IN THIS ISSUE
The essays in this issue of MQR were originally read as papers at “Mennonite/s Writing: An International Conference” held October 24-27, 2002 at Goshen College, co-sponsored by Conrad Grebel University College and the English Department of Goshen College. The essays contribute to the relatively new field of Mennonite literary studies, which has burgeoned since the first conference, “Mennonite/s Writing in Canada,” held at Conrad Grebel University College in 1990 and the second conference, “Mennonite/s Writing in the U.S.,” held at Goshen College in 1997. Many papers from the latter conference were published in the October 1998 issue of MQR (also as the book Migrant Muses).
The 2002 conference marked the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Rudy Wiebe’s first novel Peace Shall Destroy Many, which has become a symbolic landmark in the remarkable production since then of fine literature by Mennonite authors in both Canada and the U.S. Seven papers in three different sessions were devoted to Wiebe’s writings. Although only one of the papers is published here, others will be published by Conrad Grebel Review in a special issue on Wiebe.
The climax of the 2002 conference occurred during the after-dinner program Saturday night when Hildi Froese Tiessen presented Rudy Wiebe with a book of tributes to him and his work, written by 49 different friends and colleagues and edited by Hildi, all unbeknownst to Rudy. The festschrift dumbfounded the usually nimble Wiebe, and then moved him to tears, laughter and a string of moving reminiscences and stories. That moment fit the overall spirit of the conference. Although thirty academic papers were read at the conference, a festive atmosphere prevailed in plenary sessions, when twenty creative writers read from their recent works, and in the hallways, when old friends renewed acquaintance and many Canadian and U.S. authors met in person for the first time.
Whether or not Wiebe’s first novel was the progenitor of the Mennonite literature that followed is open to debate; Mennonite literature might have happened without him. But that his novel was the harbinger is not in doubt, as illustrated in this issue by the many reviews of the literature published by Mennonites around the time of the conference.
Six new books were released at the conference itself: books of poems by Todd Davis, Patrick Friesen, Ann Hostetler and Maurice Mierau; Julia Kasdorf’s study of Joseph W. Yoder (author of the bestselling novel Rosanna of the Amish); and Doug Reimer’s book of essays on Canadian Mennonite literature, which is the most ambitious survey of the field since Al Reimer’s Mennonite Literary Voices Past and Present (1993). In the year preceding the conference Wiebe and Sandra Birdsell both published major Mennonite historical novels-Sweeter than All the World and The Russlnder, respectively-and novels by David Bergen and Steven Byler also appeared. The year following the conference has yielded a book of essays by Jeff Gundy, a book of poems by David Wright, a comic novel by Armin Wiebe and an anthology of Canadian and U.S. Mennonite poetry edited by Ann Hostetler.
Only two of the essays printed here try to recover historical developments in Mennonite literature. Ann Hostetler reports on her research into the lives of two hitherto little known U.S. Mennonite women poets, Ruth Ediger Baehr and Jane Rohrer, and suggests that they, along with Jean Janzen, are the foremothers of the women poets who tend to dominate Mennonite literary production in the U.S. today. All three women share personal histories of turning to the publication of their poetry only after their responsibilities in nurturing family members lessened. They also exhibit varied ways of being “Mennonite” poets in relation to the communities from which they originally came. Wilbur Birky offers a long overdue history and assessment of Yorifumi Yaguchi, the Japanese Mennonite professor-minister-poet who blends Japanese and American, Buddhist and Christian ideas and styles. In calling Yaguchi a “poet of peace” at the conference, Birky stimulated vigorous discussion of how-and to what extent-other Mennonite poets also have “peace” as their subject.
Conferees were introduced to two fine, recently successful novelists. Carroll Yoder’s essay considers the interaction between individual stories and overall novelistic development in Stephen Byler’s first work of fiction Searching for Intruders, a novel of stories. Since Byler already has a contract for a second novel from Morrow, much more can be expected of this native of Lancaster County and graduate of Eastern Mennonite University. Ervin Beck considers the dualistic structures found in David Bergen’s first book Sitting Opposite My Brother, a short story collection. Since publishing that book in 1993, Bergen has published three novels and become a fulltime writer, one of the most successful novelists in Canada.
The three essays on Julia Kasdorf suggest her leading position in U.S. Mennonite literary circles. Beth Martin Birky explicates Kasdorf’s Eve Striptease by using the feminist theory of Simone de Beauvoir. Like some other essays in this issue, Martin Birky’s makes virtually no reference to the Mennonite element in Kasdorf’s work, which prompts the question of what constitutes a “Mennonite” literary criticism. Although the definition of Mennonite literature has been much debated, more attention needs to be given to the distinctive qualities that one might expect to find in Mennonite literary criticism.
