R. Lachman, a young poet whose first book, The Apple Speaks, finds a fine if precarious balance among the Plain tradition of eastern Ohio, the missionary activism of current progressive Mennonites and the literary world. In one wry poem, the confessional poets Plath, Sexton and Lowell show up at a carry-in dinner; another is titled “Reading Plath at a National Mennonite Convention.” Lachman dwells among these relations and influences with an uneasy grace, visible in the title poem:
I did not ask
for this garden. It’s all rushed green
and waiting for a man who won’t
be here to see its full bearing.
He’s left me for God.
He brought it in truckloads
of dirt, chose what would be planted. Now
I flick off small beetles. Ripening,
my waiting, a fat green tomato he’ll never
salt. What I love most: those called
to far-off places. . . . (88)
Memoir is hot these days, hot enough that those of us who find our own life stories lacking the stuff of salable, salacious autobiography may feel vaguely guilty, if not perversely jealous, about that fact. Years ago, I was talking with a group of Mennonite academics about the closest I’ve come to writing memoir, the family history A Community of Memory: My Days with George and Clara. I read a passage in which I imagined my great-grandfather George as a young man, yearning for his beloved Clara but keeping his fleshly desires in check, partly out of fear of her pastor father. One of those present, of excellent Swiss stock, asked whether this passage didn’t represent the difference between the Swiss Mennonites and the Russians – that “we Swiss” knew how to keep our desires in check, unlike those unruly Russians.
I suppressed the urge to burst out laughing, refrained from listing the misdeeds I knew personally that good Swiss Mennos had committed and, with what I hoped was Swiss humility, responded that I thought it would be a terrible mistake to take my book as an argument for ethnic Swiss superiority. Still, the stereotype of the calm, orderly Swiss and the wild Russians persists. I did write Community of Memory partly to tell a story different than the one emerging from the Manitoba villages. When I set out to learn about my father’s family, I found colorful characters, conflicts and miseries, but little in the way of scandal or high drama.
A lot of Mennonite/s writing is memoir, though, some of it really good, but much of it in rather stark contrast to the dramatic tales of Miriam Toews and Rhoda Janzen, both from the Russian stream. I will look next at three recent memoirs from high-profile Swiss Mennonites – Lee Snyder, John Ruth and Shirley Showalter. All three are relatively mild and more nostalgic than agonistic but then, all three authors have had successful careers in academia and the church. Yes, they play out the usual developmental dramas: Will the brave young one find his/her way from humble beginnings to adult success? Will the church obstruct or aid? Even so, the tension is generally moderate and the resolution positive.
Shirley Showalter’s Blush, which focuses on her younger years, presents her youthful self as ambitious, but still eager to please her parents and community. She is stunned when her mother tells her that “last week at church Daddy noticed someone who looked proud” and then whispers, “That person was you.” But Showalter finds her struggles with the church easing into acceptance.
“I was visible to these people, all the way to my soul,” Showalter writes, “and through them, I could see myself visible to God.” Showalter embraces this transparency and finds “the times when we feel smallest, in the presence of grace and mystery, that’s when our souls expand. Instead of becoming big in the way the ego drove us initially, we submit to a loving God and become large beyond measure. Our acceptance of finitude sweeps us into infinity.”
So despite her resistance to being seen as too “plain” at school, “like my father and mother before me, when the right preacher preached and the pain of resisting became greater than the freedom of letting go, I said yes.”
One comic high point of Lee Snyder’s lucid, deeply reflective and under-appreciated At Powerline and Diamond Hill is her account of taking a phone call asking her to consider the presidency of Bluffton (then) College while folding laundry. More dramatic, however, is her revelation of childhood abuse at the hands of a neighbor and of the much-later encounter with a mysterious man in dark library stacks that leads toward healing:
“I had faced the man who had wronged me. The years of childhood sleeplessness, sifting through guilt and unbearable aloneness, suddenly yielded to a sense that the past was now redeemed. . . . Confiding in my husband-to-be took me a great way through the healing process and, for the most part, I could put the secret wound behind me. Sometimes I convince myself that the childhood episode gave me a strength I would not otherwise have possessed.” (100)
John Ruth’s “memoir with pictures” Branch, a series of quite brief entries each accompanied by a photograph, is perhaps the most nostalgic of these three books, as it traces a long and successful career of church leadership and authorship in eastern Pennsylvania. When Ruth confesses that as a college student he was once thrown out of the library by the librarian for talking too loudly to his girlfriend, the admission is quickly followed by his imaging, years later, the librarian feeling “only a kind of thankful relief to find several dozen titles with my name on her shelves.” (118)
Ruth tells another fascinating story – how he quickly managed to borrow $2,000 from an uncle in 1950 to buy a new car. (An accompanying photo shows the dapper young minister-to-be, foot propped on the shiny bumper of his new Studebaker, grinning confidently for the camera.) The salesman comments that “not many people your age could do something like this,” and Ruth observes, “The norm of interwoven family and church that I was taking for granted had already molded my mentality” (126). A skeptical reader might single out “taking for granted” as the crucial phrase here; this lifelong servant of the church rarely seems to notice when his way is smoothed by a community that was ready to go the second mile to help its most favored sons. But enough of that for now.
