A Mosaic of Broken Dishes

A summer reading special! Jessica Penner talks about her new novel, Shaken in the Water, history, imagination, and church.

Jessica Penner

Jessica Penner was born in Newton, Kansas, and grew up in Hillsboro, Kansas, in town and then on a farm nearby. At 13, she was baptized and joined the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church. She graduated from Eastern Mennonite University in 2001, and a year later, with her husband, entered Mennonite Voluntary Service in New York City. She worked at Pax Christi Metro New York and Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries and lived in Menno House until moving to Harlem. She earned an MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2006.

In 2008, she returned to Harrisonburg to work at Rosetta Stone and continued to revise her MFA thesis project with the help of Inkslingers, a local writing group organized by Kirsten Beachy. Shaken in the Water (2013) is her first book. A blog about her publication process can be found here.

In 2010, she started teaching English as a Second Language full-time at James Madison University. She is a member of Shalom Mennonite Congregation of the Mennonite Church USA. Jessica is currently working on a memoir about contracting a brain tumor from Ollier’s disease and the surgery that removed it on September 11, 2001. She and her husband are now in the process of moving back to New York City. We conducted this earnest e-mail exchange between June 26 and July 9, 2013.

—Julia Spicher Kasdorf

Shaken in the Water

JK: First of all, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading the novel. Things about it made me think of Toni Morrison—history and a little bit of magic, the complicated cast of eccentrics, a nonlinear narrative structure. I ended up making a chart of the three generations of characters on a back fly page as I read, and the last time I remember doing that, I was reading Morrison's Paradise, one of my favorite novels! Is Morrison an influence?

JP: You are the second person who has mentioned Toni Morrison in comparison to my work. It makes me feel giddy inside!

I wouldn't say she was a conscious influence, although I have always loved her work and been insanely jealous of her skill as a writer. Somehow she manages to take an average situation and give it the significance of Lear or Macbeth. She's a writer who takes chances that others cannot take. When Love came out, a friend said: "Only Toni Morrison can name a book Love and get away with it." It was only after my book came out and Chris Edwards (the woman who did an on-the-air review of my book on the local NPR station) mentioned me and Toni Morrison in the same sentence that I even thought of it.

JK: Can you discuss your choice to write this novel in stories that aren't arranged chronologically?

JP: I changed the order of the stories so often it's a bit on the insane side. In my mind, they are as chronological as they can ever be. I think it's how my brain works: I don't tell or understand stories on the page or in my head in a 1, 2, 3 manner. Instead, I think of different themes or details and make the connections that way. I see the book as a mosaic made up of broken dishes--you take this mess of tragedy or clumsiness or both and try to build something beautiful and proud. Each jagged little piece has its mate. You just have to find the right fracture.

I just reread Chaim Potok's Davita's Harp, and what I love about that book is how much he leaves the reader in the dark. He mentions certain names and refers to books that are actually books in the real world, but he doesn't go into the details. Everyone in the book knows but the reader, who can either choose to shrug and keep reading, or find out more—find out if it all lived in Potok's mind or if it's actually out there. The last few times I read it, I shrugged and assumed it was all made up. This time, I decided to see if the book he references two or three times actually exists—and it does. I haven't read it yet, but I want to. I think it will help me understand the characters more deeply. I'm glad Potok honors his readers with that unknown. He trusts us to decide whether to take the bait or simply enjoy the story as is. I hope my book is the same—you can just sail along and enjoy the ride, or skid and flip back and forth for the hidden details that make the story that much richer.

JK: Somewhere I read that you wanted to write a Mennonite novel, but your stories are populated with people who resemble no Mennonites you know. I could imagine some of your characters being called "grotesques," or maybe the novel being described as gothic, terms people have used in relation to Flannery O'Conner. Or your book could be called a "romance" in the nineteenth century sense of that word, meaning not a love story so much as a novel that contains fantastic elements, like Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables. Also, like Hawthorne, you struggle with the burden of history and write from a profound moral sensibility: what's the cost of perfectionism or striving for "greatness"? Any thoughts about where you fit into these streams?

JP: I randomly found the picture that ended up on the cover of Shaken in the Water. I was wandering around the internet, looking for ideas to send to the designer, when there it was: three Mexican Mennonite women standing uncomfortably in front of the camera. They have this other-world yet completely average look to them. They aren't necessarily pretty—but not ugly, either. They're wearing rather stuffy dresses but (as a friend pointed out) are also in open-toed, low-heeled shoes. All that is to say I'm unsure of where my work fits in. It seems to be a mutt of the fat grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the house that's alive with haunting, the pastoral sexuality of My Antonia and the uncomfortable search for a modern frontier of One of Ours.

