Displacement, Mennonite/s Writing, and the Human Barnyard

In her introduction to Acts of Concealment – the volume of published proceedings from what might be retrospectively titled Mennonite/s Writing I – Hildi Froese Tiessen quotes Robert Kroetsch's thoughts on narrative revelation and concealment: "To reveal all is to end the story. To conceal all is to fail to begin the story. Individuals, communities, religions, even nations, narrate themselves into existence by selecting out, by working variations upon, a few of the possible strategies that lie between these two extremes" (qtd. in Tiessen 19). Despite the 27 years between that first Mennonite/s Writing conference in Waterloo and Mennonite/s Writing VIII in Winnipeg, Kroetsch's remarks seem as applicable as ever. Sure, writing by and about Mennonites includes a more diverse range of topics than in the last decade of the 20th century, but "the productive tension between revelation and concealment" Froese Tiessen identified as a driving force behind Mennonite/s writing is still strong, even if what is revealed and concealed has shifted.

Mennonite/s Writing continues to provide fresh perspective on tensions like those between faith and faithlessness, religion and culture, and the individual and the community. These tensions provide fertile, perhaps even necessary, ground for artistic and scholarly creation. They nurture the rich landscape in which artists, critics, and audiences engage. But tension is tension. Every selection is a de-selection. As we narrate ourselves into existence, either as a culture or a literary field, how can we take care to not "select out" in such a way that we render any collective identity, however diverse, completely incoherent?

A few impressions came right to mind when I began to reflect on Mennonite/s Writing VIII. This is one benefit of writing several months after the fact: there's a greater sense of which impressions are deepest, for they remain most salient. I think especially of presentations like Andrew Harnish's "But Peace Does Not Destroy Everyone," a graciously moving and nuanced examination of coming to terms with his sexuality in a theologically conservative Mennonite congregation, Mary Ann Loewen's exploration of her childhood relationship with her father as a beautifully complex site, and Julia Spicher Kasdorf's illuminating presentation on the poetry and life of Jane Rohrer. (I commented to Julia that listening while she reveals some previously unexplored Mennonite artist or scholar is one of the things I now most anticipate about these gatherings.) Each of these left me with a deep appreciation for the depth of spirit and study out of which these scholars shared. [Ed. note: See the full conference program, and in some cases, the summer 2018 issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies for revised versions of these essays. Mary Ann Loewen's essay in this issue focuses on her forthcoming collection, Finding Father.]

Rob Zacharias's and Aileen Friesen's papers served as particularly strong introductory frameworks for the weekend. Both invited us to consider the "hard lines" of historical fiction and personalized narratives of the past. Friesen's "A Comparative Disquiet of Home" asked good questions about the differences between the 1870's migration and the 1920's trauma narratives, and pointed out how letter writing between family members functioned as a kind of continuity between time and place. Her point that written correspondence maintained cultural and kinship networks has me wondering how all Mennonite literatures might function in this capacity, and if so, what those networks look like when cultural and kinship markers are disrupted.

The complications and ethics of life writing, especially around narratives of trauma, were a consistent theme throughout the conference. How do we negotiate the painful realities of our past? Or perhaps more to the point, how do we, in our writing and scholarship, negotiate the painful realities of others' pasts? It may be less "what do I want to reveal about myself?" and more "what do I want to reveal about Great-Grandpa?" In the wake of similar questions arising from John D. Thiesen's "Writing the Autobiography of an 'Imperfect' Stranger" Jeff Gundy suggested "creative non-fiction would be a good idea" when addressing the kinds of complicated and conflicting narratives that emerge while dealing with life writing. Such an approach may helpfully blur the "hard lines" Zacharias and Friesen addressed. I am curious whether we might see more of this kind of writing in the future – thinking of analogues like Ondaatje's Running in the Family – and what this kind of writing will look like in a Mennonite context.

Another impression that remains is the presence of the rural, a quality that came up in Daniel Shank Cruz's insightful reading of Wes Funk, was predominant in Spicher Kasdorf's work on Jane Rohrer, and which found a most entertaining expression in David Elias's "By Way of the Barn." I could never enjoy barns because of a cocktail of allergies, but I've always wanted to enjoy barns, a desire Elias helped me better understand as he spoke of traditional barns as places of refuge (for example, Noah's floating ur-barn) where "the stall held as much promise as the pew," where affectation was cast off and an accessible humility reigned. In addition to pointing out the persistent motif of "the barn" in Mennonite texts, Elias suggested we consider how unnaturally sterile contemporary barns are, how they've been robbed of their "barn-ness" in favour of an industrial aesthetic and function.

I am curious what connections may be explored between this insight and Gundy's presentation on literary practice as an opening to new terrain, a special place where the margins of the Mennosphere and "the World" can be explored, examined, exhumed. Traditional barns are spaces in which the dirt and stink of everyday life are necessary conditions, but neither do these spaces obscure the distinction between that which is wholesome and that which is abject. I can't help but think perhaps the conceptual differences between traditional and contemporary barns provide generative lenses through which Mennonite/s Writing may continue to explore the tensions of being "in the world, but not of it." Perhaps this is just my Burkean orientation. In his Rhetoric of Motives, Burke posits a disposition towards language that "must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Marketplace, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take" (23). The more of this world I experience, the more I think I understand what he means by his strange proper nouns and his emphasis that language is the one hope we have to negotiate them.

