A Complicated Kindness—The Contribution of Mennonite Authors to Canadian Literature

Translated by Gerhard Reimer

Introductory presentations on the topic of Canada, Canadian studies and Canadian literature traditionally pose the question: “What is Canada? How do you define this country?” Canadians have often asked this notoriously famous question of themselves. Ever since the so-called “renaissance”—both a literary and a national renaissance—following in the wake of the 1967 centennial nationhood celebration, the Canadian identity question has been answered a hundred times and, thus, has almost become a cliché.

In this essay I want to talk about a group of Canadians who do not quite correspond to the stereotypical image we have of Canadians, nor to the image Canadians have of themselves. In spite of it, this group has made and continues to make an important contribution to a well-rounded image of the country. I am referring to the Mennonites. Numerically they are a small minority, but, as far as literature is concerned, they have produced some authors of high literary caliber, at first male authors, recently also female authors. And they are making an important contribution to our image of Canada.[i] In first place, surely, is an author such as Rudy Wiebe with his historical novels. He writes about the original inhabitants of Canada, such as the Indian Big Bear or the Métis Louis Riel, about John Franklin´s disappeared Arctic expedition and, of course, also about the history of the Mennonites.

The Mennonites of Canada: A Historical-Geographical Overview

There are several different groups of Mennonites in Canada. Some of them, especially those in Ontario, are of Swiss origin and came to Canada via Pennsylvania. In this essay, however, I am mainly concerned with those who originated in the Frisian-Dutch area, from where they migrated to the German-Polish area around Danzig (Gdansk). Beginning in 1788, they moved on from there to the southern part of the empire of the czars, today the Ukraine.

Those who migrated from there to Canada in the late nineteenth century are often referred to as Kanadier. In the first third of the twentieth century another group, called Rußländer in Canada, followed. The latter settled largely in Manitoba, south of Winnipeg. Why precisely there? Perhaps a citation from a contemporary novel holds the clue: In The Russländer by Sandra Birdsell, Katya Vogt, the protagonist, describes the journey of the Mennonites from the Ukraine to Canada: “. . . when their journey ended in Manitoba she was amazed at how similar the countryside was to the steppe” (349).

As a foreign religious minority, Mennonites were not always well liked by their host nations, where they were often merely tolerated but not granted equality. Consequently they had a special status, which, on their part, they reinforced by drawing religious boundaries between themselves and the surrounding society, e.g., by declining the taking of the oath and military service. In a nation like Canada, where participation in the world wars is often seen as a rite of initiation into the young nation, this can cause problems. In the 1920s, for example, many Canadian Mennonites felt so restricted by the surrounding society, when their own (German language) schools were taken away from them, that they moved on, this time to South and Central America.

The Mennonites in Canada traditionally live in their own communities and settlement areas. Whereas related groups of Anabaptist origin such as the Amish and the Hutterites delimit themselves from society by their dress and their way of life, this is not so pronounced with the Mennonites. Nevertheless, the community exerts a strong influence on both the religious and the secular aspects of life, certainly in the case of those Mennonites living in rural areas as opposed to the big cities.

Because of their peaceful convictions and their international activities in the building and maintenance of peace, the Mennonites of Canada have a good reputation, even though among the Mennonites there seems to exist a certain gap between the intellectual peace activists and the rather conservative majority. Precisely this traditional conservative majority (others might say the minority) continues to be formed by a patriarchal conservative-religious worldview, which does not make life entirely easy for women.

In what follows I will try to point out some trends and developments within the Mennonite population, remembering that I am doing this as an outsider. One may ask if such an analysis of a specific ethnic religious group is a wise idea today, especially in contemporary Canada. The influential literary theoretician Frank Davey contends that in contemporary Canadian literature the question of national identity has become almost obsolete, so that we can talk about a post-national phase, about “a world and a nation in which social structures no longer link regions or communities, where political process is doubted and individual alienation has become normal” (266).

One of the authors whose work Davey interprets in this regard is Rudy Wiebe, the Mennonite writer already mentioned. In the early 1960s, Wiebe became known—and excluded by the conservative Mennonite Brethren group—when he described the opposition to change and progress in the hierarchical-patriarchal structure of the Mennonite communities in his home province, Saskatchewan. Here, too, the question of Mennonites participating or not participating in the war played an important role. The question posed was whether to identify with one’s religious affiliation or with one’s newly chosen “national” affiliation as a Canadian citizen. The title of the book was significant: Peace Shall Destroy Many.

Although Wiebe has remained true to his Mennonite identity, he has become a central moral authority by giving a voice to the original Canadian inhabitants and to the Métis, the latter springing from the cohabitation of the Indians and European trappers and traders. Despite all unselfishness on his part, in the end the author was reproached for having unjustifiably appropriated the voice of these minorities for himself, inasmuch as he was member of the white majority. In Sweeter Than All the World (2001) he follows the history of the Wiebe family from Friesland via Danzig and Russia to Canada.

