Interview with Anna Wall

by Abigail Carl-Klassen


1. Tell us a little bit about your background.

I grew up Old Colony Mennonite in Nuevo Ideal, Durango, Mexico. I have seven brothers and four sisters. I am the third oldest. My parents, all four of my sisters and one brother live in Mexico. Two of my sisters do seasonal work in Canada. I travel back to my colony in Mexico about once a year to visit.

2. What was your community's relationship with storytelling, writing, and books?

Storytelling in the forum of gossip was practiced incessantly in my community. Books and writing not so much; in fact, they were frowned upon.

3. Did you know anyone growing up who wrote or created art? How were they received by the community? What impact did this have on you?

Growing up, I didn't know anyone who wrote. During the winter months when we had sandstorms in Mexico, we would sit around the kitchen table and draw, color, and look at all the letters written in High German that we had received over the years from extended family who lived in Paraguay, Honduras, and Canada. I couldn't read the letters, but Mom would often read them to us.

My mom loved sewing, quilting, crocheting, knitting and hand embroidery. She was known for her ability to create original pieces with color combinations that were rare in the colony. Some women in the community were suspicious of her and rejected her because of it. But others would come over and ask if they could borrow her original patterns. She was part of a group of women who got together once a week to quilt, and she hand-embroidered patches of fabric that she would turn into decorative items for our home. I never saw her just sitting around--she was always creating something. When she was busy doing household chores, she would talk about her ideas for the next project she had in mind.

This taught me that creating in any way, shape or form nourishes one's individuality, and is an outlet that is vital to our sanity.

4. Describe your early relationship to reading, writing, and education.

My early relationship with reading and writing was a nightmare. I didn't do well in the Mennonite school in Mexico. Rather than wasting too much time on teaching me, the teachers wrote me off as a "hard learner," meaning I had a learning disability. Being a girl, I got to stay home and learn to keep house with my mom. It made me feel that I was stupid. I feared school; just hearing the word made my heart skip a beat. It took me a long time to learn to let go of that.

5. You immigrated to Canada as a young woman. What role did migration play in the formation of your education and identity?

My early years in Canada confirmed my label as a "hard learner." It was a daily battle. It seemed like wherever I went, I was handed a paper to read and a pen to write with. I saw others take the pen and paper with confidence. It seemed like everyone else knew what to do except me. It made me feel like a useless human being. I realized that without the ability to read and write, I didn't fit in Canada, and my only option was to go back to the colony and stay there, but my desire to build an independent life in Canada was greater than my fear of facing school.

With an amazing friend by my side, supporting, guiding, and encouraging me, I went to school, and started what felt like kindergarten at the age of nineteen. The amount of learning I had ahead of me was overwhelming. Reflecting on it now, I felt like I was looking up at Mount Everest, knowing that I had to climb to the top. It made me feel so heavy that I didn't even have the strength to take the first step.

Students and teachers at the adult learning center I attended all supported and encouraged me to take my learning journey one word at a time. That kept me coming back when I ran out of courage and let my shame take me down. After I learned to leave my shame outside the classroom and climb my "Mount Everest" one step at a time, it didn't take long for me to realize that I was perfectly capable of learning, and I fell in love with it.

6. How did living in Canada impact your relationship to your family and community? In what ways has this changed and or remained the same over time?

My family and community didn't approve of me living in Canada at all. A woman, in their opinion, should never live alone. My community had nothing good to say about my lifestyle choices, which made it hard for me to convince my mom that I was doing the right thing by going to school. I grew tired of explaining myself to my family and refuting the gossip that went around the colonies about me. I stopped all communication with my family for a period.

The first time I went home, most people in the community didn't acknowledge me or say hello to me. People judged and stared at me. When my community learned that my reason for returning to Canada was to go back to school, they were in disbelief and at a loss for words.

Over the years my family and community have gotten used to me coming home for Christmas every year. My family accepted me and welcomed me with a bit less resistance each time I came home. I became old news when the church split. People got caught doing worse things than going to school in Canada, and that was far more gossip-worthy than I was. Those were hard times in the colonies in Durango, and my community began to have a more compassionate attitude toward me.

Now I am known far and wide throughout the Mennonite colonies in Mexico as the woman who helps her people. I am the woman in "that video" who has accomplished the almost unbelievable: "Anna landed her dream job because she went back to school, and she still speaks Dietsch fluently."

7. What prompted you to start a blog? Who is your primary audience and how has that impacted your writing?

The never-ending question, "Who are you people?" is what prompted me to start my blog. My answer used to be, "You tell me!" and now I ask, "How much time do you have?"

My primary audience is women between the ages of seventeen and sixty, mostly women from Mennonite backgrounds.

