On November 23, UFV hosted a discussion on Mennonite literature as part of a dialogue surrounding the University’s new Mennonite studies program. The discussion featured a panel consisting of the prominent Mennonite writers Rudy Wiebe and Andreas Schroeder, along with Mennonite scholar Hildi Froese Tiessen. Speaking to an involved yet somewhat elderly crowd, the panelists shared insights on the tendency of the Mennonite community to ostracize the writers in their midst.
For the non-Mennos out there it’s important to understand that the relationship between Mennonite writers and the Mennonite community has often been a troubled one. Frequently alienated for their portrayals of their community, Mennonite writers have tended to distance themselves from their heritage and look for acceptance in the wider literary world. Both Rudy Wiebe and Andreas Schroeder have experienced varying levels of criticism within Mennonite circles for their works (especially Wiebe’s controversial 1962 novel Peace Shall Destroy Many), and so their presence gave the discussion personal, rather than just intellectual, significance.
The panel was asked to address the following question:
What is the reciprocal relationship between Mennonite Culture and Mennonite Writing?
The first panelist, Andreas Schroeder, suggested that the Mennonite culture and church has had a “profound influence” upon its writers, but also that this influence is “one-sided.” He argued that many writers, himself included, have left the Mennonite church, yet feel that while they cannot escape its impact, it has quickly forgotten them. It is ironic then, he concluded, that it is generally from these ostracized writers (Schroeder describes himself as a “defunct Mennonite”) that the outside world learns about the Mennonite community. Schroeder specifically mentioned A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen as having serious influence over the public perception of Mennonites, despite being received with heavy controversy within the actual Mennonite community.
Hildi Froese Tiessen, the second panelist, opened with the suggestion that “Mennonite” “in Canada is both a religious and ethnic term,” and, therefore, the idea of a “Mennonite writer” needs to be further defined. It is possible, Tiessen noted, to have writers who are ethnically Mennonite and write about entirely unrelated topics, and writers with no Mennonite heritage who draw on the culture for their work. Both groups add to the “Mennonite imaginary,” or collection of ideas and stories that influence and are influenced by Mennonite tradition.
Tiessen disregarded the “Menno-chasm” that divides the Mennonite community and its writers, protesting that “Mennonites do not have to be the same to be authentic.” She concluded that the work of Mennonite writers, positive or negative, conveys truth about a certain group or element within the Mennonite community and, therefore, should be respected.
Rudy Wiebe tackled the question by arguing that Mennonites have always had a substantial literary tradition and that the community should embrace its writers. “We’re not just uncultivated manure shovelers,” he announced. “The first Anabaptists in Switzerland [the forebearers of Mennonites] were highly educated people.” Their stories of Anabaptist martyrs were remembered in songs and poems and eventually codified in works like The Martyr’s Mirror. “We have a tradition,” Wiebe reminded his audience, implying that Mennonites have not been as ignorant of the arts as is sometimes assumed.
The UFV Mennonite Studies Program will offer its first class in Winter 2011 on the subject of Mennonite Development and Relief Organizations.