The discussions surrounding Wiebe and his place in the Canadian literary scene would suggest that the Mennonites in Canada are not quite as marginal as I indicated earlier. At the least, they have a very good reputation as upright Christians and recognized peace activists.

Mennonite Literature as Part of the Canadian Literary Scene

Based on investigations conducted on Kafka by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the Winnipeg literary critic Douglas Reimer describes the literature of the Mennonites as a “minor literature.” Deleuze and Guattari had originally considered the work of Kafka within the total framework of German literature, in which Kafka described the Jewish inhabitants of Prague in German (i.e., the language of the powerful majority), which was loaded with a high coefficient of “deterritorialization” (Deleuze/Guattari 16), causing it to be political through and through and expressing the collective values of a minority (17).

In general the literary works of Mennonites—with the exception of Rudy Wiebe (and Sandra Birdsell and Miriam Toews)—have not attracted a lot of attention outside of the Mennonite community, although more recently this seems to be moving in a positive direction. E.D. Blodgett’s History of Literary History in Canada (2003) does not even mention Mennonite literature, not even in the section entitled “The Questions of Alterity: Histories of their Own,” and reference to a writer like Rudy Wiebe is banished to a mere footnote. On the other hand, William H. New praises (albeit very briefly) Wiebe’s first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, for representing the generational conflict of the Mennonite immigrant church, especially regarding the maintaining of traditional values, “with some finesse.”

As for German-language representations of Canadian literature, Reingard M. Nischik notes in Kanadische Literatur Geschichte, which she published with Wolfgang Klooß and Konrad Groß, the following: “Wiebe, known especially as a novelist, writes about the experiences of the Mennonites in the New World, yet he also pays attention to other minorities such as the ‘Indians’, the Inuit and the Métís, particularly in the Canadian West.” Nischik also points out that Wiebe “usually sides with the minority and thus indirectly revises the official writing of history” (272).

In the following sections I will address some of the aspects of English-language Mennonite literature in Canada; for example, the characteristic form and role of language in the case of Mennonite authors, the question of gender roles in their works, as well as the question of Mennonite identity between religious community and Canadian nation. Pursuant to this, considering the decreasing significance of religious as well as national identity patterns, I will try to suggest a new way of creating a Mennonite literary identity.

Rudy and Armin Wiebe: Language—Code Switching and Language Mixing[i]

As indicated above, some Mennonite writers, male as well as female, have been quite successful, and some works by Rudy Wiebe have been published in German translation.[ii] In recent correspondence with Magdalene Redekop, a Mennonite literary scholar, we discussed the question of how it is that there is now, indeed, a rather strong and innovative presence of Mennonite authors in Canadian literature, considering the rather small number of Mennonites.

It can be argued that the multilingual background of the Mennonites is partly responsible for their literary creativity and versatility. One could also assume that this literary creativity is a result of their long journey crossing different national boundaries and language areas, which has found expression not only in their personal but also in their institutional multilingualism. Perhaps this explains the special ability to switch back and forth creatively between languages and between different ways of expressing oneself. This may sometimes give the impression that Mennonites write in a language that is “not entirely one’s own” (Froese Tiessen, Acts of Concealment 12) in the sense of a kind of linguistic estrangement.

Because of historical and religious reasons the Mennonite community is trilingual even to this day: With other Canadians (and increasingly with each other) the Mennonites speak English. Within their own community they traditionally speak Low German or Plautdietsch[iii] (although probably less and less so), a language they brought along from West Prussia. In their religious services High German was the language long used, but in the last decades this has decreased significantly.

There is a notable number of literary works in Plautdietsch, but among Canadian Mennonite authors today there is clearly a trend to write in English, nevertheless in an English with echoes of Plautdietsch and High German. Thus Rudy Wiebe noted the following a couple of years ago:

For a writer to grow up into a child’s pre-conscious knowledge of more than one language—that is, to have various alternative patterns of speaking and therefore thinking (even though my three languages are closely related) –to have a choice in ways of imaging the reality of your daily experience in words, your psychic comprehensions of the people you meet; and further: to have a language choice in talking about those meetings—for example, the words you use to tell of an experience to your mother or father will be in a totally different language from what you use with your sister or brother, leave alone your school teacher—and how intuitively you know the stories you tell can be slightly, slantedly, different: to have that language knowledge and understanding live in your bones as by instinct since your very birth is an enormous advantage to any writer. Far beyond any individual words, the language you use makes the story you tell distinctive, unique. (“Invention” 20)

In Sweeter Than All the World as well as in The Blue Mountains of China, Wiebe uses vocabulary and concepts that refer back to a traditional Mennonite society. Again and again in Wiebe’s novels, High German and Low German words show up that are not easily translated into English and thus reveal the novels’ origins in the close-knit Mennonite community.

