In This Issue

This issue was inspired by Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s classic travel narrative and social and philosophical critique. Gulliver visits the exotic lands of the Lilliputians, the Brobdignangians, the Laputans and the Houhynyms. His is an early version of the “cross-cultural” experience earnestly sought today by academics, serious tourists and culture critics.

Since World War II, thanks to Mennonite Central Committee, various Mennonite mission agencies, and academic study-abroad requirements, Mennonites have travelled throughout the world and embraced a more diverse understanding of culture, to the extent that Mennonite worship services and social occasions borrow ideas and practices from international and local “minority” cultures.

The contents of this issue reverse that order. Instead of Mennonites dwelling with and observing Others, here we read about Others who have lived among and observed Mennonites.

The non-Mennonite visitors represented here have experienced considerable success in the field of writing or editing. Earlier in their lives, they spent a substantial amount of time among Mennonites, and then moved on. The essays give the details of their experience, their critical evaluation of the Mennonite culture they were temporarily part of, and their thoughts about how their visit might have influenced their subsequent lives.

I vividly recall some of the early days of Emma Larocque’s years at Goshen College, from 1969 to 1973. I was her first academic advisor. I recall seeing her walking down the main sidewalk and into my office—with her head down, a somber expression on her face, sort of under a cloud. Because she was from Canada, she was not regarded as a “foreign” student, although she must have felt very “foreign” since she had come to Goshen College from her Metis Indian community in Alberta. What I mistook as unhappiness, or even resentment, in her first days in Mennonite Indiana was no doubt “culture shock” and apprehension of what might lie ahead in this strange place.

I lost contact with Emma when I left the campus for graduate school, and as she finished work for her degree in English and Communication. Our initial contacts, and the anguish I thought I saw in her, haunted me through the years. Had we somehow failed her? I had noticed poems she had written in an anthology of native writings in Canada, from her position as Professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. So as we planned this issue I invited her to submit a memoir. I was delighted that she accepted the task immediately and cheerfully, since she has treasured her years at Goshen College and her continuing contact and friendships with Mennonites in Canada. For a clip of Emma reading from her publications seehttp://vimeo.com/49177569

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey came to Goshen College in 1984 as a 19-year old straight out of a strict boarding school in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where her parents were active in the evangelical church. About her years at Goshen College, she says, I “found such support, friendship and fabulous teachers there that I am pretty sure my identity remains defined by it.” Ellah was editor of the student newspaperThe Recordand graduated with a major in Communication. She was close friends with Richard Allfrey, an English major from England, now her husband and the father of their two daughters, Gabrielle and Rujeko. Her roommate, Sesotho Palesa from South Africa, whom she mentions in her essay, graduated from Goshen College and published a Pinchpenny Press book,Mbale Palesa Makhale(1988).

I learned to know Ellah through the process of publishing the Pinchpenny Press book,Tears of the Phoenix(1987), consisting of short stories by both her (as “Pedzisai”) and Richard. That project was the modest beginning of her now stellar career in editing and publishing in London, England. After editing positions with Penguin and Jonathan Cape, in August 2009 Ellah was made Deputy Editor forGranta, the journal and publisher in London that has gained international distinction for its aggressive “discovery” and publication of authors from around the world, now in a number of different languages.

Ellah commissions work and is in charge of production, as well as headlining the quarterly event series. For the mini-festival associated with each issue ofGranta, she chairs events around England. On behalf of the magazine she has also traveled to international festivals in Turkey, Sri Lanka, China and across Europe. She sometimes travels as a cultural ambassador for the British Council. For her services to publishing, Prince Charles awarded her the title Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2011.


A recentNew York Timesarticle onGrantaand Ellah is to be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/books/granta-expands-its-foreign-editions.html?_r=1&ref=arts For more on her relationship to Goshen College see http://www.goshen.edu/news/2011/04/04/a-royal-honor-for-ellah-wakatama-allfrey-88/

David Foster Wallace, the famous American writer of creative nonfiction and “post-postmodern” fiction who committed suicide in 2008, visited Goshen College only overnight, for a reading in the winter of 1996. But he also established a close friendship with a Mennonite family, the Poags, while he taught from 1993 to 2002 at Illinois State University in Bloomington. As a student at Goshen College, Meg Poag was instrumental in bringing Wallace to campus. Along with her parents Doug and Erin Poag, she contributed many memories and insights to the researched report published here on Wallace’s exposure to the Mennonite community in Normal, Illinois.

More so than most widely published novelists today, Wallace has attracted a huge, popular following, especially of young people, who are as fascinated by his life as with his unusual writings. Although basically a shy person, and struggling with depression and addiction throughout his life, he was a dynamic teacher of creative writing and a charismatic reader of his work. Other aspects of personal appeal are his idiosyncratic texts, which indirectly communicate his vulnerable, contradictory self (although he never wrote explicitly about himself).

In the summer of 2012 D. T. Max published the first biography of Wallace,Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, which included material from an interview with the Poags. In effect, the essay published here is a detailed gloss on pages 220 and 248-52 of the biography. Although Max implies that the Poags were Mennonites, he emphasizes Wallace’s affair with a good friend of the Poags. My essay gives a detailed report of Wallace’s interactions with the Poags and their Mennonite church. “David Foster Wallace Among the Mennonites” becomes one of hundreds of memoirs of contacts with Wallace now to be found on the Internet. A good place to begin to survey those personal experiences is the David Foster Wallace blog sponsored by McSweeney’s at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/pages/memories-of-david-foster-wallaceFor a transcript of memoirs from a memorial service for Wallace in Bloomington, Illinois, attended by members of his AA group, see http://www.stephenparrish.com/2011/01/memories-of-david-foster-wallace.html

This issue also introduces poet Abigail Carl-Klassen to our readers. An MFA candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso’s bilingual Creative Writing Program, Carl-Klassen’s poems published here are based on her observations and conversations with Old Colony Mennonites in Seminole, Texas, where she grew up and currently lives. The Mennonites in Seminole migrated there from Canada and Mexico, so they are also in this sense visitors and sojourners.

Other literary sojourners in Mennonite communities could write essays similar to those in this issue. Nuruddin Farah, the distinguished novelist from Somalia, had extended contact there with Eastern Board Mennonite teachers. Norma Olivia Wahlgren, the mother of Jim Harrison--American poet, novelist and nature writer--was a Mennonite. And Matt Groening, creator ofThe Simpsons,came from a Mennonite family, his father Homer having grown up in the Plautdietsch-speaking community in Main Centre, Saskatchewan, and his grandfather Abram having taught at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren college in Kansas. Readers of theCMW Journalmight be able to submit the names of other prominent writers who could contribute memoirs to a future issue.

When Gulliver returned from his travels to his home in Redriff, he retreated to his back yard and meditated, depressed, talking only to his horse. He confessed that his travels had made him a misanthropist—a hater of “all nations, professions, and communities”—although he acknowledged that he still loved some “individuals.”

It is clear that Larocque, Wakatamah and Wallace made a few good friends of Mennonite “individuals,” but that visiting this exotic community had more positive effects upon their lives than did Gulliver’s visits on his life and spirit.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.