In what space remains, I will navigate away from the realms of the conventional and the comfortable into various strange seas of thought and writing. I will begin with some Mennonite writers, especially poets, who are working in the realm of theopoetics, exploring theological issues and ideas through poetic and literary techniques. (See my Songs from an Empty Cage for much more on this blossoming field.)
Jean Janzen’s new book What the Body Knows is a continuation of her long career’s subtle, gracefully rigorous, lyrical explorations of the bodily, worldly and human experience of the divine. Among its other gifts, it provides a gentle reassertion of embodied faith for those (like me) who live so much in our heads. The book ends with the title poem, and this emphatic claim:
Each word unfurls the promise,
like Gabriel kneeling. The body
knows that wings, like waves,
can break through walls and enter,
that the secret of the story
is love, that even as we sleep,
its tides carry us in a wild safety. (79)
This may not be especially “Mennonite” in any way that I can see.12 But it’s deeply Christian, deeply biblical – and deeply beautiful as well. Indeed, surely, the secret of the story is love, and the fresh and vital imagery Janzen finds for the core Christian beliefs is one of her great gifts to her readers.
My good friend and illustrious Bethel alumnus Keith Ratzlaff also engages deeply and inventively with religious issues and questions – a somewhat remarkable move from a poet who has never joined the Mennonite church but surely still belongs among “Mennonite/s writing.” In his book Dubious Angels, written in conversation with Paul Klee’s late angel drawings (many of them reproduced to accompany the text), Ratzlaff becomes a fabulist of his own sort, crafting wild and beautiful tales. In “Angelus Militans,” for example, an angel with an arrow sparks a meditation on the lure of violence, at once playful and deeply serious as the metaphors escalate: “We will be/arrows but lighter than arrows – /the teeth of dogs,/the corners of tables, the taper/of javelins, the memories of tusks,/the shadow of jets/and the buildings they fly into.” The poem ends ominously: “And then/there will be arrows./Everyone’s. And then we shall see” (22).
Frightening and exacting as this is, it is balanced wonderfully by the gentler vision of poems such as “Crying Angel,” with its extended and precise questions and claims.
How did we ever come to think
the single world was precious,
the model for us to love –
one town, one house, one sky,
one woman, the mole on her back –
when it is the universe, its gaps,
the mileage between its outposts,
God loves and is his image? (35)
This is no weak, defensive “God of the gaps” theologizing, but Ratzlaff at his most Rilkean, extravagant and precise at once, formulating these beautifully exploratory – and perhaps even revelatory – questions.
As the title of Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s Poetry in America suggests, its main dynamic is the tension between the wars, violence and assorted disasters of contemporary America and the life-giving, restorative powers that she associates with poetry, but also with women and with a certain sensibility, sometimes but not always religious. Written largely during the Iraq War, when Kasdorf’s child was young and her marriage was ending, the book contains relatively few explicit Mennonite markers; its concerns seem both larger (in terms of American foreign policy and its effects) and more particular and personal than the sort of sectarian story-telling John Ruth imagined.
A great deal of current Mennonite/s writing inhabits similar spaces, especially when its authors do not live among large numbers of Mennonites and are not deeply invested in traditionalist issues such as dress codes and technological restrictions. Thus Poetry in America begins with “Double the Digits,” a poem about driving recklessly on curving Pennsylvania roads as a teenager that contains remarkably little maternal moralizing – and a good deal of precisely calibrated nostalgia – for such dangerous exploits: “And now, I can barely stay in the lines/so I keep going back, as if those times,/half a life ago, could explain why some women/get driven by a dumb desire for flight” (4).