In an important essay, Hildi Froese Tiessen shows that Mennonite writers have played an important role in the integration of the Mennonite minority into contemporary Canadian cultural life, but she also argues that insisting on a linguistic “otherness” can have problematic consequences for a community which is hardly held together by traditional ideas and beliefs any more. “[B]y their use . . . of the mother tongue (German, and more particularly, Low German)—these writers maintain and perhaps even extend the barriers that separate the Mennonites’ minority culture from the contemporary social order” (“Shibboleth” 175).

Thus artificial barriers could result that incorrectly suggest real social differences between Mennonites and other Canadians. For Tiessen, therefore, the use of Low and High German words becomes a shibboleth, a kind of language test that could be used to recognize and exclude Mennonites. In reality, however, to outsiders such multilingual word games would more likely signal an interesting and seductive writing style.

The attitude of the Mennonites towards Plautdietsch varies from one social or regional group to the next. Redekop mentions that the Russian immigrants who came in the twentieth century (as opposed to those of the nineteenth century) are more readily critical of this language. The protagonist in Sandra Birdsell’s The Russländer notes the following about her fellow refugees: “. . . their Plautdietsch language lacked the necessary words to give shape to the colours, describe the nuances, the interior shadows of their stories” (24).

The Winnipeg writer, Maurice Mierau, argues that the horrendous experiences of the Russian-German Mennonites during the Russian Revolution caused them to tune their harps to songs of mourning, as suggested by Al Reimer with the title of his novel, My Harp Was Turned to Mourning (1985), in which he refers to Job: “There is some evidence that our rich vein of oral jokes and satire runs deeper in those who emigrated here in the 1860s,[iv] when leaving the old country was still voluntary. Less trauma, more laughs” (Mierau 10).

Writers like Rudy Wiebe or Sandra Birdsell incorporate Low and High German words and sentences into their texts, but in these texts two or three clearly distinct language levels coexist. These levels have different functions, and between them there is a kind of “code switching.” This is demonstrated by an episode from Rudy Wiebe’s Sweeter Than All the World, in which young Adam proves himself as a literal interpreter of the Bible: “. . . it struck Adam that if exactly Sünde was the worst word, he would from now on live only in English where exactly that word didn’t exist, and he could stay with beautiful Eve and nice God Almighty in the Beautiful Garden forever, no gigantic angels with flaming swords that turned every way east of Eden” (10).

Later in the novel there is an example of switching to Low German with a paraphrase or translation of what was said in English, thus making what was originally said quite harmless: “Taunte Anna spoke as neutrally as possible, used four letter words twisted into idiom: Hee brocht ahm omm. Literally, ‘he brought him around’, like the colloquial English ‘he did him in’” (206).

In the case of other authors, especially of one with the same family name as Rudy Wiebe, the level of mixing German and English expressions goes even much beyond this. In a series of highly entertaining comical novels, published beginning 1984—The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, Murder in Gutenthal and The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst—Armin Wiebe created his own “Gutenthal Galaxy.” His novels, especially The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, achieved cult status not only among Mennonites. These novels take place in the small town of Gutenthal, just above the US-Canadian border. The inhabitants of Gutenthal speak their own language, a mixture of English and Low German, about which Wiebe himself says:

The language of my Gutenthal novels contains a mild additive I refer to as Flat German. This is an actual language spoken mostly by people of Russian Mennonite descent in places such as southern Manitoba, Mexico, Paraguay and Russia. I tried to capture the rhythm of the Flat German language through the use of non-standard sentence patterns and careful insertions of Flat German words or literal English translations of Flat German expressions. That is why you will encounter strange words in my Gutenthal novels. (Armin Wiebe’s Wiebe Site )

The writer and critic E. G. Dyck describes this phenomenon in a rather scholarly way: Whereas syntax and idiom are “Flat German,” the dialect Wiebe employs is not really German, but “a fairly literal translation of Plautdietsch into English. It is a new language as fresh and irreverent—which is to say as profoundly comic and deeply serious—as Shakespeare’s idiom must have been in his day” (39). There are innumerable comical and entertaining cases in which German substrate and English superstrate enrich each other in this new mixed language. Frequently this goes beyond questions of vocabulary and applies to whole sentence structures which come into being through word for word translations or “direct oversetting” (Redekop, “Grace” 14). After a day’s work, e.g., Yasch Siemens is ready for his “fire evening” (Salvation, 43).

This kind of humor is a feature of Mennonite Plautdietsch literature and is found less in Mennonite High German. The poet Patrick Friesen writes: “High German is not humorous in the same way Low German is. When I hear the two languages side by side, I find High German always carries greater earnestness, sometimes a sense of pretentiousness” (“No Punchlines” 9).

