This collection of epistolary essays
offers an intervention of sorts into the conventions of academic discourse.
Inspired by an ongoing e-mail correspondence with her former student Lisa
Schirch, Ruth Krall’s open-ended letters address Schirch, and the reader, in often
direct and personal tones.
Nearly two decades ago, Anne Bower argued for letters as a better form of scholarly exchange than academic articles. She asserted that the epistolary form “can increase the personal, dialogic, and emotional content of academic writing,’ which might allow us as scholars to make “a definitive shift in attitude toward our material, ourselves and our readers.’
Krall’s essays play out this definitive shift: the epistolary format seems a natural fit for her autoethnographic approach, a feminist methodology in which the narrative moves easily between personal and scholarly reflections.
True to letter form, the essays meander between topics, sometimes in a clear direction and other times following tangential threads. Language occupies the through line of the first letter, moving from Krall’s personal experiences of medical treatment and medical language to musings on how gender affects language, on to discussion of racial and ethnic linguistic patterns and gendered expectations around language, and then to the absence of the female voice in the academy, particularly in discussions of sexual violence. Some of the essays risk losing the reader by ranging far afield, but the meandering quality in general reflects a sustained process of thinking-through that seems appropriate to the genre.
The epistolary format and the subtitle of the book immediately evoke Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In both Rilke’s and Krall’s volumes, we read only one side of the correspondence. By omitting Schirch’s responses, Krall broadens the mode of address, moving the private communication into a public forum. We as readers are invited in, to imagine Schirch’s written responses but also to imagine how we ourselves might respond to Krall’s provocations.
Unlike Rilke’s letters, Krall’s writings are not the initial letters themselves, written to Schirch. Rather, she uses her correspondence with Schirch as the jumping off point for longer scholarly considerations on the topics they discuss at length in their e-mails – pacifism and nonviolence; sexual violence, abuse and what she terms sexual xenophobia within the church; and the long absence and denial of women’s voices in church and academic discussions of these issues.
And yet Krall underscores in one of the last letters that the essays are not her voice alone: “While this redacted collection of these letters has been cast in my personal voice, they reflect your personal and professional voice in the background. Your letters elicited questions in my mind that seemed to need addressing in the commons’ (275). She writes to Schirch as a peer, and while she sometimes challenges Schirch’s positions or debates particular word preferences, she does so in a way that invites continued dialogue and offers support as well as a willingness to listen. “In these electronic conversations about healing, we are, in essence, serving as peer healers for each other. We are listening to each other’s life experiences and the questions these experiences have raised for each of us. We are creating a shared space where healing can manifest itself’ (187).
Krall’s essays speak to the way these two scholars continue to consider ideas and writings together across a period of time, sometimes circling back to previously discussed themes but with new insights or rethought positions. This implies that Krall returns more than once to Schirch’s correspondences, re-reading her words and continuing to process possible implications.
This, too, echoes Rilke’s approach, the care with which he treats his young admirer and the relationship developed through letters. Rilke describes one of the poet’s letters as “the kind that one reads again when one finds it among other letters, and I recognize you in it as if you were very near.’ This gift of attention, of recognition, weaves throughout the complex discussions of violence, abuse and marginalization.
In her Preface, Schirch notes the unjust belittlement and ignoring of Krall’s work by many Mennonite men, particularly her advocacy for the survivors of John Howard Yoder’s abuses and her four-volume series on sexual abuse in the church, The Elephant in God’s Living Room. Krall, for her part, recognizes the importance of Schirch’s contributions, both in academic discourses and in her work as a peacemaker, while also naming continued struggles for equal voice across the feminist generations.
The Afterword by William Lindsey is far too long, as the author himself acknowledges, offering a summary of the entire volume rather than a coda. The book could also have used more extensive proofreading to catch various small typos.
The highlight of the volume for me, as made clear in this review, is the epistolary format, which enhances the feminist methodologies employed here. The letter form invites a space for dialogue, for a thinking-through together, and in this case the reader is welcomed as an implicit participant.