Opening thoughts with Miriam Toews

December 23, 2012
Sarah Ens |

This past November, Miriam Toews gave a keynote address at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. In the address she discussed the idea of national literature, and, more interestingly for me, the idea of a Mennonite literature. She defends her novels from those who claim that she is “besmirching the reputation of Mennonites” by saying:

“Good fiction does not reinforce our complacent self-image; it makes us aware of identities outside our own. A good story will threaten the sanctity of the establishment and question the voice of privilege and tradition, and in doing so, evolve what it means to be a member of the community.”

While some may think that her novels are unfairly threatening, this quote resonated with me: a Mennonite studying Creative Writing at UBC. I thought it might serve as an interesting way to introduce myself on this blog, on which I hope to write honestly and critically about the continuous development of and struggle with my faith both inside and outside of the Mennonite community.

When I was growing up in small town Manitoba I wrote stories about wolves and poems about angst. When I grew up a little more I wrote about God and faith, mostly focused on all the questions and dark little doubts I had. I kept them hidden in my journal for the most part though, because I was afraid if I voiced those thoughts they would prove how bad of a Mennonite I really was.

At my baptism I expressed my desire to continue to ask questions and engage with my doubts because that is what I understood a relationship with God to mean, and I was surprised to find that I had not been shocking in the least and should not have been afraid. Several people thanked me for my honesty and told me they felt exactly the same way.

The many Mennonite authors I admire often attack their backgrounds and faiths with a kind of love that, I think, resonates honestly with Mennonite readers. I think that Miriam Toews believes, perhaps, Mennonites to be a little more complacent than we are.

I’ve spent the last three years in Vancouver and far away from the Mennonite communities that I still recognize as home. Over these years I’ve developed a host of new questions and written a lot of new, angst-y God poetry. I have loved exploring a life that does not involve Low German, the Mennonite Game, or borscht. But what I’ve tried to hold on to and continue to miss are the shared doubts and struggles that help to define and challenge what it means to be part of a community of God.

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