This is also demonstrated in a poem by Audrey Poetker from her poetry volume i sing for my dead in german. Even the fatally ill seem resurrected by the humor of Armin Wiebe (Poetker 21):

i tell grosmama the line in armin wiebe’s book
about himmelfahrt being the day
when jesus goes to heaven & mennonites
go to winnipeg
& she laughs until she almost fuschlucks[v] herself
en vieb[vi] dan noch
yes but no relation
grosmama I say grosmama
but can’t remember the low german word
for love

The final inevitable grieving process, though, is carried out in High German (81):

lovingly remembered sadly missed my feet writing the
story over & over again my writing feet carrying me away
from her past telephone poles & cow pastures barbed wire
& no hunting signs from the first moment of grief to the
song always singing in german always singing the prayer

gehe nicht vorbei[i]
o heiland hoer
des herzens
da du andern gnad’
gehe nicht vorbei

The use of German and switching back and forth between Plautdietsch and High German has certainly become a signal of distinctiveness, a shibboleth, among Mennonites, and the underlying German syntax possibly conveys many meanings remaining hidden from native speakers of English. Armin Wiebe’s mixing of languages, however, has become the trademark recognized not only by germanophones. Henry Wiebe, e.g., maintains that “[s]imple good will and good reading habits will ensure at least a 90% return on the reader’s time investment” (“Myth, Ritual” 190). And as for the effect of “Flat German” on the reader, Armin Wiebe’s website maintains that his books “. . . prevented a suicide, induced labor in an overdue pregnancy, and convinced a major business to stay in Manitoba.”

Di Brandt: The Gender Issue between Religious, Linguistic and National Identification

As noted above, Mennonite literature can be called a “small literature.” This description applies especially to the literature of Mennonite women, and it is certainly true where the Mennonite culture is embedded in a rural setting and has for generations had a patriarchal structure. At first glance this suggests that women have played a subordinated role. Magdalene Redekop identifies two stereotypical feminine roles in Mennonite literature: the “Great Earth Mother” (Katie Wiebe) and the subversive role of “subverter of the arts” (Redekop, Madonna 103f).

Mennonite women writers were unable to establish themselves until one generation after Rudy Wiebe. I want to refer here to only a few women writers and I especially want to look at the way they represent community in their writing, considering both positive and negative constructions. In addition to Audrey Poetker, other lyric poets, novelists and the writers of short stories Sandra Birdsell and Miriam Toews are of interest, but the lyric poet and literary scholar Di Brandt is of special interest in this regard. Douglas Reimer bears witness to her position as one of the leading Mennonite women authors. He considers her poems “among the best . . . written, not only among Mennonites . . . but the best on the Canadian prairies and in Canada” (128). The edition of her selected poetry, Speaking of Power, and her book of essays, So this is the world & here I am in it, emphasize her significance.

Inasmuch as Canadian Mennonites often live outside of mainstream society, their communities tend to be tight and usually conformist and patriarchal in their organization. In traditional rural communities those individuals not adhering to the prescribed rules of conduct are marginalized or excluded by the acts of shunning and avoidance. Di Brandt describes such an oppressive community atmosphere in an autobiographic text: “The real stickler was attitude doing the right thing was not enough you had to want to do it without resentment or illwill obedience according to God & the Reinland fathers required complete surrender of the will a formidable art even for the chastened wives our humble mothers . . .” (Brandt/Cooley 132).

Early Mennonite works in English, such as Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, show that family and religious community are often more important (and probably also more oppressive) than the concept of nation, as we know it in our present secular and globalized society. When the religious community turns its back on secular society it can lead to consequences for women that range from psychological to physical impairment. In this way Brandt reinterprets the proverbial peacefulness of the Mennonites in her poem “nonresistance, or love Mennonite style.” Here it is no longer a matter of refusing military force but of intrafamily, tendential, even incestuous violence in the lap of the Mennonite community (Brandt, Speaking of Power 10):

it gets tricky [. . .] when your grandfather
tickles you too hard or your cousins
want to play doctor & your uncle kisses
you too long on the lips & part of you
wants it & the other part knows it’s
wrong . . .

Brandt’s poems show the scars left by her Mennonite upbringing. She had to overcome major hurdles in acquiring a public voice: “to speak in public to write love poems/for all the world to read.” This was a betrayal of the ideal of the “good Mennonite daughter I tried so/unsuccessfully to become.” She had to come to terms with the role of the rebel (questions I asked my mother):

acknowledg[e] in myself
the rebel traitor thief the one who asked too
many questions who argued with the father & with

As a writer she finally achieves what her Mennonite upbringing had forbidden her: “I had acquired a public voice after having been denied one, categorically, as a Mennonite woman all my life” (Dancing Naked 10).