8. What are some of your favorite Mennopolitan blog posts? Why?

My favorite blog post is Fashion Faux Pas. Aside from it being funny and me being able to laugh at myself, it's my favorite post because it's the best tale of how my worlds collided.

Here I was in Canada, trying to be less Mennonite and blend in more by changing my style of clothing. And yet, I was cooking and baking the food I learned to make in the colony (while I wasn't going to school because I was a "hard learner") and serving my male guest just like mom served the men in her life.

Best of all was me learning how to use Canada's food guide, which was such a foreign concept to me. In the colony, we never chose what we ate. We ate what we had, and often all we had was corn tortillas, and beans…which are the foods I now choose to eat!

9. In addition to being a blogger, you wear many hats in your community. Public health worker. Translator. Literacy and education advocate. Actress. Tell us about your some of your current projects and community work. How do your community work and writing inform one another?

I am currently working on a second English/Low German video about financial literacy. I am writing scripts, directing, acting, and narrating as well as recording some of the scenes. This allows me to express my creativity in all aspects of my being. It allows me to be at one with my past, present, and future selves.

I spent many years thinking that my nineteen years of life before school were a waste. My friend George valued the cooking skills I'd acquired much more than I did. He made me realize that I didn't need to reject my past to move forward. His appreciation of my cultural background taught me to be proud of it. And I learned to embrace it over time, while I was building a new life in Canada and going to school.

In December I will be hosting a dinner for 250 people, serving a mix of Low German and Mexican food I learned to cook while growing up in the colony in Mexico. I will be working with volunteers from Low German-speaking backgrounds who are attending an alternative high school program. All proceeds from the dinner will go to the high school program. I am doing this to give back, and to teach young people the importance giving back to your community while valuing your culture and proudly sharing it with others.

Giving back is very important to me, because I will forever be grateful for what Canada and its people have given me. I am where I am because of the role models I had and the people who believed in me and taught me that I was worthy no matter where I came from or how little I knew. Now it's my turn to be a role model for others, and I am thrilled to take on that position.

10. Who are some favorite writers?

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Saloma Miller Furlong, and Miriam Toews, to name a few.

11. What advice would you give to girls and women in conservative communities who want to write and/or pursue education? What support systems and resources are available to them?

Writing is a way to heal. It's a way to spend time with your past self and to think about and look at that self from a different perspective, with liberated compassion. Reflecting on our past can make us realize just how strong we are, and the amazing things we are capable of achieving. It's never too late to go back to school. I thought I was too old when I started going to school at the age of nineteen, and guess what? I am still going to school. Even though my heart skips a beat every time I set foot on a college campus, knowing what my ancestors sacrificed to save me from public education, I just know that our people belong there too!

There are many support systems in place for us. We just have to ask the right people. Rather than wasting my time, getting steered in the wrong direction, getting wrong information and losing all hope, I went straight to the career counselor at the college and spilled my guts. Out tumbled my dreams, and my many doubts and excuses. After telling me to take a deep breath, the counselor showed me where to start and what to do, step by step. Now here I am, back in school and loving it! I am currently in an academic upgrading program at Conestoga College. I plan on earning a diploma in Social Service Work, starting in the fall of 2018.

12. What are your long-terms goals as a writer and a community worker?

I am plugging away at publishing my memoir and I continue to blog. Blogging has allowed me to push myself a little farther each time I write a post. To practice public speaking, I joined Toastmasters International. I entered their humorous speech contest and gave a speech based on my blog post Fashion Faux Pas, I won the contest, and I am going on to the next level!

13. How can we find and support your work?

You can find my work on my blog at http://www.mennopolitan.com/, Instagram https://www.instagram.com/haunted_mennonite_mexican/?hl=en and my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnvV7Ky8g7Ojift1AmuZ02g

Watch for my new video coming out winter 2017.

About the Author

Anna Wall

Anna Wall grew up in Hamburg Nuevo Ideal, Durango, Mexico.

Anna’s great-grandfather Rev. Johann P. Wall was one of the elected delegates who led his people to Mexico from Saskatchewan Canada in the 1920’s.

Anna came to Canada at the age of 16. She works as a Low German health worker at a community health centre in St. Jacobs, Ontario. She co-facilitates prenatal nutrition, mental health programs and interprets the material presented in to Low German. She runs a weekly dental program and is part of literacy collaborative. Anna organizes an annual Low German/Mexican dinner fundraiser to support literacy programs in her Low German speaking community.

Anna works with agency partners to create educational videos in Low German.

Anna writes about her experiences growing up in Mexico, staring a new life in Canada and going to kindergaten at the age of 19 on her blog Mennopolitan.com.