Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mennonite Literature and Mennonite Theology

Susie Guenther Loewen recently wrote a thoughtful blog post entitled The Gap in Mennonite Literature in which she lamented the thin to nonexistent portrayal of Mennonite theology in most contemporary Mennonite literature. While she does not wish to negate the difficult experiences of coming to voice articulated in this literature, such as Nomi Nickel's experience in A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, she notes that younger Mennonites often find a supportive community in their Mennonite heritage for artistic creation. Her solution--more Mennonite writing from a new group of writers!

What do you think? Have you noticed this gap?

How does the Mennonite literature you've read contrast with or illuminate your own experience as a Mennonite or with Mennonites?

Does it serve to reinforce stereotypes or to open new perspectives?

When a literature is labeled as "ethnic" or "cultural," does that mean its theology will be of minimal significance?

Can creative, vibrant theology find its way into literature?

Does Mennonite Literary creation depend upon the portrayal of an "oppressive" religious structure that must be overthrown to liberate the "individual voice?"

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mennonite Hospitality

After reading about food and fellowship all semester, it seemed like a natural idea to have a class potluck. "Bring a familiar food from your family," I asked students, not wanting to specify an exclusively Mennonite cuisine. After all, potluck should include some personal variety and there are many "Mennonite" foods that Mennonites have never prepared or tasted. It was great fun to sit around my kitchen table as people began to gather and we peeked under the aluminum foil and saran wrap of the dishes people brought.
Only the main dish was missing--the famed "borscht." Jamie brought sweet tea. Sarah brought bread fresh out of the oven. Kim brought her mother's bread pudding. The other Sara brought peanut butter cookies. Annie brought an apple salad with a peanut butter and mayonnaise dressing that was a delicious surprise. I had a pot of beef stew and a leafy green salad tossed and ready. While the class nibbled on some appetizers and chatted with each other, I noticed another visitor waiting outside: a large, lone Canada Goose. He strutted back and forth at the edge of the lawn. Then, as we watched through the kitchen windows, he began to stride towards the house. Just then Becca and Kate drove up with the borscht. I ran to open the door, but at about the same time, the goose decided to head towards the door as well. Kate, with a huge orange pot of steaming borscht, found herself being chased by the goose in full attack.
"Run," we all screamed, and she made it, borscht intact, just as I slammed the door on the irate goose.
Becca found her way around to the back door and managed to bring the shoofly pie with her. I found a quote from Sandra Birdsell's Katya echoing in my head: "Inside is inside . . . Outside is outside." I had wanted an inclusive table, but the goose had pointed out to me that even I draw the line somewhere. After such a rude dismissal from the Mennonite potluck, though, he disappeared. Joshua arrived after all of the excitement with a crockpot of scalloped potatoes--his mother's recipe--in his backpack and didn't have any goose action at all, even thought the potatoes were delectable. So, of course, we got to tell him the story. Thus Mennonite literature is born.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pacifism in Mennonite Literature

Again and again in the Mennonite fiction we have read this semester, various arguments surrounding Jesus's teaching on peace and the Mennonite stance against war have come up for discussion. Both Peace Shall Destroy Many and Katya bring up pacifism in light in the context of war. A Complicated Kindness does not address pacifism directly, but rather portrays a community that purports to be based on love, but which in fact cares more about obedience and conformity than forgiveness and compassion. These three novelists--Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, and Miriam Toews--respect the teachings of Mennonites on peace, but they are also realists and students of human nature. They know that humans mess up--a lot--and that human communities are also subject to human flaws. Thus in these novels human nature, over and over again, clashes with the religious and ethical ideals of peace, love, and forgiveness. The characters in these novels live in worlds where warfare, aggression, greed, inequality, lust, fear, violence, loneliness, and the desire for power run rampant. Because Mennonite communities are human, these impulses are found there as well. Thus the novelists call the Mennonite community to account for its beliefs--not just in the form of following traditional rules, but in the form of expressing Christ's love in the world.