It is not surprising that young women would rebel against the patriarchal-fundamentalistic Mennonite society. The concept which she later called the “Wild Mother Dancing” already manifested itself early on in her dissertation. Her approach is “. . . supported by current feminist theory, notably that of Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Marianne Hirsch, that the mother has been so largely absent in Western narrative, not because she is unnarratable, but because her subjectivity has been violently, and repeatedly, suppressed” (Wild Mother 4).

While Brandt rejects the conservative, patriarchal and religious tradition of the Mennonites, she recently, however, discovered another aspect of this tradition anew. As a youth, she had abandoned the multilingualism of her home community to the advantage of immersing herself in the English-speaking nation (Dancing Naked 34) with which she wanted to identify herself. But now she reverses not only this linguistic separation, but, what is perhaps even more significant, she reconnects to another Mennonite tradition, that of story-telling by way of the mothers:

It was a vacuum that drove me to re-establish connection with my own mother and her unofficial oral tradition, the collection of Mennonite ‘old wives’ tales’ that had sustained the women in my culture, in the difficult, heroic experience of childbirth, a tradition of secret, whispered women’s stories passed on from mothers to daughters through the centuries. (Wild Mother 4)

Di Brandt finds her way back to a feminine (perhaps even a feminist) tradition right in her own patriarchal community, which she had previously ignored. Women become the proclaimers of lively orally presented stories while men embody the fossilized word of the Old Testament. Explained thus, Magdalene Redekop may have to revise her interpretation of the earlier book of poetry, questions I asked my mother, when she points out Brandt’s break with her Mennonite past and expresses the opinion that “[t]he Earth Mother described by Katie Funk Wiebe . . . will never be the same now that Di Brandt has written about ‘what it’s like/having God for a father & jesus/for a lover on this old mother/earth’” (“Madonna” 107).

The oral narrative, however, is not necessarily positive, considering that the Bible is often only recited orally and from memory, which prohibits every attempt at hermeneutic interpretation, as shown by an excerpt from questions I asked my mother (questions 4):

but what do you think my father says this verse means if it’s not about the end of the world look that’s obviously a misreading i say the verb grammatically speaking doesn’t have an object in this instance so it can’t possibly be made to that’s exactly what I mean he says waving the book in mid air if my father ever shouted he would be shouting now you don’t really care about the meaning all you ever think about is grammar & fancy words I never even heard of

Whereas men here advocate a fundamentalist and literal interpretation of the Old Testament, women seem more open-minded. Kind words have special meaning for women, while men cling only to the rigid words of an easily angered Old Testament patriarch. Perhaps this gender specific difference makes it easier for women who have turned their back on traditional Mennonitism to return to their roots. For Di Brandt, this seems to offer a rapprochement with her Mennonite community after parting ways with it earlier, a rapprochement based on the motherly values found within this community.

These values find expression at the level of stories and through the medium of spoken language, as Di Brandt writes in the afterword to Speaking of Power: “that old prophetic, visionary, metaphoric language, which encompassed earth and sky, and every imaginable realm of existence between hell and heaven” (49). Her return to the language of the mother, perhaps even to the “wild mother dancing,” is clearly different from that of the worn out playful apolitical language of other North American poets, who have committed themselves to Postmodernism. Brandt writes:

Much of my poetics derives, despite my defection from the traditional ways, from the village practices of singing folk songs and hymns, all day, every day, during milking, picking strawberries, cutting the hay, a kind of joyful praise of the gorgeous living world, turning often on ceremonial occasion to high grief, at the mortality running through everything, the temporariness of our brief tenure on this earth, the loss of our beloveds, our homelands, the necessity of hunger, having to eat, the ravages of winter, the brown edge of the green leaf (49).

After becoming successful on the national literary scene, Brandt, despite her earlier rebellion, becomes more conscious again of her personal captivity in the “Mennonite experience,” which is preserved in her personal biography. Is this a return to her roots? One can certainly interpret her most recent publications in this way. Of course, she maintains her feminist, anti-patriarchal position and she now amplifies this with a strong interest in ecology which, of course, in no way contradicts her feminine-motherly position. Whereas her orientation at the beginning of her career seemed to move towards the Canadian nation, a reversal now seems indicated. The two tendencies—nation and Mennonite community—between which she seems to be moving back and forth, are clearly demonstrated by two poems she contributed to the anthology The Common Sky : Canadian Poets Against the War, published in 2003, which opposed the Iraq war. In the first poem (“Penthouse”) her speaker assumes a militant anti-American and less of a Mennonite position:

the raw iron taste of blood in your mouth
huh George shudder of flesh against steel
the whole world knows your secret now
your twisted pleasure . . .—

In the second poems she writes:

if I could end this war before it’s begun
by laying my life down in bloody Washington
I would do it for Mustafa
& your 13 children . . .