This collection of essays clearly reflects the rich thematic variety that has come to characterize contemporary Mennonite literature. Although it may be premature to discern trends in a field still emerging out of its infancy, at least one theme in particular seems evident in many of the papers printed here. At the 1997 conference Hildi Froese Tiessen challenged her peers to move “beyond the binary” in their understanding of the relationship of the literary artist to the Mennonite community. “As long as Mennonite literary critics and writers continue to accept the limiting, inherently hierarchical binary paradigms of center and margin, insider and outsider,” she wrote, they give credence to the notion that the territory that Mennonite writers occupy “is, well, marginal” (Migrant Muses, 16).
By 2002 Mennonite writers seem to have taken to heart this admonition to move “beyond the binary.” Thus, Todd Davis describes the poetry of Jeff Gundy as a “postmodern rhapsody” filled with yearning and transformative power; not binary dualisms, but “the heterological nature of our experience” characterizes Gundy’s current work. David Wright echoes these themes by calling attention to the deeply contingent relationship between the poet and the community-a complex, nuanced and dynamic exchange marked simultaneously by love and ambivalence. Susan Fisher Miller explores the “psychological geographies” revealed in Julia Kasdorf’s The Body and the Book -what she describes as the “competing territories of individual and collective memory”-that creatively complicate Kasdorf’s identity as an ethnic writer. Similarly, John Fisher’s reading of Eve’s Striptease, suggests that Kasdorf both engages her audience by bearing martyr-like witness to personal suffering, while also holding the community at a certain distance by refusing to make her disclosure complete. Paul Tiessen reflects on the complex nature of personal names, focusing especially on the character of Katya in Sandra Birdsell’s The Russlnder. Identity, he suggests, is both asserted through individual performance but also imposed by the sheer weight of historical events and the powerful traditions of the larger community.
Hildi Froese Tiessen explores a related theme in her reflections on the integration of historical photographs in the rich descriptive imagery of Rudy Wiebe’s Sweeter Than All the World. Here individual recollection and collective memory engage in a much more complex interaction than that suggested by any simple binary model. Finally, Daniel Lehman extends this theme beyond the world of the Mennonite writer in his analysis of how two contemporary novelists have chosen to depict Amish and Mennonites. Both John Updike and Denis Johnson, he suggests, begin with stereotypical notions of Amish and Mennonites-tidy images of these groups as the cultural Other-but then move to more complex and, in Johnson’s case, insightfully critical, understandings of these religious communities.
In all of these essays, the impulses of postmodernist “de-centering” are evident; binary relationships of center and margin, insider and outsider, no longer seem tenable for many Mennonite writers. Yet this move toward ambiguity and contingency marks an interesting and complex moment in the history of Mennonite literature. By moving “beyond the binary,” Mennonite literary artists may well have achieved a more complex and nuanced posture vis–vis the communities that nurtured them; but in relinquishing their position as prophetic voices from the margins they may also have made themselves less relevant to the community. Such a role may be theologically consistent with an Anabaptist notion of the priesthood of all believers. However, in a community with a long tradition of skepticism toward poets and novelists, relinquishing the role of the marginalized dissenter may portend the end of a distinctively “Mennonite” literary voice.
On the other hand, it may be instructive to reinforce a point made in passing by Hildi Froese Tiessen about the two most recent Mennonite historical novels, Sweeter than All the World and Russlander. Both were written by major Canadian writers who began their literary careers by writing severely critical depictions of the Canadian Mennonite cultures out of which they came-as in Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many and Birdsell’s Agassiz Stories. Now 40 years later (for Wiebe) and 20 years later (for Birdsell) they write well researched, wonderful historical fiction that seems to want to discover and appropriate Mennonite values that were present in the past but have somehow been lost in the present. These recent fine novels suggest that the master narratives of Mennonite history are not yet irrelevant, and that there are many more such stories to be told. They also illustrate the continuing attempt by Mennonite writers, in general, to come to terms with their religious-ethnic community in a creative, publicly accessible way.
Regardless of what direction Mennonite literature takes in the future, one thing is certain. U.S. and Canadian Mennonite poets, novelists and literary critics are flourishing today as never before. We hope that the essays, reviews and tributes gathered in this volume will move the sympathetic reader to read, reflect upon and even contribute to the many-voiced chorus of contemporary Mennonite literature.
– John D. Roth and Ervin Beck, co-editors
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
The Mennonite Quarterly Review