According to theologian Ted Grimsrud, "Pacifism" is the belief that nothing is as important as love, kindness, and peaceableness. In a 2001 article in Mennonite Life, Grimsrud, who was not brought up in a Mennonite home, explores the meaning of Pacifism in the post-modern world in this article. Grimsrud's parents were both veterans of World War II, but when Grimsrud became a Christian at age 17, he began to read the teachings of Jesus and take them seriously. A few years later he realized that he could never kill another human being. Thus he calls himself a Christian pacifist. He discovered the Mennonite teachings on peace later in his life. For Grimsrud, being a pacifist is a central organizing principle that involves an understanding of God as reflected in the teachings on love and peace. He writes: "The peace which pacifists love is not simply a lack of violence. It is wholeness, harmony, restoration of relationships, healing of brokenness."

Whether or not we always agree about Mennonite teachings on peace, it is important to understand and respect these beliefs as part of the culture we are studying and how they impact the lives of the characters in the novels we've read.

One of the most important Mennonite writers on peace is not American or Canadian, but rather Japanese. Yorifumi Yaguchi grew up in Japan during World War II. He was taught to worship the Emperor and to hate the Americans. He saw members of his village die in the war and he saw the effects of the war ravage his country. His grandfather was a Buddhist priest, but he was disappointed in Buddhism because, although it is a religion of peace, it could not withstand the force of the Emperor who wanted to go to war, and the Shinto cult that taught the "divinity" of the Emperor before the war. Yaguchi was also disappointed in Christianity, because he believed it was a warlike religion. Then he met some Mennonite missionaries to Japan, and became converted through their ministry because they believed that the gospel of Christ was a gospel of peace.

Yaguchi also became a poet, and in the 1960s he came to America to study at the Mennonite Seminary, which was then in Goshen. While in Goshen, he published several books of poetry with Pinchpenny Press that reflected his religious conversion and his experiences with war--and later, teachings of peace. Yaguchi, who was a professor of American Literature in Japan, invited many famous American poets to his University to speak, including Anne Sexton, Gary Snyder, William Stafford and others. His poetry and his life are recounted in his recent memoir, The Wing-Beaten Air. His poetry, translated into English, has been collected and edited by Wilbur Birky, Goshen College Professor Emeritus. Yaguchi is concerned that in our war-like era Mennonite poets in the US and Canada are not more interested in peace. Yaguchi has been a tireless worker for peace in his own country, most recently protesting the requirement that all Japanese High School teachers sing the National Anthem, which has resurrected the cult of the Emperor, and teach it to their students. You can read a sample of Yaguchi's poetry and a memoir of a trip he and Wilbur Birky took to Japan in the Yorifumi Yaguchi issue of the CMW Journal, as well as a review of The Wing-Beaten Air. Here is one of Yaguchi's poems from that issue.

Two Mennonite Writers win Three Top Awards in Manitoba

David Bergen and Dora Dueck took the honors on April 18th, when at Manitoba's annual book awards event. Read about it in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Dueck won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year award for her novel, This Hidden Thing, that tells the story of a young Mennonite immigrant woman who "works out" as a domestic servant to earn money for her poor family and whose life is dramatically changed because of it. I was fortunate enough to preview this book and found it captivating. Here's what I wrote about it for the publisher, Canadian Mennonite University Press:

"This sweeping novel covers three generations of Canadian Mennonite history, focused through a young Russian Mennonite immigrant woman whose life is irrevocably changed by her “working out” in Winnipeg to support her family. As an accurate and vivid evocation of time and place, This Hidden Thing not only reflects Mennonite cultural change, but also records cultural change among English immigrants to Canada as their lives intersect with Mennonites. But above all, this is a novel of character.

Dora Dueck’s articulation of the reflexes of personality and the development of consciousness creates a drama of emotional tension and continuous discovery as she tells a compelling woman’s story too often obscured by history. She inhabits her characters in such a way that the reader is drawn into a living, breathing world that lingers even after the covers of the book are closed. This Hidden Thing offers a worthy female, urban counterpart to Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many."