At the other end of the book (I’m overlooking much, including the essential “Bat Boy, Break a Leg”) is “Hens and Chicks,” which ends with this advice for Kasdorf’s daughter: “Under a roof with someone who loves you/is your home, I try to tell her, though/you will always long for what’s not there” (76).
What we learn from reading Kasdorf, I might suggest, is that motherhood and martyrdom and militarism are not, really, separate issues, and that even though Kasdorf has long worshipped with the Episcopalians, her sensibility, and her drive toward a vision of a unified community and a beloved home, is deeply Anabaptist – while her awareness of the elusiveness of such community is deeply feminist, personal, mournful but not without grace. Her writing, like that of her Canadian counterpart Di Brandt and many other Mennonite/s writing, has more and more often looked beyond the small realms of Mennonite communal life and “the tradition.” There is only one world, these writers seem to insist, and we are all of us in it.
And now I must immediately say “except . . .,” for I will turn next to work that looks even more broadly beyond what we armchair cynics used to call the “so-called real world.”
Innovative Forms: Mennonite/s writing speculative fiction, magic realism, surrealism . . .
In the good old days (I’m being hasty here, forgive me), Mennonites, at least the good ones, understood that the best stories were true and that fiction was therefore suspect, but might be acceptable if it taught a clear moral lesson or (even better) if it were based on a true story. Personally, I might trace my own fall from purity to my youthful discovery of high fantasy and space opera, with their blissful assumption that many lives were possible and that the sense of wonder could be activated in all sorts of ways. What if. If only. If this goes on.13
The emergence of various forms of non-realistic Mennonite fiction in recent years is one of the most striking and (to me) welcome developments. I won’t attempt a careful categorization of these texts, but I do want to examine a number of them here. Although two of the most interesting of these authors, Sofia Samatar and Keith Miller, are married to each other, to my knowledge they aren’t closely associated with the others, nor are the others some kind of cabal, or even very similar as writers, except for working in what are today the fertile fields of fantasy, speculative fiction, magic realism, etc. (To look more closely and deeply at what each one is doing would be a good project for someone . . .)
Here’s the brilliant opening of The Book on Fire, Keith Miller’s second novel:
“Call me Balthazar. Call me silverfish, sweet dreams, the end of the rainbow. Call me dust devil, night owl, will-o-the-wisp. Call me the man in the moon. But call me Balthazar, and place a book in my hands. And what book is that, the book I reach for? Ah, that is why you are reading, of course, that is why I am here, in my thin-soled shoes and soiled leather jacket, a knife in my belt and a coin in my pocket, a wink and a grin at the ready, to lead you toward that book. And to lead myself toward that book, because this is a journey we will take together. You can almost see it, the book of our desires, its green morocco binding tooled in gold, the five raised bands on its spine, the uncut pages like sealed lips waiting to be slit with a dagger, the dagger you use to peel your oranges, slay your enemies. (Because this book is also fruit, is also demon.) Or perhaps it’s a soiled paperback lacking a cover, half the pages dyed in blood and wine, every corner creased, the margins filthy with fingerprints, shopping lists, scraps of verse.
“If you approach Alexandria from the sea, the library is hidden . . .” (7)
In beautifully articulated prose, this opening sets up many possibilities and expectations as it addresses us and calls us to a journey. The echo of Moby-Dick and “Call me Ishmael” can hardly be chance, but the other details make clear that this will not be a nautical tale. The language is exotic, extravagant, the references archaic. We are bound for Alexandria in the time of the great library and “the book of our desires” is the object . . .
Texts like this activate our desire for mystery, for adventure, for secrets hinted at, withheld and then at last revealed. Readers who believe they already know everything they need to know about the world and themselves – that truth has been revealed already and is neatly contained in one or two books, in a creed or confession or in particular communal practices – are not likely to be interested. Texts like this are exactly the sort that some Mennonite communities warned against, full of dangerously seductive tales of adventure, violence, sex, all the rest . . . and for those of us for whom the world remains an unsolved mystery, for those of us still hungry for evidence that revelation is ongoing and that God has more to say, for those who believe that language and imagination are among the gifts we have been given, books like this are to be savored, pondered, read and re-read.
