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Introduction: Postcolonial Studies (After Identity)




A funny thing happened on Ellah Wakatama's way to writing a postcolonial critique of Sofia Samatar's prize-winning fantasy novel, Stranger in Olondria. She became seduced by the act of reading, independent of ideology and literary theory. Her awareness of postcolonial elements in Samatar's work comes through, but her reader's delight in words and thought predominate in her essay, which is in the tradition of reader-response criticism and the much earlier "appreciation" approach to literature. Ellah is indeed a voracious and perceptive reader, as illustrated by her having to read dozens of books for the Dublin and Man Booker prizes in England, for which she has served as judge. A native of Zimabwe living in London, Ellah has become one of the most prominent promoters, editors and interpreters of contemporary African and diasporic literature today in England. See her essay in the "Visiting Mennonites" issue of this online journal (November 2012).

Sofia Samatar's essay may be a landmark in Mennonite literary studies, since it states "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." Sofia, a Somali-American-Mennonite, articulates clearly and strongly the need for Mennonite literary studies to seek out and embrace global Mennonite writing, especially from Southern Hemisphere cultures. She names a few names and introduces us to a fellow Somali-Canadian-Mennonite poet. Most intriguing, she suggests a starting point for gathering and studying global Mennonite writing—in the form of hymns and songs (shades of Bob Dylan!) from other cultures, which in comparison with lyrics used by North American Mennonites will yield insights into the experiences of Mennonites in postcolonial cultures. Notice that this suggestion, if implemented, will return Mennonite literary studies to earlier interests, now much neglected, in highlighting the religious and spiritual beliefs and experiences that may unite us.

Both Sofia and Ellah are graduates of Goshen College. The Goshen College origin of other material in this issue is provided without apology, since international studies has characterized liberal arts education there since the late 1960s.

So the intended scope of this issue of the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing is only partly achieved. That is, an emphasis on subjecting Mennonite writing to formal, academic criticism from a postcolonial perspective. That intention is made attractive and compelling especially in light of the previous (January 2017) issue of the Journal, which featured responses to the anthology of essays, After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (Penn State 2016), edited by Robert Zacharias. The title derives from theoretical essays by Zacharias and Hildi Froese Tiessen, who urge Mennonite authors and critics to move beyond a pre-occupation with representations of Mennonite identity and into new concerns in subject and analysis.

Exactly what those subjects and analyses would be like is not made very clear in that anthology, and indeed most of the other eleven essays in the anthology remain concerned, in their own way, and to considerable degree, with Mennonite identity. But the point is clear: If Mennonite writing is to evolve into a more mature field, as other ethnic literatures have, then it must—or will inevitably—become less concerned with explicit depictions of Mennonite experience and thought. How that will continue to justify "Mennonite" as a category in literary and critical expression is not perfectly clear.

Into that discussion comes this issue on postcolonial literature and criticism. It seems to me that indeed this perspective goes beyond ethnic navel-gazing and opens up a new, unexplored field of discourse in Mennonite literary studies.

Although Mennonite literature contains a vast number of texts amenable to postcolonial criticism, very few analyses have been written by Mennonites from that perspective. My two essays on Rudy Wiebe – "Postcolonial Complexity in the Writings of Rudy Wiebe" (MFS Winter 2001) and "Rudy Wiebe and W. B. Yeats: Sailing to Danzig and Byzantium" (Ariel October 2001)—are among the rare few. True, Wiebe's writings about indigenous people have attracted many postcolonial essays, but almost entirely by non-Mennonite writers. Mennonite critics tend to focus on Mennonite subjects.

Some fine recent novels by Mennonite writers that virtually cry out for postcolonial analysis are The Time in Between by David Bergen (2005), set in Viet Nam, and Fear of Landing by David Waltner-Toews (2007), set in Java and Bali. Rudy Wiebe's award-winning A Discovery of Strangers (1994) has received very little criticism of any kind, and the situation it depicts is intensely colonial.

Other texts that I recommended to prospective writers for this issue were all of the writings by Omar Eby about Somalia and Viet Nam; Armin Wiebe's Tatsea (2003), about Dogrib people in early exposure to Europeans; Rudy Wiebe's First and Vital Candle (1966), about a missionary among Ojibway people; and Chapter 11, "Wash, This Sand and Ashes," from Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China (1970).

An interesting historical survey of Mennonites interacting with people of other nations and cultures could look much farther backward to texts, especially memoirs and reports, derived from the earliest service and missionary programs sponsored by Mennonite agencies. For Dutch Mennonites, that would be memoirs about Indonesia. For Swiss Mennonites, the mission at Dhamtari, India. Each Mennonite denomination that sponsored foreign and domestic missions will have its own set of memoirs, even if no fiction or poetry emerged from missionary experiences.

How did Mennonite missionaries from European and American Mennonite cultures, bearing financial and cultural power, regard and represent the "Other" in their cross-cultural encounters? Were their attitudes, as Mennonite Christians, more sensitive and humane than their counterparts in colonial governments and commercial ventures?

Beyond these early missions, and especially following World Wars I and II, when Mennonite relief and service workers spread throughout the world, travel memoirs, or travelogues, emerged as a common expressive genre, at a time when most Mennonites could not travel internationally as easily as they can today.

One such text worth considering from a postcolonial perspective is Middle East Sojourn (1951) by Samuel A. Yoder, later Professor of English at Goshen College and the first teacher of a creative writing course there. It chronicles his travels and service assignments in the then exotic lands of Palestine, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Or Eastward to the Sun (1953) by Sanford C. Yoder, beloved president of Goshen College, who travelled to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Mennonite mission in India and reported on his travels through England, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Holland.

Readers from other Mennonite communities can think of many other travel texts by Mennonite writers that might sparkle in a new way if given postcolonial scrutiny.

I hope that this issue will inspire a new direction in Mennonite literary criticism, one that goes beyond traditional Mennonite identity and into cross-cultural, even global identities.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.