The late writer David Rakoff once joked about Canadians' tendency to designate Canadian-born celebrities as Canadian. As Montréal-born Rakoff put it, "if you mention a famous Canadian to a Canadian without acknowledging it, there's a vague flicker over their eyes like the shadow of an angel's wing passing." The claim has many functions. It asserts a hidden knowledge of the celebrity's difference (primarily from US American celebrities), one that only other Canadians recognize. What that difference is, no one can precisely say, but the claim reserves the possibility that there just might be something unique about "Canadians" and when we figure it out, our suspicions will be confirmed. The claim somehow puts us in league with a William Shatner, or a Shania Twain—they're "ours," even though we're not really into Star Trek and hate country music. The surprise on the other person's face when we inform them that Samantha Bee is Canadian gives us pleasure.
North American Mennonites do a similar thing. Those of us who are also literary critics are eager to claim certain writers as "Mennonite" even as we nervously wonder what difference the term makes to the understanding of their work. We declare it, even as we are leery of being branded naïve essentialists. I might call myself a Mennonite, but not a "Mennonite literary critic" since I don't write criticism about Mennonite writers. We also tag others with the term even though they may not identify with it themselves, often by sniffing out a surname. Dinner table conversation: Matt Groening—is he Mennonite? (Also, Matt Groening's father is Canadian, you know.) Claiming the term Mennonite often involves either an immediate undoing of the word or a mini history lesson for the (semi-interested) listener. Depending how much time I have, I might not bother mentioning it.
The chapters in After Identity grapple with an ambivalent allegiance to an identity category, a history, a faith tradition, a literary tradition, a scholarly field. What unites these chapters is a resistance to "Mennonite" as a singular, stable category, even as the category itself is announced as the subject of the book. Is the term exhausted? What would happen if we stopped using it? Who defines it, and with what historical, cultural, and linguistic gestures?
The requisite "autoethnographic announcement," a term Julia Spicher Kasdorf usefully applies, masquerades as a neutral description of the history and culture of a people, but tensions between Mennonite writers and audiences, for example, have demonstrated that to represent Mennonite experience is anything but a neutral act. What happens when one appropriates the term?
Ervin Beck's genealogy of the "canon of transgression" in Mennonite literary writing and a resistant "folk criticism" of lay readers demonstrates the multiple understanding of not only "Mennonite," but "literature" as well. The history of Mennonite writers' reception among Mennonite readers might be described as a resistance to a resistance. Di Brandt's contribution to the collection reframes the often-tense relationship between Mennonite writers and audiences from the artist's point of view, asking why Mennonite readers have so often responded to Mennonite writers with suspicion or outright contempt? Brandt calls for an "active embrace," (128) rather than a sceptical denial, of the inter-cultural connections that have always informed Mennonite community life, despite what our official histories tell us of our separation and withdrawal from the world's influences.
Beck's "canon of transgression" includes the writing of both Brandt and Kasdorf, who are compared in Ann Hostetler's chapter "After Ethnicity." Hostetler examines the early strain of rebellion against oppressive Mennonite structures in their work, and their subsequent reclamation of certain aspects of Mennonite heritage. Hostetler tracks the intersections of "Mennonite" with other, no-less important categories in Brandt's and Kasdorf's writing, such as "woman," and "poet." What does it mean to label someone a "Mennonite woman writer"—to tie her work to a (certain version of) a particular ethnic category—when that very category is what has traditionally silenced her?
Daniel Shank Cruz makes a similar point when he calls for a rigorously intersectional Mennonite literary criticism that both refuses the "oppressive dead end" of the monolithic identity category (143), and uncovers the shared histories of both a Mennonite and a queer practice of questioning authority. "How," Cruz asks, in a question that applies to the entire collection, "should we as critics write about these identities? And, perhaps more basically, why should we care?" (143).
Meanwhile, questions about the changing meanings of "Mennonite" also energize debates about its use in North American churches. Most North American Mennonite congregations have either shrinking membership or have simply dropped the "Mennonite designation," as Royden Loewen points out (41). Is being a "cultural Mennonite" even a thing if there is no "religious Mennonite" anymore? How long will the word apply to secular "mainstream" North American writers and the scholarship on them if and when the faith tradition from which the word stems no longer goes by the name? Will it become little more than a marketing device for furniture and books? In fact, it has been for a while now, as Paul Tiessen shows through his archival research on the cover design and publicizing of the first edition of Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962).
Who even knows about "us" other than "ourselves?" When I told her about this collection and the article I was writing on it, one of our recent MA grads at the Canadian university where I work was surprised to learn there was such a thing as Mennonite literature, let alone a whole body of criticism on it. She'd heard of Miriam Toews and assumed she was the "only one." Whose fault is this? Mine? Hers? Ours? Is this even anyone's "fault" to begin with? I think I responded by mumbling something about "ethnicity" and "diaspora" and "religious minority" and made an awkwardly-phrased comparison to Jewish literary studies—it was the literary scholar's autoethnographic announcement with all its structuring contradictions.
I felt like a fraud—an outsider pretending to be an insider. I consoled myself with the reminder that hardly anyone ever calls themselves an insider in a faith and cultural tradition built by and for outsiders anyway. We can only ever lay a hesitant claim to worldly terms of belonging and identity, "Mennonite" being one of those terms. In his article, "Towards a Poetics of Identity," Jeff Gundy expresses the ideal subject position perfectly: "a sort of odd but not uncomfortable interior exile" (165). Check.