The Book on Fire takes place in a world that seems at least connected to our own, with recognizable place names and historic events as background for the foregrounded narrative. Miller’s earlier The Book of Flying, which I also recommend, is set on an entirely other world. So is Sofia Samatar’s recent A Stranger in Olondria, which takes place on a planet populated by humans similar but not identical to us, in a culture whose technology is roughly equivalent to Europe in the Middle Ages. Her protagonist, a young trader named Jevick, finds himself in the midst of a political and religious conflict between two factions: one makes much of books and literacy, while the other maintains belief in angels and supernatural forces.
Like The Book on Fire, books and reading play a crucial role in A Stranger in Olondria. This seems deeply Anabaptist in one sense – we are “people of the book,” yes? – and innovative if not subversive on the other, for these texts guide us toward books, stories and reading practices far beyond the familiar biblical and communal ones. As the story unfolds, we learn that Jevick is a lover of books, one who becomes haunted by the ghost of a girl from his home country. I cannot pause to trace the complications that ensue, but the novel subverts many tropes of the fantasy epic: there is no redemptive violence here, and no predicable romance, though there is some violence, along with plenty of intrigue, love and heartbreak. In lyrical and inventive prose, Samatar creates characters and landscapes both exotic and believable, embedding narratives and poems that create a rich sense of this invented world. Near the end of the book, Jevick becomes a teacher, and describes the journeys he takes with his students through their shared reading:
“Perhaps, one day, Tyom will become the last refuge of books. I do not know. I read. I take the children of Tyom hunting with Findred, spearing boar in showy Olondrian forests. Together we enter the dark-shuttered castle of Beal. And Fodra takes us to Bain, to the white walls overlooking the sea, the eternal flavor of olives. Then I look up: the light has changed, the children are restless with hunger, we have all lost another afternoon of our lives, gaining nothing but an enigmatic glow: for the cup I lift now is not merely a cup but carries on its glazed surface the shadows of sails.” (298)
Books like Olondria demonstrate, crucially, that the way things are now is less inevitable than it might seem. As that other great speculative writer Ursula LeGuin reminded us in a recent address, books are more than commodities: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.”
Other worlds, other lives, other ways of being are both possible and (in time, and in the mind) inevitable. Like “the tradition,” the present and the future are full of peril and possibility, and must be named and imagined with all the care and precision we can muster.
Jessica Penner’s Shaken in the Water combines elements of traditional Mennonite fiction – a conservative, tight-knit church community, this time set in Kansas – with some intriguing innovations. As she recognizes in an afterword, “the Ulysses [Kansas] and its particular breed of Mennonites in this novel exist on no map except that of the imagination” (376). They wear head coverings, practice shunning and choose ministers by lot, though the Russian Mennonites who settled the region in the 1870s did none of these.
But these relatively trivial departures from historical reality are not Penner’s boldest moves. The central characters of Agnes and her daughter Huldah hear spectral voices and a supernatural speaking tiger lives in Huldah’s back yard after she is shunned for refusing to pin up her hair and wear the covering. The voice (Voice, in the book) of the tiger serves as counselor and guide to several generations of the family, explaining at one point that she is there because God “doesn’t see you, or me, or anyone in the singular. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. He just doesn’t see.” (64). “That’s why I’m with Huldah,” the Voice says. “That’s why I was with your momma long ago. . . . Some people need a little more attention – attention God can’t spare.” (65)
Yes, as we know, both Matthew 10 and the song tell us His eye is on the sparrow, despite considerable evidence that God is reluctant to act reliably to make things work out the way we’d like. But the unorthodox move into magical realism gives Penner the imaginative space to create a family saga of considerable depth and power, with unexpected glimmers of compassion for even the most unsympathetic characters.
This text, and the others I have been reading, seem to be teaching me that the borders between “the community” and “the world,” between “tradition” and “innovation,” between hope and disaster, faithfulness and rebellion, peace and violence, justice and oppression, are more permeable than I once thought. These writers engage all these issues and more, even as they also endeavor to make things out of words that both delight and instruct.
