Hildi Froese Tiessen: A Tribute

Presented at Mennonite/s Writing IX, October 2022

It is my honour to offer a brief note of tribute to the brilliant Dr. Hildi Froese Tiessen, Professor Emeritus of Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo. It is, I confess, a daunting task.

One way to begin to appreciate the scale of Hildi Froese Tiessen’s truly remarkable contribution is to return to the closing panel of the very first of these Mennonite/s Writing conferences, held at Conrad Grebel way back in 1990. Hildi not only organized and hosted that conference, she edited three separate collections of Mennonite writing in the year leading up to it, as well, and she would edit the collection of essays that emerged from it. In the conference’s closing panel, Magdalene Redekop, also here tonight, paused in the midst of a lively sparring session to draw attention to Hildi’s efforts. “I think what I do want to say is ‘thank you’ […] to Hildi for everything that she has done,” Maggie said, adding that “the contribution that she has made to Mennonite writing and to Mennonite writers is really quite astonishing” (232). This is, you will remember, literally the first Mennonite writing conference, and her peers were already declaring themselves astonished at her contributions. How are we to describe her efforts in the thirty odd years that have past since?

Let’s just say it is fitting that, as the organizer of that initial conference, she quite literally gave the field of Mennonite/s Writing its name, for Hildi has not so much influenced or transformed the field as she has been one of the key forces of its construction. She published her first essay on Mennonite writing in 1973, and since then has edited fourteen books or special journal issues focussed on Mennonite writing, including the collections Acts of Concealment, Liars and Rascals, and 11 Encounters with Mennonite Fiction, along with special issues of Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, and Conrad Grebel Review. In addition, she has published over forty essays, book chapters, interviews, and introductions. She has sat on the organizing committee for each of the 9 Mennonite/s Writing conferences, including this one, and has organized innumerable literary reading series and related events for Mennonite authors. Indeed, Hildi is that rare combination of academic, at once deeply generous yet unflinchingly rigorous; hard at work behind the scenes, drumming up grant applications, organizing events, and hosting dinners, while being absolutely prolific in her research and writing. Al Reimer once suggested that wrote that “To say that Rudy [Wiebe] invented Canadian-Mennonite literature in English is no exaggeration [….] He created a Mennonite literary world that other Mennonite writers could enter and explore.” When I was a new PhD student in Southern Ontario, contemplating a shift into Mennonite literary studies, it seemed to me that something similar could be said of Hildi’s role in carving out a space for Mennonite literary studies in Canada: through tireless organizing, editing, and scholarship, she had created a critical world that I could enter and explore—even if I might occasionally rail against what I found!

In reviewing her work for this tribute, I was reminded of the breadth of Hildi’s writing. readings of major figures, yes, but also deep archival projects, writing on fiction and poetry, but also on photography, painting, film, and life writing. In several of these projects, she worked alongside her constant partner and academic co-conspirator, Paul Tiessen. And I was reminded that whatever the subject, a Hildi Froese Tiessen essay is a recognizable thing. Her prose is disarmingly clear and always confident, stylish, even, leaping from history to theory text and back again. And she is absolutely canny in anticipating objections to her own argument, raising them in plausible terms and then countering them with notable relish. Nothing is more indicative of this gesture than her characteristic use of the term “Indeed. If you see the word “Indeed” in an essay by Hildi, it’s time to hold on—especially if she is using it on its own, as she sometimes does, as a one-word sentence to hammer in a point. (Indeed.) Whenever I come across this moment in Hildi’s work, I imagine she is sweeping the laptop off the table and reaching for the scotch, her scarf fluttering in the wind.

But it is her assessments on Mennonite literature as a field that are likely to prove her most enduring work. Many of these essays are already classics in the sense that Jonathan Culler has defined the term: they were the first to articulate arguments that are now accepted as all but self-evident. Well of course it’s true that early Mennonite writers were working self-consciously from the margins, we think; isn’t it obvious that they deployed their mother tongue as a “shibboleth” to invoke the very isolation they are ostensibly writing against? Yes, of course we need to move “beyond the binary” and complicate the basic tropes in the field; and, it’s obviously true that literary texts sometimes need to be liberated from our critical squabbles. The essays in which Hildi first made these arguments are indispensable to our shared critical conversation, and I am so pleased to be able to use this occasion to make an announcement: a critical collection of Hildi’s most significant essays is now in the works with Canadian Mennonite University Press, which hopes to have it out sometime next year.  

Let me close by noting that in conversation over the course of the past few days, I asked a couple of people here in this room to share their thoughts on Hildi’s role in the Mennonite writing. Ann Hostetler immediately said that Hildi was the person to whom the scholars returned, in person and print, to articulate where were at as a conversation, and to prod it forward. Julia Spicher Kasdorf described Hildi as the field’s “dignified advocate,” who was “determined to drag Mennonite writing out of the margins at a time when it might have seemed exotic or parochial, even as she insisted on its distinctly different origins and strove to understand and honor the real differences among us.” And Daniel Shank Cruz, this in his recent book, christened Hildi the “godmother of Mennonite literary criticism” (). But if there is one thing that I have learned about working on Mennonite literature in Canada over the years, it’s that somehow everything is supposed to come back to Rudy Wiebe. So I will close my tribute here with something Rudy said about Hildi a few years ago, during a Mennonite Writing lecture series that, of course, Hildi had organized. “What she has done to promote Mennonite literature is uncalculatable, really,” he said, calling it “a gift she has given to all of us, as writers, readers, and students.” To which I can only add: Indeed.

To Hildi! 






About the Author

Robert Zacharias Robert Zacharias is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at York University in Toronto. He is author of Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature (U Manitoba, 2013) and Reading Mennonite Writing: A Study in Minor Transnationalism (Penn State, 2022), and the editor of After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (Penn State 2015). He is also an Associate Editor of the Journal of Mennonite Studies.