In This Issue

Memoir has come of age in Mennonite literature. Family history, genealogy, and oral history have traditionally been rich areas in Mennonite writing, but the literary memoir is more recent territory. Those hesitating to use the personal voice and to name a portion of individual truth for a wider audience, however, have been nudged toward publication by Rhoda Janzen’s recent bestseller, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Henry Holt 2009).i While widely praised as a witty memoir with undertones of healing and reconciliation, Janzen’s book has been highly controversial in Mennonite settings, where strong networks of community make the subjects of this memoir more widely known in a social sense. The tension between community and the individual voice, a vigorous presence in Mennonite literature, is intensified by the very genre of memoir because it privileges the individual point of view.

Forms of writing that serve the community and community memory have been part of Mennonite writing since the Martyr’s Mirror, a book compiled by Dutch Scholar Thieleman J. van Braght (1660) that includes stories of Anabaptist martyrs in a wider spectrum of martyrs from the early church through the Reformation. The rich influence of this communal work on Mennonite writing is revealed in Tongue Screws and Testimonies, an anthology of creative writing inspired by the Martyr’s Mirror, edited by Kirsten Beachy (Herald Press 2009). Arguably, the martyrs used individual voices as they gave their dying testimonies. But their personal stories mattered little—the story they told was of salvation, their individual sacrifice contributed to a literal body of evidence for a faith larger than the self.

With such a legacy of witness and fidelity, it is little wonder that the individual writers from Mennonite tradition would hesitate to put forth individual stories rooted in the material and the encounters of everyday life. Those Mennonite writers who have pioneered the contemporary personal memoir—Jeff Gundy, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Rudy Wiebe—have done so with a strong component of community awareness. Gundy combines family history with creative nonfiction in A Community of Memory: My Days with George and Clara (Univ. of Illinois Press 1996), and Spicher Kasdorf reflects on her own creative license with communal memory in The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life (2001; rpt. Penn State Press 2009). Rudy Wiebe’s Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (Knopf Canada 2006), is a personal memoir thoroughly interwoven with the story of Mennonite immigrants to Canada. Rhoda Janzen, on the other hand, is a self-avowed “black sheep” whose distance from the community enabled her to write an individual and personal memoir without the same kind of obligation to the project of Mennonite representation.

Mennonites have long been suspicious of the individual self, the voice unmoderated by community consensus. Democratic North Americans, with an ideology of self-development and equal opportunity, have long been suspicious of “group think.” Mennonites are also captives of their time and place--modernity and postmodernity have thoroughly permeated our psyches, as the images of the movies (once forbidden) and the microwaves bounced between cell towers invade our minds and bodies. Speaking for the individual, though perhaps a literary fiction to those aware of the invisible lines of connection between networks of human beings, is the dominant mode of literature. In a pluralistic society it is our group affiliations that tend to become private and separatist. In speaking for ourselves we leap over these boundaries to connect with other selves. In contemporary memoir we speak for the self, because the self is what we all have in common.

The memoirs in this issue range from humorous to heartwrenching. Matthew Kauffman Smith and Eileen R. Kinch, both trained in creative writing, mark the edges of this spectrum. Kauffman Smith’s hilarious account of boyhood cultural dislocation as a “captive” of a family move serves as counterpoint to Kinch’s dramatic memoir of the ways in which a distinctive conservative Quaker community in childhood formed her spirituality. Though these memoirs involve the context of family life, their locus is in the developing consciousness of the individual writer. The poetry feature by Peter Miller reminds us that the personal lyric poem and the memoir are both located in the interior consciousness of the writer.

On the other hand James C. Juhnke and Loretta Willems tell family stories to preserve the unique details of human interaction in context, traditionally a more acceptable form of memory-writing in Mennonite circles. But Willems’ family story is anything but traditional, and Juhnke’s use of context and humor evoke the anxiety of living on an ethnic boundary in the period during World War II.

Finally, J. Daniel Hess’s essay on memoir as a troubled genre, which playfully contains a memoir to illustrate its comments on memoir, serves to summarize some key issues that have arisen in the memoir genre—both in the wider publishing industry and in the more immediate circles of Mennonite writing. We hope that you will keep this rich conversation on Mennonite memoir going through your online comments to these essays—just click in the conversation bubble at the upper right hand corner of the essay to add your thoughts.

If you find yourself engaged in memoir, you might wish to sample some of the recent offerings published in this genre by Mennonite writers, listed by Shirley Hershey Showalter on her blog.Showalter, whose memoir is forthcoming from Herald Press in 2013, kept a blog entitled 100memoirs.com for three years, an invaluable resource of reviews, reflections, and memoir-writing advice. A former president of Goshen College and a highly regarded English professor with a Ph.D.in American Studies, Showalter is someone who has both served the community and who has steeped herself in literary stories. It will be interesting to see how she balances community and self in her own contribution to the field.

[1] Janzen’s memoir was reviewed in the September 2009 issue of JCMW by Jessica Baldanzi. This review generated a major discussion on memoir in its comment section—the longest sustained discussion we have yet had on the CMW site. Kirsten Beachy’s memoir essay, “Me and the Martyrs,” was also published in the same issue. The theme of the Indianapolis Writer’s Group issue of JCMW in January 2011 focused on Mennonite identity in response to the group’s reading of Janzen’s memoir. The May 2009 issue of JCMW focused on Personal Writing and included a memoir by J. Daniel Hess, whose article on memoir as a troubled genre appears in this issue. Our most recent issue on student writing (November 2011) focused on memoir.

About the Author

Ann Hostetler

Ann Hostetler is the editor of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (Univ. of Iowa Press 2003) and author of two collections of poems, Empty Room with Light (Dreamseeker 2002) and Safehold (Dreamseeker 2017). Her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies including The American Scholar, Poet Lore, The Valparaiso Poetry Review,Rhubarb Magazine, Testimonies and Tongue Screws: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyr's Mirror, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (2010), The Mennonite Quarterly Review and PMLA . Professor Emerita of English at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, Hostetler is the web site editor of the Center for Mennonite Writing and co-editor of its Journal. She directed the 2022 Mennonite/s Writing conference at Goshen College.