Interestingly, her critical position on the Iraq war unites a traditional Mennonite placidity with both her radical feminism as well as with the general Canadian position, which moved Prime Minister Jean Chrétien not to join the U.S. in the war, a position supported by the majority of Canadians. Brandt already implied this critical position in a much earlier poem which, in 1991, she contributed to a different anthology opposing the then Gulf War. Whereas the poem “BOMBS” begins with the words “last night I became/an Iraqi woman” (Last Night I Became,” 10f.) she continues with these words on the next page:

this morning
i’m Canadian,
safe, well fed,
& civilized . . .

She ends the poem with these lines:

how lucky we are
to have so many

This demonstrates how Mennonite women writers feel simultaneously attracted to and repelled by both their own religious-ethnic community as well as the larger Canadian nation, in which they are the “somewhat different Canadians.” From their position as outsiders they always see the Canadian nation and its tendencies to advocate nationalistic and patriotic identification somewhat differently from others. Douglas Reimer notes:

Brandt’s anger will not bring about any political change or any value system she may think worthy, but it will bring about change. All minor writing does. Without her anger and that of other minor voices, English literature, with its cultural hegemony and its unified field of big groups and large social organizations, would not see (embarrassed) its own selfish/secret/powerful politics hidden and kept underground in a sort of basement, or unconscious, as if a destined force and a destined state. (130)

And perhaps—that’s the way I would interpret her more recent publications—Di Brandt’s harsh criticism of both her nation and her religious community are being determined more and more by “a complicated kindness,” the title of Miriam Toews’ prize-winning novel, which will be discussed in the following section.

Sandra Birdsell and Miriam Toews

Up to this point I have concerned myself chiefly with language as used by Rudy Wiebe and Armin Wiebe as well as by Di Brandt. In closing, I want to comment briefly on two other women writers, Sandra Birdsell and Miriam Toews, who have recently both been very successful.

Birdsell represents a group that is marginalized in two ways: she herself is of Mennonite origin only from her mother´s side, while from her father’s side her origin goes back to the French-speaking Métis population of Manitoba. As Douglas Reimer notes, Sandra Birdsell writes “for a particular minor group, a very small group, the Aboriginal Canadian/Mennonite Canadian group of southern Manitoba” (133). The social class Birdsell describes is thus extremely marginal and disparate and more clearly assigned to the underclass (see Arnason 217), even though it is much older—certainly the Métis population, having its origins in the early contacts between French trappers and the original Indian population—and has more genuine rights and traditions on the prairies than most of the immigrant Canadians.

As is true for every good text that has anything to do with the Christian message, Birdsell’s Night Travellers, which became the first part of her later Agassiz Stories, refers to a flood. In this case it is a flood that appears periodically in Manitoba. Both in his prediction of as well as in his reaction to the flood, we see that Lafreniere, the Métis, a representative of the original inhabitants, lives in much closer contact with nature than his neighbors, who believe that nature can be easily overcome with modern technology: “How can anyone expect things from the River? You listen and watch and you can feel what’s going to happen. You don’t go by charts and expect. It’s unpredictable” (Night Travellers 4).

I don’t know to what extent this flood is determined or is supposed to be determined as a result of the Lafreniere family deviating from the true path of Christian virtues, or if it is even to be expected that a family with a French name will follow the fundamentalist-traditional rules. Normally family life is more or less efficiently determined by the mother, who in this case is of Russian Mennonite origin. The mother, indeed, is not without blemish either. The rock garden which she constructs from stones she carries up from the river is evidence of this, since going down to the river is her excuse for meeting a man there with whom she takes up an extra-marital relationship. For her father, the patriarch, it is rather a lost cause when he accuses his daughter of violating the laws of the faith community: “We’re a community,” he said. “People united by our belief, like a family. When one member hurts, the whole family suffers” (82).

She denies membership in this family: “I don’t belong anywhere.” And as Douglas Reimer notes: “This alienating mother contrasts with Brandt’s mothers, who are usually wonderful or at least wonders” (135). Her daughter, too, no longer holds to ideal and religious values, but rather associates her French origin with such cultural aspects as perfume, and “[b]eing Mennonite was like having acne. It was shameful, dreary. No one invited you out” (Night Travellers 131).

For the daughter’s generation in the second half of Birdsell’s Agassiz Stories, being Mennonite is reduced to secular household rituals, kitchen recipes and the traditional spring cleaning: “Marlene’s Mennonite background had not been entirely done away with when it came to the housecleaning thing” (Ladies of the House 111). As Fabienne Quennet observes: “The stories from Night Travellers reveal the Western Canadian Mennonite community disintegrating . . .” (39). While Di Brandt seems to indicate a glimmer of hope for reconciliation, the conclusion to be drawn from Birdsell’s work is much more sober: “Birdsell’s Canada,” writes Abby Werlock, “is filled with anger, prejudice, and a sense that the experiment is not working” (132).

