Interview with William Squirrell

This interview with William Squirrell, author and founder and editor of Big Echo: Critical SF was conducted via email by Jeff Gundy in July 2018. (NB: William Squirrell is a pen name.)

JG: Can you say a little about your particular Mennonite background and connections? You mention the University of Manitoba—did you grow up in that region? Are you still connected to Mennonites, directly or indirectly?

WS: I'm not a practitioner but both my parents were raised in Russian Mennonite communities in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I was an MCC child and until adulthood identified more strongly with a sort of deterritorialized Anabaptist liberalism than with Mennonite culture per se. But while I spent very little time immersed in that Mennonite culture, just family gatherings and Sundays at church in the Seventies and Eighties really, I continue to feel its effect on the warp and woof of my worldview more than I do the influence of a generalized Protestantism that I was more frequently exposed to. Not that traditional Russian Mennonite culture was ever attractive to me, and new Evangelical forms propagated by American radio and tent missions even less so, but I still feel like I feel the influence of those old social forms and practices in my life. I'm not a self-hating Mennonite or anything like that, I'm quite fascinated by my family history, even appreciative, still, not for me.

JG: What aspects of Mennonite/Anabaptist culture, thought, and practice still resonate with you? What reservations, quarrels, doubts, differences do you have?

WS: As I said I'm not a practitioner, I'm not even a Christian, but all those dour old patriarchs haunt me in all sorts of ways. I share with them a comforting cynicism about the world and a reluctance to dirty my hands in politics of that place, an absolute distrust of Princes – even pleasant ones, a stubborn sort of a kneejerk pacifism, a predilection for superficially egalitarian social organization, a sour iconoclasm in matters of aesthetics that I have tried to throttle but cannot quite finish off, an absolute certainty that my perspective is the correct one and everyone else be damned, and a largely unconscious commitment to Luddism that occasionally flares into life. I'm sure I could come up with more. The theology and the practice I'm indifferent too, I had in younger days an occasional burst of false nostalgia for shared faith, but I am one of nature's atheists and it is the deep cultural (and I suspect highly gendered) structures that precede the intellectual's rationalizations which persist, and which most interest me.

JG: How does your particular sense of Menno history, culture, theology, etc. influence your writing, directly or indirectly?

WS: The schismatic impulse, the rejection of a doomed world by a holy fragment, all the contradictions that follow from that basic attitude – that's my bag I suppose. There is something endlessly hilarious to me about damning everyone else to hell for their vanity. I guess it's the evangelical reformation more than just Mennonites that suffer from that sort of hubris, but this attitude of not so much in-the-world-but-not-of-it as in-the-world-and-better-than-it is rather accentuated for many of us from Mennonite background, and one of the sources of all those delightful schisms. It is a very interesting place from which to begin writing, that particular sense of self, that sense of being surrounded by all these millions of people that are all going to burn no matter how much we might happen to love them. The ironies proliferate and I would hope that I could characterize my writing as ironic, even at its most sentimental it is ironic, although I worry the opposite may be true as well.

JG: What other influences and commitments are especially important to you? Do those others mesh well with the Menno influences, clash, exist in uneasy tension?

WS: My training is as an historian and my ideological inclinations rather to the left of center, but depending on fragments of text as evidences to buttress one's arguments and rejecting the worldly status quo are hardly antithetical to Mennonite values. How much more radical reformation can you get? I suppose I dislike the deliberate narrowness of much Mennonite practice, its tendency to produce concentrations of likeminded individuals and aggressive exclusions, the reliance on a core set of texts, doctrines and practices as definitive – the conference rule book and the Bible and the Martyrs' Mirror and maybe the writings of Menno Simons, at least that used to be the canon. I think this essentializing attitude exists among liberal and radical Mennonites as much as the conservatives, this idea that it is possible to divine a Mennonite core, a set of values that people are either true to or fall away from: pacifism, simple living, rejection of the world, whatever. While I understand the use of the word "Mennonite" as a sort of convenient shorthand for identifying a set of cultural characteristics and historical antecedents (that is how I used it in the first three questions), I am uneasy about any definitive claims about who is a Mennonite and who isn't, whatever the evidential basis of such claims, and whoever might be making them.

JG: You briefly mentioned "Kleinegemeinde alienation and postapocalyptic sensibility" in our earlier correspondence—can you elaborate on those terms and what you meant by them?

WS: I already alluded to both these terms earlier and I think they are a great place to start talking about science fiction. My people are Kleinegemeinde and I knew from very early on we were the truest and best Mennonites and that's why we had to break away and start again. But Mennonites in general are historically very committed world-builders, in a quite science fictional sense, they are constantly giving up on what exists and starting again and doing so by working from a few axiomatic principles – move to Poland, move to the Ukraine, move to the Prairies, Mexico, Paraguay, why not the Moon? Why not Mars? I wouldn't say that postapocalyptic drive to start over, that profound dissatisfaction with how things are, that desire to be born again, is a necessary element of science fiction, but it is certainly common in certain forms, and it is interesting to think about how it overlaps with Mennonite colony building.

JG: Do you have a sense of how your Mennonite background allows/leads you to make a particular sort of contribution to the SF realm and the wider literary community?

WS: In general science fiction doesn't do religion particularly well but really, a background in any religious subculture will help with that. In Big Echo, the journal I edit, both Michael Díaz Feito (http://www.bigecho.org/starry-night-of-the-soul) and Wm Henry Morris (http://www.bigecho.org/ghosts-of-salt-and-spirit) provide us with fantastic stories that explore that intersection, but Mennonites in particular? I suppose the whole Mennonite/colonialism relationship would be a pretty rich vein for someone to mine. Mennonites imagine themselves as not implicated in state building, yet they have so often been on the cutting edge of settler colonialism: breaking land, introducing new agricultural practices to a "frontier" region in Russia, in Canada, in the States, in Mexico and Paraguay and so on, even while pretending to be above it all, this is terribly intriguing from a science fictional point of view. And even the liberal development worker end of things, the participation of Mennonites who leave the colony proper in education, in integration of local economies into the global, in smoothing over conflict . . . it is all very very interesting how as extra-state actors Mennonites have participated in aggressive colonial expansion and how their religious discourse and practice facilitates that. One can imagine this facilitation is further enhanced by Mennonite attitudes towards technology. The very fact of a debate makes things seem more rational and reasonable and ethical than they really are. What is legitimate technology and what isn't? Who gets to decide? I recall hearing once that some Old Order Mennonites in Southern Ontario are making fortunes in tech, and the idea of manufacturing cell phone and computer components and the sort of thing in barns while at home the women do the wash by hand is pretty fascinating. There's not enough of that sort of technological unevenness and strategic Luddism in SF, nor studies of the role of religion in relationships between the state and marginal communities on the colonial frontier. These are things a specifically Mennonite perspective could make very interesting, or at least things which a Mennonite might be thinking of already and which the rest of the SF and literary community might enjoy reading about. But to be honest, I'm not sure there is any inherent privilege in being a Mennonite SF writer, just some interesting coincidences that an outsider could observe just as easily as we could. Maybe more easily.

About the Author

William Squirrell

WILLIAM SQUIRRELL is a Canadian living in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Sundog Lit, decomP magazinE, and other publications. Most recently in The Future Fire and Flapperhouse. He is also the founder and editor of Big Echo: Critical SF at www.bigecho.org. More information can be found at www.blindsquirrell.com and on twitter @billsquirrell.