A few years ago I encountered a student in a Victorian novel class who also happened to be a budding expert on Miriam Toews, and who had no Mennonite background or experience with real live Mennonites. She just loved reading Toews. When she found out I identified as Mennonite she became self-conscious, even though she was far more conversant with Toews's body of work than I was, and was already writing brilliant criticism on A Complicated Kindness. At one point she asked me whether it was necessary to frame her work on Toews in relation to Mennonite history and culture—to do the "Mennonite thing," as Robert Zacharias so usefully frames it. I told her it wasn't necessary, but I worried about this. What authority did I have to say this? I was therefore relieved to read Hildi Froese-Tiessen's contribution to this book, where she calls for a literary criticism that eschews "Mennonite" authenticity tropes and instead reorients the conversation in relation to other literatures and other traditions, to new sets of questions emerging from adjacent fields of inquiry.
It's also why I was delighted to read Jesse Nathan's and Magdalene Redekop's "new formalist" analyses of poetry by Jean Janzen and Patrick Friesen respectively. These are both rich, exciting chapters, although I disagree with Redekop that the wheels of literary criticism are "mired in a muck of theory" (197). To my mind there is no literary criticism without a theory, whether it is avowed or not. Different moments demand different emphases, preoccupations, maybe even different critical styles. Yet I think I understand Redekop's frustration. Teaching nineteenth-century British poetry over the past decade has shown me how impoverished my critical vocabulary for poetry is, how bare my toolkit, and, more frustratingly, how little my students hear its musical resonances. Most of what I know about prosody (not nearly enough) is self-taught. Whose fault is this? Mine or someone else's? Maybe it's no one's. We are all reflections of the shifting demands and preoccupations of our disciplines' histories. There is no ideal criticism and there is never enough time.
In her recent book Forms, Caroline Levine argues that our well-intentioned critical practice of breaking down the "painful power" of political forms—hierarchies, binaries, mystifications—has meant a neglect of the affordances of form, including literary form. We don't tend to teach it much, or write about it. "What is a walled enclosure or a rhyming couplet capable of doing?" Levine asks. "Literary form does not operate outside of the social but works among many organizing principles, all circulating in a world jam-packed with other arrangements" (7). Redekop's and Nathan's contributions embody the new politically- and historically-inflected formalism Levine calls for. In "Question, Answer," for example, Nathan explores US Mennonite poets' repeated use of the question-answer form and links it to the tradition of catechesis, "a closed system" that affords both spontaneity and scriptedness (187). Janzen's revision of catechesis, Nathan argues, is a "reimagination; challenging but not abandoning it, faithful to it even as she is recasting it, just as the original Anabaptists were with the Christianity they inherited" (188, my emphasis). A careful attention to Janzen's (breaking of) catechetical form permits the kind of connection Nathan makes between a contemporary poet and a Mennonite history and theology, without reducing the poet to an ethnic specimen. Literary and historical forms of reimagination interact and intersect in both Janzen's poetry and Nathan's appraisal of it. Indeed, Nathan's observation about Janzen's poetry—challenging but not abandoning—captures something of the entire project of After Identity.
No one in the collection uses the word crisis, (Loewen and Froese-Tiessen come close), and it's not up to me to say whether the field of Mennonite literary studies is in one. In his Introduction, Zacharias writes that the book reflects a sense of "shared frustration with the direction of the field" (11). From where I stand—as a Mennonite-identified, church-going professor of Victorian and women's literature at a secular Canadian university outside the Mennonite centres—it seems to me that the field wrestles productively with the same questions that characterize not only other "ethnic literatures" but also a whole range of umbrella fields, including post-colonial and globalization studies, feminist criticism, queer studies, and various national and regional literatures. For decades feminist critics have asked what it means to continue to claim the category woman when the term has long since been destabilized by intersectional critique.
Froese-Tiessen wonders whether Mennonite literature can survive if critics stop calling it Mennonite and instead "focus attention on alternative, non-Mennonite tropes" (221). My guess is that both an attentiveness to Mennonite specificity and an acknowledgment that "Mennonite writing" shares the preoccupations of the worlds it overlaps with are equally necessary, and mutually informative—a conclusion Froese-Tiessen also comes to. The term continues to be necessary, but not because it is capable of explaining everything.
The subtitle of After Identity is "Mennonite Writing in North America," but it's obvious that by "writing," most of the contributors mean "literary writing." The next collection of essays on Mennonite literature I'd like to see would interrogate the term "literature" as a sociolect. It would ask, as Beck and Brandt have begun to do, who is included and excluded by the word "literature." It would look at writing and other forms of cultural expression by Mennonite-identified artists that appear outside the framework of the literary publishing industry. It would interrogate Mennonite literature less in relation to "Mennonite," and more in relation to "literature." What is the relationship between (Mennonite) literature and the institutions that have traditionally supported and sustained it? Tiessen's work on the cultural production of "Mennonite literature" by a mainstream, non-Mennonite press is an exemplar in this regard.
A question I had while reading Froese-Tiessen's chapter was: how much of the concern about "Mennonite identity" is motivated by Mennonite literary writing itself and how much by institutional change? Here I'm thinking of pressures on the book publishing and book selling industries, a declining readership for literary writing, dwindling artists' grants, decreased funding for humanities research, and the casualization of academic labour in post-secondary institutions.
If there's a crisis, it's a crisis shared by all of us who live by the word processor, Mennonite or not. Will my student who's an expert on Toews ever get to teach her books in a university classroom if she decides to pursue a career in literary studies? Who will continue to tell stories of displacement, exclusion, expulsion, and persecution, and who will teach those stories to others, keeping their memory alive? Who will write the stories that do the essential work of, as Cruz writes, "interrogating the normative"—something Mennonite writers have always done. I am confident that writers will continue to write without institutions, even the institution of literary criticism! Reading this book and writing this article in the shadow of the Trump election reminds me that our task—writing literature and writing about literature—is as urgent as ever.
Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton UP, 2015.
Rakoff, David. "Who's Canadian?" This American Life. Episode 65. 30 May, 1997.