Likewise in her novel, A Complicated Kindness, which was also quite successful in German translation,[ii] Miriam Toews shows the inhumanity of a provincial, strict Mennonite community, a community that reminds one strongly of Toews’ hometown, Steinbach, located south of Winnipeg. Judging by the number of Google search results, her description of Mennonites must be one of the best known:

We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit . . . Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno. (5)

The callousness of these male dominated communities, which others have assured me adequately is not generally true of Canadian Mennonites, is demonstrated, above all, in the practice of shunning or avoidance of undesirable members of the community, such as the parents of Nomi Nickel. With the mother leaving the family, we have here an example of the feminine-motherly integrative story-telling as described by Brandt; this could have offered a solution, but then no longer does so. The mother has left: motherly virtues, if they still exist, are now harbored with the father, and in the final analysis he, too, proves himself a failure. So Nomi (whose name demonstrates her identity problem: Nomi = no me) says: “I’m pretty sure she left town for his sake. It would have killed him to choose between her and the church” (239).

When her father, too, disappears, he leaves Nomi in a quasi-existentialist situation. In my opinion, however, this does not leave her completely powerless, since she now acquires the power of storytelling and the storyteller. As a narrator she can take her life into her own hands: “The stories that I have told myself are bleeding into a dream, finally, that is slowly coming true. I’ve learned, from living in this town, that stories are what matters, and that if we can believe them, I mean really believe them, we have a chance at redemption” (245).


Is it possible to summarize these impressions about the Mennonite authors introduced here? Do they have something in common? One thing they do have in common, above all, seems to be their reference to the Canadian prairie, even though, in the meantime, there is an important anthology of west coast Mennonite authors. The prairies are almost an essential component of the novels. That is somewhat surprising in an era of post-nationalism which, according to Frank Davey, is “a world and a nation in which social structures no longer link regions or communities, political process is doubted, and individual alienation has become normal” (266). As I have shown, commonly held Mennonite values are endangered, values that in the past held scattered groups of communities together.

In the case of the Mennonites, I believe, however, that new identities—whether resulting from language or narrative traditions—will, perhaps, counteract the disintegration. The telling of stories thus becomes a central motif not only in the form of Di Brandt’s “maternal story-telling” but also in Miriam Toews’ “Mennonite existentialism.” We are told the story of a community which is slowly liberating itself from oppressive master narratives but which, in both the literal and metaphorical senses, at all times and everywhere, is threatened by the floods that modern life brings with it.

[i] This is the first verse of the High German version of Fanny J. Crosby’s song “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour.”

[ii] A Complicated Kindness was published in German with the title Ein komplizierter Akt der Liebe in 2005.


Works Cited

Arnason, David. “A History of Turnstone Press.” Acts of Concealment. Ed. Hildi Froese Tiessen and Peter Hinchcliffe. Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1992. 212-222.

Birdsell, Sandra. Ladies of the House. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1984.

—. Night Travellers. Toronto: General, 1984.

—. The Russländer. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2001.

Blodgett, E.D. Five-Part Invention: A History of Literary History in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Brandt, Di. questions i asked my mother. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1987.

—. “Last Night I Became…” A Discord of Flags: Canadian Poets write about the Persian Gulf War. Ed. Steven Heighton, Peter Ormshaw and Michael Redhill. 2nd ed. Toronto: 1992. 10f.

—. Wild Mother Dancing. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1993.

—. Dancing Naked: Narratave Strategies for Writing Across Centuries. Stratford, ON: Mercury Press, 1996.

—. “Death Wish.” The Common Sky: Canadian Writers Against the War. Ed. Mark Higgins, Stephen Pender and Darren Wershler-Henry. Toronto: Three Squares Press, 2003. 100.

—. “Penthouse.” Common Sky. 99.

—. “je jelieda, je vechieda: Canadian Mennonite Alteridentification.” Canada in the Sign of Migration and Trans-Culturalism/Le Canada sous le signe de la migration et du transculturalisme. Ed. Klaus-Dieter Ertler and Martin Lösching. Frankfurt: Lang, 2004. 153-182.

—. Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt. Ed. Tanis MacDonald. Laurier Poetry Series. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2006.

—. So this is the world & here I am in it. Ed. Smaro Kamboureli. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2007.

—and Dennis Cooley. “Interview—Readings.” Selected Essays in English Literatures: British and Canadian. Ed. Herbert Zirker. Frankfurt: Lang, 2002. 131-161

Davey, Frank. Post-National Arguments: The Politics of the Anglophone-Canadian Novel since 1967. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. 1975. Transl. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Dyck, E.G. “The Rhetoric of the Plain Style in Mennonite Writing.” The New Quarterly 10.1-2 (1990): 36-52.

Friesen, Patrick. “No Punchlines, Please, We’re COs.” Rhubarb 2.2 (2000): 8-9.