David Bergen won two awards for his sixth novel, The Matter with Morris, which was also a finalist for the Giller Prize, one of Canada's top literary honors. I haven't read The Matter with Morris yet, but it explores the life of a man whose son goes to war in Afghanistan. I met Bergen on the Manitoba Author's tour at the Mennonite/s Writing: Manitoba and Beyond Conference at the University of Winnipeg in 2009, and found him to be both personable and funny. He's the unapologetically worldly son of a Mennonite minister, the happily married father of four children, and the winner of multiple awards for his writing. I found his novel, The Case of Lena S, to be both readable and provocative. Bergen is gifted at describing domestic relationships in slightly disturbed families and portraying the complex and unsolvable riddle of ordinary life. His short story collection, Sitting Opposite My Brother, his first published work, is still one of the finest contemporary Mennonite works in this genre.

In his recent essay, "A Complicated Kindness: The Mennonite Contribution to Canadian Literature," German scholar Martin Kuester says, "I believe . . . that new identities—whether resulting from language or narrative traditions—will, perhaps, counteract the disintegration [of commonly held Mennonite values] "that in the past held scattered groups of communities together." Kuester is hopeful that storytelling itself will serve as a force for renewal among Mennonites. "The telling of stories thus becomes a central motif not only in the form of Di Brandt’s “maternal story-telling” but also in Miriam Toews’ “Mennonite existentialism.” We are told the story of a community which is slowly liberating itself from oppressive master narratives but which, in both the literal and metaphorical senses, at all times and everywhere, is threatened by the floods that modern life brings with it."

What do you think? Will the continuing development of Mennonite literature serve as a force for renewal within this small cultural minority, or will it only serve to separate contemporary readers from the tradition by critiquing aspects of the culture that seem outmoded?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Final Exam Question on Canadian Mennonite Novels

Each of the Canadian Mennonite novels we've read in this class focuses on the "coming of age" of the protagonist, and shows how that character develops increased self-awareness in relation to a series of obstacles related to the main conflict. So far, this is pretty much what all realistic novels do. So what's particularly "Mennonite" about these novels?

For one thing, these main characters are engaged in conflicts within the context of their Mennonite communities. These are "realistic" novels, so the conflicts are grounded in particular historical, cultural, and social contexts. Katya portrays the plight of the Mennonites caught in the Russian Revolution, Peace Shall Destroy Many examines a small immigrant farming community during World War II, and A Complicated Kindness shows a contemporary teenager trying to figure out who she is in a Mennonite Village that boasts a museum of Mennonite immigrant days.

Each of these novels shows both the character of a Mennonite community--and Mennonite characters-- those who negatively distort Mennonite values, as well as those who attempt to live a faith that emphasizes, selflessness, love, nonviolence, and obedience to Christ's teachings. The protagonist is typically caught in the tensions of the community even as they struggle with their own personal challenges. Through the portrayal of both personal and community conflicts, the authors of these novels raise questions for the reader about Mennonite community.

So, your exam question is: what is that central question raised by each novel? What answer do you think the novel suggests to this question, or how would you answer that question, based on your reading of the novel? In the body of your paper use textual evidence to support your choice of question as it pertains to one of the novels. In your conclusion, address how similar or different the three questions are that you see raised in these novels, and note any connections you see between them.

Some questions to ask yourself as you brainstorm and plan your response: What does the novel ask of the reader? What do you think motivated the writer to put the effort into exploring these particular conflicts in this way? Why do you think the novel ends where it does? The best answers will be precise, thoughtful, specific, and supported with textual evidence (even though this question is necessarily broad and general).

