New Fiction

Vol. 2, No. 1

The title of this issue is a bit misleading, since some of the authors included have published fiction elsewhere, and the piece by Keith Miller is excerpted from his second published novel. But the title does capture the intent of this issue, which is also one of the goals of the CMW website as a whole: to offer unpublished authors a friendly venue for publication; to bring to the attention of CMW readers Mennonite writers early on in their publishing careers; and to make accessible the writings of Mennonites who might be unfamiliar to many readers of this journal. The seven very different fiction-writers in this issue fulfill these intentions in a fine way.

The issue also is intended to encourage the writing of fiction in the Mennonite community. Periodicals tend to favor poetry, which takes up less space. Readers can easily embrace a lyric poem, and move on if they don’t like it. Fiction requires more space from the publisher and more patience and commitment from the reader.

To pose a provocative, winless debate: it may also be easier for most people to write a good poem than to write engrossing fiction. If William Wordsworth is right, a poem springs from a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” which everybody experiences from time to time. Any person literarily inclined might be able to write at least one good poem in a lifetime, based on such experience.

A short story might also derive from personal experience—hence the close association between memoir and fiction—but perhaps it requires a fuller, more complex set of competencies and inspirations to create “believable” setting, characters, narrative, conflict, dialogue, resolution and idea (to invoke the classical ingredients of fiction).

As has often been noticed, Mennonite writers in Canada have tended to excel in fiction, as in the remarkable work of Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, David Bergen and many others. Mennonite creative writers in the U.S. have produced much fine poetry, but much less fiction. That situation is remedied here a bit by a preponderance of U.S. authors: Keith Miller, Ryan Ahlgrim, Tim Stair, John Liechty and Linda Wendling

The seven pieces of fiction published in this issue prove once again that Mennonite literature is no predictable, monolithic body of work. The pieces are so varied that it was hard to arrange them in a fruitful sequence, and it is even harder to generalize about their connections.

The sequence begins with fiction by Keith Miller and Ryan Ahlgrim, both of whom move us beyond mundane reality into kinds and degrees of fantasy. Miller clearly writes in the tradition of Borges and other magical realist writers by creating a new world that bears little correspondence to daily life. Ahlgrim begins with mundane reality in Indianapolis, which gradually modulates into the realm of fable and poses a moral view of life, even if that “moral” is hard to pin down. Miller’s “Library of Alexandria” avoids any moral and lifts the reader into the purely imaginary, aesthetic realm. Miller’s piece welcomes the reader into the world of imagination in which the writers who follow him also dwell.

The next three pieces, by Dora Dueck, Tim Stair and Linda Wendling, exploit the idiosyncratic views of first-person narrators. Dueck’s short story seems so close to life that the Journal editor initially mistook it for memoir, although the complex narrative strategies in it signal that it is art more so than life. Stair’s narrator is so witty and saucy—and so different from its pastor author--that we relax, enjoy the humor and look forward to the unwinding of a picaresque tale. The most extreme, idiosyncratic, surprising – and biographically and emotionally complex -- narrator is Wendling’s God-haunted Hope, whose story becomes the most overtly religious one in the set.

The sequence concludes with two third-person narrations. Janice Dick offers the beginning of an unfinished historical novel, set in Siberia, that promises to add one more variant to the archetypal Russian Mennonite narrative of migration because of persecution. John Liechty creates a central figure who is an alien by choice, teaching English in an Arab country, almost despite himself. Dick’s chapter sets up a romantic, melodramatic story line, whereas Liechty’s selection comes from a picaresque novel that is funny, ironic and richly allusive to experiences found in Mennonite history and western literary classics.

A welcome response to any or all of these fictions would be comments addressed to authors on the CMW website blog. Any response is an encouragement. Feeling ignored is the worst fate a published writer can experience.

Ervin Beck, Editor

In this issue:

  • 2 read more From "The Book on Fire"

    From "The Book on Fire"

    by Keith Miller

    Excerpt: The Library of Alexandria

    In tremendous caverns, bookshelves lifted tier upon tier into the gloom. Long ladders were affixed to the shelves, which I climbed, up to the ceiling. I perched there at the edge of a cliff of books, and looked across the canyon. It was as if a river, in carving its valley, had exposed strata of titles. Other rooms were mere nooks, no bigger than a cupboard, with space enough for a single bookcase.

