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During the past fifty years, Mennonites in North America have participated in a literary renaissance unparalleled since the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century. Today, as then, the flourishing of Mennonite literature has emerged against the backdrop of remarkable economic affluence and steady cultural assimilation. Today, as then, Mennonite poets, novelists and critics have come to enjoy all the resources needed to sustain a flourishing literary community: generous financial subsidies from public and private sources, a host of willing publishers, the attention of prestigious prize committees, and an appreciative, increasingly sophisticated, readership. And today, as in the past, the ascendancy of Mennonite literature is both a reflection of unsettling transformations and a sign, potentially at least, of a new movement of the Spirit within this 500-year-old tradition.
Although the sources of the Mennonite literary renaissance are complex, one visible measure of its success can be traced in a series of conferences that have showcased the achievements of Mennonite poets and novelists and have nurtured a growing body of literary criticism. The first of these ?Mennonite/s Writing? events, held in 1990 at Conrad Grebel College, focused on the pioneering work of Mennonite writers in Canada. A subsequent gathering at Goshen College in 1997 highlighted the tradition of Mennonite writing in the U.S., while a third conference in 2002, also at Goshen, consciously engaged literature from both sides of the border.
This special issue of THE MENNONITE QUARTERLY REVIEW features 11 essays drawn from the most recent ?Mennonite/s Writing? conference, a gathering convened in the fall of 2006 at Bluffton College under the expansive rubric of ?Beyond Borders.? The essays presented here not only offer a fascinating insight into contemporary Mennonite literature, but they also continue a tradition of publications from earlier conferences’featured in the October 1998 and October 2003 issues of MQR’thereby providing a comparative perspective on recent trends in Mennonite creative and critical writing. A full understanding of these transformations awaits study by scholars competent in the field of literary analysis. In the interim, however, a number of cursory observations might serve as an introduction to the essays that follow.
In her landmark essay, ?Beyond the Binary? (MQR 72 [Oct. 1998], 491-501), Hildi Froese Tiessen called on Mennonite writers to move past the familiar dualities inherited from the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition’insider/outsider, center/margin, individual/community’to explore more fully the multiple and fluid cultural locations that characterize the actual experience of most contemporary Mennonites. Although Froese Tiessen did not frame her concerns in quite this way, the oft-repeated dichotomy of the heroic Mennonite literary artist struggling to be freed from the oppressive bonds of tradition and community was in danger of becoming a two-dimensional caricature. ?Beyond Borders,? the title of the most recent ?Mennonite/s Writing? conferences, might be understood in geographical terms as an effort to transcend the national categories that structured previous gatherings; but the title also seems to signal a conscious desire of conference organizers to affirm a more nuanced complexity in Mennonite literature of the sort that Froese Tiessen was invoking nearly a decade earlier.
Whatever the intention, the essays gathered in this issue of MQR testify to the fact that Mennonite writing is indeed moving ?beyond the binary? in a variety of interesting ways. Compared with the disciplines of Mennonite theology and history, for example, women appear in this collection with remarkable frequency’not primarily as self-conscious representatives of their gender, but as individual novelists, poets and critics speaking in their own voice. Gender identity has certainly not become irrelevant, but complex themes of human intimacy and sexuality figure more prominently in these essays than the simple binary motif of male/female. In a similar vein, although national boundaries have not disappeared’readers will note, for example, that Canadian Mennonites tend to write fiction, while U.S. Mennonites seem more inclined to write poetry’increasingly, Mennonite writing seems to be less regionally or nationally focused and less dependent on the telling details of in-group cultural references. Given the fact that all of the contributors to the current issue are firmly anchored in academic settings’employed in English, creative writing or communication departments, and deeply shaped by the tools of literary analysis and the conventions of their disciplines’it may be that the local identity reflected in earlier Mennonite writing, with its ?unsophisticated? clarity of borders, is gradually being replaced by the homogeneity of academic culture as the primary community of reference.
