Letters Home: An Informal Report on “Mennonite/s Writing: Manitoba and Beyond”

by Ann Hostetler

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!

Comments for Letters Home: An Informal Report on “Mennonite/s Writing: Manitoba and Beyond”

  • Helma Voth

    On December 3, 2009 Helma Voth wrote:

    Some Musings on the Conference

    This long weekend--jam-packed with images, stories, lively panel discussions with audience input, numerous scholarly papers, an all-day bus tour of literary Mennonite Southern Manitoba--was an intellectual feast.

    We received a complimentary copy of Rhubarb, a publication of the Mennonite Literary Society, which I treasure. On the bus tour we had no trouble seeing and hearing speakers and readers like Patrick Friesen because some wise organizer provided a portable “stool platform” for them to stand on. I was delighted that there were no concurrent sessions; the whole community used the breaks for great informal discussions. Because we sat for many hours through many sessions I was elated that we could walk, breathe fresh air, and hunt for food from a variety of restaurants along Portage Avenue!

    Thanks to David Elias’ Sunday Afternoon, and our visit to the border he wrote about, the image of a boundary, a border, lingered with me the entire weekend. I pondered over “the other”, and what really is “out there” beyond my world. I believe it is quite easy for us, when we hear or see the other, to insist, consciously or unconsciously, that they write, think, believe, and/or see what we want them to write, think, believe, and/or see.

    But many presenters offered new insights, unexpected images, and sometimes critical observations, and this allowed me to look into a mirror, to reconsider some of my beliefs and values.

    I also thrilled to hear the many fascinating details of a publishing business from Turnstone Press and developed a whole new appreciation for the work of authors and editors.

    When John Weier read his poem about life in Ethiopia the story grabbed me so strongly that I could hardly breathe. Having worked with someone who came from Eritrea and Ethiopia, who withheld many details of torture and abuse, I can only express my deep appreciation to Weier for his passionate writing and presentation. I saw and heard “the other” and it was painful.

    I treasure the many interesting discussions, the references to the importance of telling our narratives, and the concerns voiced about possible errors in the recall of historical data. It made me think of some comments made by John Durham Peters in Speaking Into the Air: “Most of the time we understand each other quite well; we just don’t agree . . . . What might be called failure to communicate is more often a divergence of commitment or a deficit of patience . . . . The challenge of communication is not to be true to our own interiority but to have mercy on others for never seeing ourselves as we do . . . . “

    And, I still am curious why southern Manitoba has created so many Manitoba Mennonite writers?

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