Letters Home: An Informal Report on “Mennonite/s Writing: Manitoba and Beyond”
The fifth Mennonite/s Writing conference took place from October 1-4, 2009 at the University of Winnipeg. It was co-chaired by historian Royden Loewen, Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, and literary scholar Hildi Froese Tiessen, Professor of English and Peace Studies at the University of Waterloo. The focus of the conference was Canadian writers from Manitoba, including those who had helped to create or participated in the literary community in Winnipeg during the 1970s and 1980s, nurtured by such writers and teachers as Robert Kroetsch and Dorothy Livesay, and the publishers of Turnstone Press. While the vast majority of the participants were Canadian—coming from Ontario and British Columbia as well as the Prairie Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba—the conference also attracted international scholars Martin Kuester from Germany, James Urry from New Zealand and Ann Hostetler from the United States. The conference was designed as a series of plenary sessions and readings, so that it was possible for participants with stamina and time to hear every paper and listen to every literary reading. (See “Links to Events” on our home page for a link to the conference website.)
On Sunday after formal papers were concluded, participants were invited to participate in a day-long literary bus tour of the Eastern and Western Reserves, Mennonite settlements in Southern Manitoba, including the city of Steinbach and an abundant traditional Mennonite lunch at the Mennonite Heritage Village, made famous by Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness. Writers who gave readings in the landscapes that inspired their works included David Bergen, Di Brandt, David Elias, Patrick Friesen, Sarah Klassen, Al Reimer, David Waltner-Toews and Rudy Wiebe.
Patrick Friesen wrote of the experience, “I had never actually gone to the junction of the Red and Rat Rivers where my own great-grandmother landed (near Niverville). I mean I knew of the place, had certainly been near it often, but had never previously bothered to go there. I was moved to stand where my four-year-old great grandmother Anna had once been. She was a powerful influence on me…died when I was ten, but I remember her well, can almost smell her sometimes…” In addition, Friesen commented, “the town of Niverville, and environs, came alive with David Bergen’s reading, and with his comments on the town. I’d been in the town numerous times but hadn’t seen it very clearly; it didn’t have any vibrations, as we used to say in the 60s, but it does now.” Although Friesen knows Manitoba well, he had never been to the border that David Elias wrote about in Sunday Afternoon. “Really interesting to think of his imagination developing there,” he said.
Armin Wiebe was unable to attend the conference, but a memorable passage from The Salvation of Yasch Siemens concerning a perilous pilgrimage up the Altona TV tower ladder for love was read aloud in Altona while we all gazed at the tower from the bus—a rare moment in which literature and life overlapped. Another memorable moment was the generous faspa put on by the family and friends of Di Brandt in the Reinland Community Center, where Di read a poem from questions i asked my mother. In response to my invitation to share her impressions of the conference, participant Natasha Wiebe wrote the following letter highlighting two memorable moments—both of them involving chocolate!