Consider also this, from the very young Emily Hedrick’s first book, the allegorical True Confessions of a God Killer. Her likewise young narrator has a vision of God (“a slight being of white, hands chained together”) standing behind the “Man of God” as the latter preaches:
“But to my utter horror, I discovered that the coughing had nothing to do with God being sick and everything to do with God being strangled! Every time the Man of God paused in his speaking, I watched God try to address the group, but the Man of God grabbed him at the throat, suffocating him in an effort to keep him silent while the chains around God’s hands kept him from being able to fight.” (30)
This distinction between God and the human beings who claim the right to speak in God’s name is crucial to Mennonite/s writing. There is plenty of doubting about God, but much more doubt about the individuals and institutions that claim to be the church, to hold the truth, and to speak for God. As her fascinating allegory unfolds, it makes clear that Hedrick is on the side of those who believe each of us must seek God afresh, not without allies and community, but not in unreflective obedience to all those who claim to know God’s ways.
For a truly disorienting experience, one should read Shirley Showalter’s Blush and Corey Redekop’s Husk in the same day, in the same afternoon if possible. Redekop’s novel is almost certainly the first novel featuring a gay ex-Mennonite, scratching out a living as an unsuccessful actor, who becomes a zombie and, eventually, sort of saves the world. I found Husk transgressive in a predictably satirical, almost precious way in its first third, but it becomes steadily more compelling, intriguing and thought-provoking, even though much of the action it describes not only strains credibility but is repellent, even disgusting, even for one who prides himself on being pretty hard to shock. This book is about as far from “edifying,” and from Showalter’s mild and earnest tone, as one can get.
Still, Redekop includes some passages of surprising sensitivity, though even those are filled with dark comedy. Here his un-dead protagonist Sheldon Funk (aka Gary Jackson, his stage name) visits his mother (whose Alzheimer’s makes her confuse him with her dead and unfaithful husband) in the nursing home. She speaks first:
“‘I love you, but God will surely punish you for your sinful ways.’ ‘You might have. Had a point there,’ I admitted. I took her hand, feeling the throb of her blood push into my palm. It was like cradling an injured sparrow. ‘Mom, I have to go now. I don’t know if you’ll understand. I just wanted. I don’t know what I wanted. But you’ll be fine. I’m going to make sure of it.’ ‘I love my son,’ she said. ‘I always tried to make sure he knew that. Please believe me.’” I held myself still, barely able to keep from squeezing her hand harder. ‘I know you did. What happened to him. Was not your fault.’ ‘Sheldon was not the easiest child to like. So many problems. So intelligent. Always asking questions.’ ‘I’m sure he just. Couldn’t help himself.’ ‘I don’t want you to take him.’ ‘I won’t’ I said. ‘I won’t take him, I promise.’”
Redekop is as faithful to the conventions of contemporary horror/fantasy as Rhoda Janzen is to those of chick-lit memoir; I won’t even try to summarize the second half of Husk, when Sheldon becomes a sort of zombie celebrity and then ends up discovering a conspiracy and an evil villain worthy of any James Bod novel, except to say that if you like that sort of thing, and aren’t put off by extravagance, excess and grossness of some sorts I for one had not even imagined, you’ll find it a great read.
Among the themes of Husk is violence – as a zombie, Sheldon/Gary needs live human flesh to satisfy his appetites. No one would take this book for a serious exploration of nonresistance, but Sheldon does try to restrain his appetites and eventually finds an artificial alternative that sustains him and allows him to avoid killing more victims. In Redekop’s vision, even an ultimately marginalized pariah like Sheldon can still have a moral sense. And perhaps this is another of Redekop’s purposes (I suggest this with tongue partly in cheek): to imagine the most transgressive possible “lost Mennonite” – not only worldly, an actor and gay, but a zombie and a cannibal to boot – and then to make even this utterly lost sheep a character we can somehow recognize as not entirely unlike us, even when many of his internal organs are missing and he is attempting to quell his impulse to eat his own mother. This prodigal never exactly comes home, but one might wonder what reception he would receive if he wandered into a Sunday morning service in Winnipeg, Newton or Lancaster County.
I will not claim here that Mennonite/s writing are paragons of virtue and fully integrated lives. But one of the great themes of Mennonite/s writing has been that peace must be pursued across all parts of our lives – and that means tracing the ways that many people have been marginalized by Mennonite heteronormativity. The emergence of LGBTQ writing cannot be separated, surely, from the larger emergence of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters (and others?) from the shadows to which the church and culture had long sought to confine them. I can only briefly examine a few more examples of this work.
