Asking the same questions

April 30, 2013
Susie Guenther Loewen |

As some of you will know from a previous post of mine, I enjoy Mennonite literature a great deal, so I was delighted to be able to attend a lecture on Mennonite lit. this past October by Robert Zacharias, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. His talk was entitled, “Returning Home to the ‘Middle of the World’: New Cartographies of Belonging in Mennonite Literary Studies,” and in it he set about complicating the classification of literature according to national boundaries (Canadian lit., American lit., etc.). He argued that while such categories have been easy defaults in the past, present-day literature is much more likely to be “diasporic, trans-national, or hemispheric.” In other words, the categories have shifted significantly, overflowing national borders.

This shift to less nation-bound categories has worked in favour of Mennonite literature, with its minority, transplanted, in-the-world-but-not-of-it quality. Zacharias spoke of the “Mennonite community drawing its own map,” and illustrated this with a few choice quotes, of which I’ll only share two here. The first is from Miriam Toews’s latest novel, Irma Voth: “Mennonites formed themselves in Holland five hundred years ago […] then they started to move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese. Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context.” And a similar sentiment from Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China, about the naming of a Mennonite village in Paraguay: “Wherever Mennonites had lived, whether in Canada or as far back as story and strong memory could depend on Russia, there had always been such village names: Gartental, Blumenau, Rosenfeld, Friedensruh. Each word was a place; it contained no word context for anyone; it was. So Schoenbach [which means ‘beautiful brook’…]. The village was planned and named while they were still at sea a year before any surveying was done. […] A thoughtful man hauling his family through the cactus brush to the campo and raising his tents on his lot-assigned strip of sand and bitter-grass would have cried, or laughed, at such a name.”

What I found most interesting in Zacharias’s talk was his description of how Mennonite lit. has developed differently in Canada and the U.S. Apparently in the U.S., Mennonite lit. hasn’t flourished in the same way, but has been funded by Mennonite institutions. Because of this, there has been much more emphasis on Mennonite religious identity in American Mennonite lit. In Canada, by contrast, Mennonite lit. has been published primarily as an ethnic minority literature by secular presses. According to Zacharias, this has led to Mennonite lit. being “one of the most vibrant minority literatures in Canada.” Part of that success was due to timing, since in the 1960s, when Rudy Wiebe (the “father” of Mennonite lit.) published his first novel, the government of Canada set about forging a national identity based on Canadian literature, in order to provide a “cultural defence” against assimilation to U.S. culture through increased arts grants and a national library. In 1971, multi-culturalism was adopted as a Canadian government policy, and just three years later, the first anthology of Mennonite lit. was published.
So the blooming of Canadian Mennonite lit. coincided with a celebration of diverse cultures and ethnicities in this country.

Of course, the success of Canadian Mennonite lit. has come with certain costs. As I’ve argued before, there is a theological thinness to much Mennonite lit., likely because it was simply painted as ethnic lit., not the literature of a (doubly diasporic?) ethnic and religious minority. This is increasingly problematic as the Mennonite church becomes more ethnically and culturally diverse. But it’s also a shame from an academic perspective, because despite theology and literature being two academic disciplines in which Mennonites have made significant inroads, there has been virtually no collaboration between the two, which has led to imbalances on both sides. As Mennonite lit. has at best sidelined theology (and at worst, maligned it), so Mennonite theology has tended to undervalue the cultural aspects of Mennonite identity. This means that Mennonite theology has proceeded as if there were no differences between Canadian and American perspectives, when really the two contexts at times require different theological emphases to address their specific political and social concerns. It also means that certain attitudes and customs deemed “cultural” are really aspects of a lived, if unarticulated, theology; emphases on simple living, for example, haven’t been sufficiently explored theologically. And of course, Mennonite lit. remains largely unaware of the peculiarly Mennonite way in which theology is done: with a notably practical/ethical bent, with a certain creativity and radicality that a minority, fringe tradition can afford, and with firm roots fed by the biblical story (a literary link?). But in my view, it’s especially unfortunate and somewhat ironic that Mennonite theology and literature are estranged from one another because ultimately, they’re asking many of the same questions: what does it mean to be Mennonite? How do we come to terms with the violence and martyrdom from which our tradition sprang? How do our definitions of peace change as society and circumstance cast doubt on former views, especially with respect to gender and race? Etc.

During the discussion after his lecture, Zacharias talked about the work of Jean Janzen and Jeff Gundy, among others, as part of an emerging Mennonite “theopoetics.” This is a hopeful sign that the dialogue between Mennonite theology and literature has begun, and I for one hope it continues.

(Photo found here)

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