Example of how to use textual evidence to support your choice of question:

Stephen Byler's novel of stories, Searching for Intruders, raises the question of how we (men, in particular) should act in the world, given an awareness of violence inherent in male socialization. Byler's protagonist, Wilson Hues, is a sensitive and observant man in his twenties who has difficulty acting in situations of conflict. In the course of his life, Hues encounters a number of men who express interpersonal violence and attempt to pass on sexist values to the young men in their charge. First of all, Hues is the son of a successful but abusive man who has divorced his wife and has tried to socialize his son to be cruel to weaker creatures. Secondly, he plays tennis on a college team with a sexist and somewhat sadistic coach, who encourages the boys to haze each other and who, in particular, harass Hues about his sexual experiences with his girlfriend. However, Byler does not simply blame the negative role models in his life, but explores the ways in which the images of violence he has internalized affect his thinking and thus his actions. When he has sex with Melody, his girlfried, for the first time, it is in the wake of harassment by his teammates and coach; he ends up lying to her in what she believes to be a pure moment and she never forgives him. Melody has her own issues, and their relationship ends as Melody becomes self-destructive, but Hues does not shirk his own sense of responsibility for contributing to her pain. Moreover, Hues appears to have a need to reconcile himself with these negative images of masculinity, especially those he has experienced as his father's son. Halfway through the book, we discover that Hues's father has been killed in a small plane accident, but first he suffers cruelly from electrical burns over most of his body. The family, not wishing to relinquish their patriarch, tries to have every medical intervention taken to prolong his life, only adding to his suffering. Thus Hues contributes, unwillingly, to the suffering of another. The suffering of the father seems to be a pivotal point in the book. Hues turns towards a relationship with a new woman, Alethea, in the second half of the book as well. Alethea is suffering from cancer, and eventually dies of a relapse, but Hues's relationship with her is more mature than his relationship with Melody. Both strive towards an appreciation of life and a desire for healing. However, they cannot completely rid their life together of "intruders," which, in the title story that is placed second to last in the book, appear to be their own sense of mistrust and suspicion and fear, as much as the illness from which Alethea suffers. In the final story, Hues takes a trip to Latin America to recover from his grief. While there he adopts a stray dog. His male mentor suggests that it would have made more sense for Hues to have remained detached, rather than causing more hurt by loving the dog and leaving. Hues refuses this sort of "manhood," opting instead for radical love, with all of the pain it bears.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Pop Culture References in A Complicated Kindness

Nomi Nickel, the narrator of A Complicated Kindness, as well as its main character, makes references to Pop Culture as least as often as she offers tidbits of (mis)information about Menno Simons. In the era of technology, even members of small Mennonite towns have access to the music and ideas of their times. Although Nomi occasionally blames Tash's library card--and the influence of books--for Tash's disappearance, Nomi lives and acts in response to song lyrics. Uncannily (or actually quite cannily on the part of author Miriam Toews), these lyrics comment on the unconscious motivations or emotions involved in Nomi's story.

Here's a partial list.

Songs Nomi mentions:

"Exile on Main Street," by the Rolling Stones. (48, 137)
"Fire and Rain," a James Taylor song played often by Nomi's boyfriend, Travis.
"Delta Dawn," a song sung by Nomi and Travis when they try to stand up together on
a float at the "Pits."
"The Dark Side of the Moon"
"We are the Champions"

Musicals and Movies:

The Sound of Music. Lydia, Nomi's friend, came to a party as a "brown paper package tied up with string."
West Side Story. Trudi, Nomi's mother, performed in it as a teenager

Television Shows:

"Hymn Sing," a show watched regularly by Nomi's father, Ray. (85, 210)

Works of literature:

Watership Down by Richard Adams. Mentioned by Nomi, who prefers realism to fantasy
The Black Stallion. Lydia's favorite book
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Given to Nomi by Ray.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Irma Voth -- New novel by Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews' latest novel is set in Mexico, among the Old Colony Mennonites, and uses Toews' own experience starring in a film about the Old Colony Mennonites, Silent Light, as material for the plot.

Read an interview with Toews about her life and writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Here's a review of Irma Voth by novelist Jane Smiley, also in The Globe and Mail.

It's interesting that Toews has, again, chosen the character of a disaffected teenager for her protagonist. However, this time the Mennonite community from which this character is a refugee is far more conservative and separatist than the Steinbach in which Toews grew up.