Here’s a beautifully crafted, complex passage from Stephen Beachy’s boneyard, a coming-of-age novel allegedly written by a somewhat mysterious gay Amish boy named Jake Yoder. Neither his feelings nor his voice fit the Amish stereotypes:
“If you spell your words correctly, the teacher said, we can do whatever you’d like. The crushed, sullen boy is often pouting, usually in trouble, and sometimes kept after school. This week the words are: powder, ceiling, disappearance, mutter, clutter, letter, canoe, amorphous, feature, whisper, wander, litter, pulp, quivering, weights, cruel, desire, murmur, bereaved, and celebrity. I never miss a spelling word, but am rigorously developing a bad attitude. . . . After school it is just me and the teacher. He sits at his desk staring at me and I can’t imagine what he is thinking. He frightens me. I am a splotch. Young man, he says. You squirm around a lot and wiggle your ass on your seat. Is there something on your mind? I chew on my thumbnail. There are so many things on my mind, unfathomable things, an entire cluttered universe of inexpressible longings. I can’t follow all the trajectories, I’m becoming less and less accessible. The process of change itself is becoming the definition of who I am. I’m a moody boy. There is nothing on my mind, I say.”
In its audacity, intensity and sometimes surreal narrative, boneyard is the closest thing I have yet discovered to the sort of “Anabaptist Surrealism” that I called for in a manifesto presented at the 2002 Goshen Mennonite/s Writing conference. When I contacted Beachy, I learned that he hadn’t seen my essay, but he was pleased to know that we were thinking along parallel lines. And of course I give him all the credit for writing a book I could never have written myself.
This section will end with Casey Plett’s book of stories, A Safe Girl to Love. These stories follow a series of transgender protagonists on their difficult quests to find identity and relation among complicated living situations, family and friend relations and (often) copious use of alcohol and other drugs. I found the stories both fascinating and troubling, but I must pass over them here to quote briefly from a sort of manifesto entitled “Real Equality,” a monologue from the middle of the text:
“It is not enough to be queer and have a queer identity. I am tired of believing that is true. I am tired of the marginalization that we inflict onto our own selves. Sequestering ourselves into gayborhoods with our gay bars and our gay readings. It’s like the world told us, ‘Hey, you’re different, you don’t belong here, queers!’ and we said, ‘Sweet, sure thing, straight people! Let’s go build bars and readings and culture and identity away from you!’ Well, I am through playing right into the bigot’s hands and being told what to do by the man’s hands. They say we don’t belong, then the most radical thing we can do is start belonging.”
What does it mean, to “belong”? This question, it seems, crops up over and over across the church. On one end, LGBTQ people and their allies have begun to widen this circle of belonging; on the other, traditionalists are withdrawing to set up their own circles and to keep these “others” outside. We – Mennonites, Christians, human beings – are a long way from resolving these issues; very likely they will evolve rather than resolving. But all of us must, I think, consider where we will locate ourselves among our fellow human beings.
As I typed these words, the online folk station I listen to for background music came up with the old union song, “Which Side Are You On?” Surely if we can learn anything from Jesus, who said that to love God and to love our neighbors is the whole of the law, it is that sometimes there are indeed sides to be taken. Straight white guys on the other side of 60 like me are not, probably, going to ever know from the inside what it feels like to be young and gay or trans; for all of us, limited as we are by our own skins and minds, we must find ways to learn all we can about the lives and skins and minds of our brothers and sisters, of all sorts. The writers can help us.
Maybe it’s time for a new narrative. It’s always already time for a new narrative, isn’t it? I would propose a non-martyr narrative, one that rejoices in the obvious fact that Mennonites have failed to keep their writers captive. They have escaped in just about every possible direction, this narrative might explain, in such profusion and variety that no single description can possibly cover them all. This includes, of course, those who have escaped into a joyful celebration of the time-honored and life-bringing elements of our communal life and practice, as well as those who test and lament our communal failings and disasters and those who resist being constrained by such terms in any number of ways.
Probably many Mennonites will pay no attention to all this wild, bitter, strange, lovely writing . . . and that is sad. The most brilliant and innovative may struggle to find more than a few loyal readers and that is sad, too. But the world has always been full of sadness and writers have always been ignored and under-appreciated, often especially the best writers. If they manage somehow to bring new, strange, harsh, beautiful things made of words into the world, to distribute them for the edification and encouragement and scourging and instruction and delight of those of us who are willing to take them in, well, that is much more than nothing.