Kuester, Martin. “Shibboleth or Trademark? Code Switching and Mixed Language in Contemporary Canadian Mennonite Writing.” Arhornblätter: Marburger Beiträge zur Kanada-Forschung 16 (2003): 47-59.

Mierau, Maurice. “Why Mennonites aren’t usually funny (in writing).” Rhubarb 2.2 (2000): 10-11.

Neufeld, James. “A Complicated Contract: Young Rebels of Literature and Dance.” Queen’s Quarterly 112.1 (2005): 99-106.

New, William H. History of Canadian Literature. 2nd ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.

Nischick, Reingard M. “Die Short Story seit 1967: Zwischen (Post-)Modernismus und (Neo-) Realismus.” Kanadische Literaturgeschichte. Ed. Reingard M. Nischik. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2005. 260-280.

Poetker, Audrey. i sing for my dead in german. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1986.

Quennet, Fabienne. “Gender Troubles in Sandra Birdsell’s Short Story ‘Judgement.’” Ahornblätter17 (2004): 38-39.

Redekop, Magdalene. “The Pickling of the Mennonite Madonna.” Acts of Concealment, 100-128.

__. “Our Saving Grace.” Rhubarb 2.2 (2000): 12-15.

Reimer, Douglas. Surplus at the Border: Mennonite Writing in Canada. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 2002.

Tiessen, Hildi Froese. “Mother Tongue as Shibboleth in the Literature of Canadian Mennonites.” Studies in Canadian Literature 13 (1988): 175-183.

__. Introduction. Liars and Rascals: Mennonite Short Stories. Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1989. xi-xiii.

__. “Mennonite/s Writing in Canada: An Introduction.” New Quarterly 10.1-2 (1990): 9-13,

__. “Introduction: Mennonite writing and the post-colonial condition.” Acts of Concealment, 11-21.

__ and Peter Hinchcliffe, eds. Acts of Concealment: Mennonites/s Writing in Canada. Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1992.

Toews, Miriam. A Complicated Kindness. London: Faber and Faber, 2004.

Werlock, Abby H.P. “Canadian Identity and Women’s Voices: the Fiction of Sandra Birdsell and Carol Shields.” Canadian Women Writing Fiction. Ed. Mickey Pearlmen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. 126-41.

Wiebe, Armin. The Salvation of Yasch Siemens. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1984.

__. Murder in Gutental: A Schneppa Kjnals Mystery. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1991.

__. The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1995.

__. “Butter Over The Jam.” Rhubarb 1.2 (1999): 48.

__. “Armin Wiebe’s Wiebe Site: The Gutental Galaxy Speaks.” Oct. 21, 2007 (http://www.arminwiebe.ca/Pages/!speak.htm).

Wiebe, Christoph. “Vom Scheitern eines 500jährigen Experiments: Miriam Toews’ Roman Ein komplizierter Akt der Liebe.” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 63 (2006), 153-172.

Wiebe, Henry. “Myth, Ritual, and Language in Armin Wiebe’s The Salvation of Yasch Siemens.” New Quarterly 10.1-2 (1960): 190-195.

Wiebe, Rudy. Peace Shall Destroy Many.1962. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

—. The Blue Mountains of China. 1970. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

—. Sweeter Than all the World. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2001.

—. “The Invention of Truth.” Zeitschrift für Kanada-Studien 22.1-2 (2002): 20-25.

[i] I am referring here to an earlier essay of mine (see Kuester 2003).

[ii] Peace Shall Destroy Many, e.g., was published in German with the title Friede wird viele zerstören in 2009.

[iii] Low German and Plautdietsch are used interchangeably in this essay.

[iv] Translator's note: According to standard sources, the German Russian Mennonites came to Canada in 1874/75, after Russia introduced universal military training in 1870. See, for instance, Horst Penner. Weltweite Bruderschaft: ein mennonitisches Geschichstbuch. 2nd ed. Karlsruhe: Verlag Heinrich Schneider, 1960. 180

[v] = to almost choke on food when it goes down the wrong way.

[vi] = Wiebe (Armin).

[i] Some introductory essays on the topic of Mennonites in Canada and their literature (by Hildi Froese Tiessen, Fabienne C. Quennet, Lutz Schowalter and Paul Tiessen) can be found in: Ahornblätter: Marburger Beiträge zur Kanada Forschung 17, 2004.

About the Author

Martin Kuester

Martin Kuester, Ph.D. is Professor of English at the University of Marburg and Director of Marburg’s Centre for Canadian Studies. He is also the current President of the German Canadian Studies Association. Kuester received his Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba, where he met many Canadian writers including Di Brandt and Rudy Wiebe. He has published numerous essays and reviews on Canadian literature, and his first scholarly book explored parodic structures in the Anglophone Canadian historical novel. His most recent book, Milton's Prudent Ambiguities: Words and Signs in His Poetry and Prose, was published by the University Press of America (2009).