If so, this trend raises a number of interesting questions. In contrast to the long and vigorous debate among Mennonite historians about what it means to do ?scholarship for the church,? or the sharp critique John H. Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas have leveled against the disciplinary assumptions in theology and ethics, Mennonite literary theorists seem surprisingly uncritical about the academic disciplines that inform their work. Moreover, despite a growing sophistication in the technical tools of critical analysis, the general tone of the essays’like the ?Mennonite/s Writing? conferences themselves’tends to be highly positive, perhaps even self-congratulatory, in regards to contemporary Mennonite writing. Essays that are openly critical of other writers, or book reviews that call creative talent into question, are exceedingly rare in Mennonite circles. If there are no borders, one might ask, do any criteria remain for distinguishing between good and bad literature? Clearly, the current generation of Mennonite writers is not intending to make this argument. Jeff Gundy’s much-cited ?How to Write a Mennonite Poem,? for example, makes it unmistakably clear’albeit with deliciously barbed humor’that no self-respecting Mennonite poet will refer any longer to traditional Mennonite ethnic markers in a manner that might be construed as uncritical or nostalgic. Gundy’s critique is certainly understandable’all the more so in light of the recent proliferation of formulaic Amish romance novels. But even more crucially, his cautionary warning to novice Mennonite poets is evidence in itself that a principled rejection of borders’or even the goal of moving ?beyond borders’?cannot ultimately sustain a literary renaissance.
The essays that comprise this collection are better savored then summarized. Thus, what follows below is only suggestive of the rich content that awaits readers of this issue.
In her opening reflections on ?a religious life in the real world,? Kathleen Norris, the keynote speaker at the Bluffton gathering, celebrates the luminous presence of the Spirit latent within the mundane realities of daily life. For those with eyes to see, she argues, the border separating the material, quotidian world from the divine is infinitely porous. Todd Davis builds explicitly on this theme in his appreciative survey of the poetry of Jean Janzen. Janzen’s work, he suggests, is profoundly incarnational’consistently attentive to the presence of God in the natural world and to the surprising epiphany of divine revelation apprehensible only through the medium of the created order. John Fisher follows with an inquiry into the transformative function of poetry’the way poetry can open unexpected spaces in the borders that divide enemies’by bringing recent insights from conflict transformation theory into conversation with the work of several contemporary Mennonite poets. Bobby Meyer-Lee creatively problematizes the role of ?ornament? in Mennonite literary discourse, focusing particularly on several poems by Julia Spicher Kasdorf that explore the boundaries of religious and personal identity. Concluding the opening section on poetry, Ami Regier offers an analysis of the poly-vocal, shifting narrative voices’the ?dubious narrators’?evident in the poetry of Jeff Gundy and Keith Ratzlaff.
Julia Spicher Kasdorf introduces a cluster of biographical essays with a perceptive account of the life, poetic lexicon and unorthodox teaching style of Nick Lindsay, focusing especially on his thirty-year tenure as writer-in-residence at Goshen College where he shaped the creative sensibilities of a generation of students. Brad Born explores the complex world of another unorthodox writer, Gordon Friesen, whose two Depression-era novels reveal the violence he witnessed hidden within Mennonite communal ideals as well as his own personal journey out of mental illness and beyond the borders of his Oklahoma Mennonite community. Paul Tiessen situates the recent novels of Miriam Toews and Sandra Birdsell against the backdrop of long-standing iconic depictions of the Mennonite home established in the 1920s and 1930s by Ontario authors Mabel Dunham and Edna Staebler.
Two essays round out the second half of the issue which focuses on Mennonite novelists. Edna Froese highlights the repeated ?border crossings? in Sunday Afternoon, a comic novel by David Elias. Froese sees the repeated transgressions of boundaries in the novel as central to Elias’s vision of redemptive hope. Building on a recently-completed doctoral dissertation, Malin Sigvardson brings the phenomenological theory of Edmund Husserl into conversation with three of Rudy Wiebe’s novels, focusing especially on Mennonite communal understandings of work, hope and intentionality. Finally, Gerald Mast concludes the issue with a research note on the rhetorical function of spousal love letters in the Martyrs Mirror. These letters, Mast argues, reveal deep personal affection between Anabaptist husbands and wives, while also bearing witness to a wider public to the depths of God’s own love for the world.
I am delighted to feature once again a collection of essays from a ?Mennonite/s Writing? conference in the pages of MQR and I look forward eagerly to the on-going conversation that will inevitably follow.
? John D. Roth, editor
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