All that said, for me the tenor of the conference can be distilled down to one moment. After her moving "Ort and Vertreibung: My Mother of the 1920s," Elsie Neufeldt asked if we would join in singing the Doxology. She requested we sing the version with the "revised" final line, replacing "Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" with "Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost" (or some similar articulation; I cannot remember exactly). The room filled with song, in four parts of course, but when the chorus arrived at that final line the room dissolved into an awkward smattering of both the traditional lyrics and the new. (I was especially amused when one attendee, sitting close to me and whom I fully expected to sing the new lyrics, sang the traditional line. Meine Güte!)

I've tried not to read too much into that moment. I know just enough about how the mind functions to understand there's more than conscious choice at work when singing from memory. I know it would have been different had the lyrics been projected on a screen, and the lack of lyrical unity was less the product of intention than of embedded recall or uncertainty in the moment. The remarkable experience of a roomful of academics singing together was not lessened by the final line(s), but I can't shake the impression we were, in that moment, a manifestation of particular tensions that persist under the heading "Mennonite." We are always making assumptions about shared values, about what it means to be Mennonite in the 21st century, and pretending our acts of placement and selection aren't also acts of displacement and de-selection. That moment in song will stick with me for a long time. It's a representational anecdote, inviting hard questions about the broader field of Mennonite/s Writing.

How do we attend to the reality that an appreciation for the progressive values informing our literary practices does not equal assent to values expressed through those practices? What of those Mennonites who have recognized themselves and their experiences while reading the work of other Mennonites, but who can't come to terms over core theological expressions? What of those Mennonites who maintain conservative theologies and practice, and who would hear their positions described as "traditional," "backwards," or "fundamentalist?" What of those who understand and participate in criticism of patriarchal practices, but who intentionally sing the "Father/Son" lyrics of the Doxology? If Mennonite/s Writing is a moveable feast, are these positions still welcome at the table?

If I can quiet the noise around me long enough, my most lingering impression in the months following the conference is one of immense gratitude, particularly for the scholars dedicated to these various pursuits. I'm grateful the rest of us get the blessing of added perspective when edited versions of diaries, journals, letters, amateur genealogies, and unpublished autobiographies and biographies are released. In "The Secret of 'Feedforward'" I. A. Richards invites us "to ask, more often and more searchingly, of utterances that claim some importance – political, poetical, practical – whether they seem to be guided and guarded by reasonable feedforward[1] as to how people of very different prepossessions are likely to take them" (15). He continues:

Far too many of the voices that make us glow or wince speak too often as though they had the thing itself – the whole thing and nothing but the thing – presented to them. And not just, in fact, a view of it: a view formed under special circumstances which only a minority of the auditors can possibly share. (15-16)

This questioning position, what Richards calls becoming an "adept in uncertainty" (12), may be the medicine required to keep from wincing or glowing without generous benefits of the doubt and proverbial grains of salt. But it's complex work when dealing with a category like "Mennonite" that invokes theological and/or cultural orientations. How do we become adepts in uncertainty when our cultural expression depends from a faith that asks us to be certain of so much?

The tensions of Mennonite/s Writing are the stuff of Mennonite/s Writing, and the stuff is the blessing of perspective emerging from the Human Barnyard. The great gift given by these artists and scholars is the opportunity to share in perspective, to avoid having to confess what Richards calls a statement of incompetence – "I just cannot understand anyone taking any other view on this" (16). The challenge remains in our own processes of placement and dis-placement, in negotiating those perspectives with the grace and humility the Barnyard, and Mennonite/s Writing, requires.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives, University of California Press, 1969.

Richards, I. A. "The Secret of 'Feedforward.'" Readings in Contemporary Rhetoric, edited by Karen A. Foss, Sonja K. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Waveland Press, Inc, 2002, pp. 10-16.

Tiessen, Hildi Froese. "Introduction: Mennonite Writing and the Post-Colonial Condition." Acts of Concealment: Mennonite/s Writing in Canada, edited by Hildi Froese Tiessen and Peter Hinchcliffe, University of Waterloo Press, 1992, pp. 11-21.

[1] "Feedforward," Richards says, "is a needed prescription or plan for a feedback, to which the actual feedback may or may not conform" (11). In other words, it's an assumption or expectancy about how an action or utterance will be received.

About the Author

Kyle Gerber

Kyle Gerber is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Waterloo. Supervised by Dr. Randy Harris, Kyle studies rhetorical figures and patterns in Mennonite/s writing on forgiveness. He lives in St. Agatha, ON with his wife Tracy and their three daughters, serves as an Associate Pastor at Faith Mennonite Church, and plays mandolin in Rescue Junction, a bluegrass band he helped form with his sister Kaitlyn Gerber.