    I read impossibly gorgeous scripts. Scripts in which each hieroglyph filled a page and took a day to write, but could express ...

  • 0 read more The Day I Saw Bigfoot at the Zoo

    The Day I Saw Bigfoot at the Zoo

    by Ryan Ahlgrim


    The special invitation came in the mail. Inside an oversized envelope, on a cream-colored heavy stock card, embossed lettering announced:

    The Indianapolis Zoo is proud to present

    BIGFOOT!

    Be among the first in the world

    to see this legendary creature

    on display in a beautifully prepared exhibit.

    The date and time of the grand opening followed—along with the jacked-up price. Without hesitation I marked my calendar and sent in my online reservation.

    Bigfoot had been captured by two amateur hunters the previous summer deep in the Oregon woods. Gordon Buller and Timothy Krennick became overnight celebrities as they retold the ...

  • 1 read more Chopsticks

    Chopsticks

    by Dora Dueck

    The year I was eleven and Danny was ten, our parents enrolled us in piano lessons with a woman named Mrs. Jackson, who lived in the next town over. She was a plump, careless woman and was, perhaps, the only person in the area available for instruction of this kind. Even as a child, new to the instrument, I realized the limitations of her musical gifts. She laughed a great deal and seemed to clamor over the keys.

    After Mrs. Jackson had exhausted our lessons before their allotted time, she showed off on the piano while we watched “I Love ...

  • 0 read more From "The Man in the Green Plaid Sport Coat"

    From "The Man in the Green Plaid Sport Coat"

    by Tim Stair

    Chapter 1

    Be careful at family reunions. I wouldn’t have gotten stuck in a basement in South Bronx with a gun in my hand if it hadn’t been for a conversation at my family reunion. So, in one sense, this story is my Uncle Pastor Lester’s fault.

    I’d gone to the reunion to try to reconnect with family, and see if I could dig up a little work. Work had been slow. I own a business: Finders-Keepers. I find things for people. Seriously. Want to find that rare 1800’s armoire to finish off your penthouse bedroom? Or want to reconnect ...

  • 0 read more His Baby Bird of the Day

    His Baby Bird of the Day

    by Linda Wendling

    …if your killer is the nicest person you know, it is time to move away…

    On my very last day--this day Turner Hadden is coming to kill me (but he doesn't know it yet)--I can’t concentrate on yeah-I’m-about-to-die because I am (weirdly) remembering the day Jesus appeared at my window and pressed my purple feet into his armpit. But of course nobody but me believes in this. But I know what I saw. I. DID. NOT. MAKE. HIM. UP.

    Anyway, this day I am supposed to be out on the street, working, but Cheyenne’s “Frontier Days” are over ...

  • 0 read more From "The Other Side of the River"

    From "The Other Side of the River"

    by Janice L. Dick

    Chapter 1

    Alexandrovka, Slavgorod Colony, Western Siberia — 1926

    The schoolhouse door burst open, ushering in a cold March wind and two Soviet officials, their guns directed at the group of young adults gathered for a Sunday afternoon songfest.

    Luise Letkemann’s fingers froze on the strings of her mother’s violin, and her bow skittered off the strings as she whirled to face them. From the corner of her eye she saw Daniel move across the room to her side. A frown had replaced the look of love that had lit his eyes a moment ago.

    Luise slipped the violin beneath ...

  • 1 read more From "Foot of Pride"

    From "Foot of Pride"

    by John Liechty

    Chapter 7: In This World

    Fretz – “Mister John” to his students -- holding a degree in literature from Wolverine State University, with a certificate on the side to teach English as a foreign language, hunches in an effluvium of garlic over a banked console of switches and lights – a modest sample of the sort of classroom gadgetry deemed essential at King Khalifa Higher College of Petrochemicals and Modern Technology, Ras al Hamara. The students are grinding out paragraphs. They have four pictures to prod them through their process descriptions on How Electricity is Made.

    Picture One: Man in hardhat ...