JK: You've said that the book began with "Tarred," based on a family story about bullying and threats to pacifist Mennonites during World War I. That strikes me as one of the foundational stories of (Russian) Mennonite identity in Kansas. I get that idea from Jim Juhnke's volume in the Mennonite Experience in America series, VISION, DOCTRINE, WAR; there's a striking photo in there of the main building at Tabor College burning, set by a patriotic arsonist. That kind of pressure was greater on the prairies, where Mennonite communities were smaller and newer than they were in the east. I believe it was in that lovely "Necessary Fiction" essay that you wrote, "I wanted to write literature, not repeat history."

I absolutely affirm that position, but could you say a bit more about what you think literature can do that history cannot do?

JP: My paternal grandfather published a book that followed our Penner ancestors from 1875 to 1985 (I think). I loved looking at the book when I was a kid. Not for the historical details, but for the "old-fashioned" photographs. I stared at the serious faces and wondered what they were thinking about during the exposure. I wanted to know their stories, not just their relation to me.

The story in "Tarred" where Poppa is threatened with tarring and feathering because of his refusal to buy war bonds actually happened to my great-grandfather during WWI (I've fictionalized it, of course). I've often wondered what my great-grandfather was feeling when he and his family hid in the attic when the neighbors came to the door during the war. I can understand the fear, but I've wondered if there was shame as well. After all, he was hiding. He was cloaking the candle. Was the hiding a symbol of something bigger—the community's slow tread towards relinquishing ideals like pacifism?

My ancestors helped build the original building at Tabor—I believe they worked on the next one as well. What happened to the beliefs of MBs during that time? In literature, an author can go places a historian cannot—the author can crawl into that space behind the dead eyes of that old-fashioned picture without the aid of a diary or a letter. Poke and prod. Play the "what if" game. See what happens.

JK: One thing I've been wondering about is your use of Low German—a language that was not your mother tongue. How do you feel about not "having" that everyday language that was important to Russian Mennonite identity? What made you decide to incorporate it and other quotations of High German into your project? How did you go about using these other languages? What function do you think they serve in the story?

JP: Although I randomly heard snippets of Low German during childhood, I never learned it, or even High German. I was interested in learning, but it never went any further than that. I took two years of German in college, but I never was comfortable with it, and most of it has faded away by now.

I once read that no language can be as cruel and dirty as Low German. Just looking at the spelling makes one agree. There is a guttural tone that is both frightening and intriguing. When I was thinking about how my characters would communicate their anger and derision, I thought about a Low German phrase I'd heard as a child that included one of my paternal ancestors and his pants. At the time, I thought it was funny. Now I have the feeling that it was a rather dirty joke. Low German words or phrases here and there are used to describe things that are homey and loving. Complete sentences, however, are something else entirely: Dü best Drakj. Ekj hab en Äakjel fonn di. Hast dü kjeene Schaund?

JK: Who is your favorite character? I'll say that I find Huldah unforgettable. She makes me think of the figure of Wisdom or Sophia who was with God before creation. Outcast, principle of insight, repository of memory.

JP: Huldah is definitely a repository of the guilt, shame, and soil of a community that throws her out for her one choice that is out of step. Although I didn't think about this when I was first writing about her, I have come to realize she is like a few women I knew in my home community. Women who didn't quite do what they were expected to do. Like Huldah, they weren't loud about it, or demanded everyone change for their sake. But it was too much for certain people to bear. Those women were punished for it.

I hate to admit that I like Agnes and Johan the most. Not because I would enjoy their company. In fact, they piss me off. Yet I understand them. I would love to be like Huldah. To stay in a community that rejects her, because she feels she is still needed. I would be an Agnes or a Johan if what happened to Huldah happened to me. I would scream and abandon everything and everyone. I would strike out, and deliver the pain that had been piled upon me.

JK: Without spoiling it for readers, I'm also interested in hearing what you might say about "The Voice." It made me think of the Gospel of Thomas: “the kingdom of God is within you and outside of you.”

JP: Over the years my faith in the sort of God preached in church has lessened, yet I still go to church, I still sing the hymns, I still find myself praying from time to time. I doubt there's anything beyond this existence yet I hope there is. Some religious leaders say that we are invited to go to Jesus and be a part of the kingdom. I don't agree. Christ is already with us. There's no need to accept or reject him. He is larger than that. The Voice in Shaken in the Water is both real and unreal. It doesn't need to be accepted or obeyed. It simply exists. The Voice comes from without and within. The Voice is in the soul of the hearer. The hearer already knows what the Voice has to say—he or she just has to be prodded into the epiphany.

JK: Your experience living among different Mennonite groups must have helped to construct the marvelous imaginative world you created in the novel. When you got to EMU, what differences did you notice between Kansas and Virginia or Pennsylvania Mennonites, between the so-called Russian and Swiss? Do the differences interest you?

JP: What I discovered immediately was the difference in the use of culture. Russian Mennonites (I would emphasize here that I'm speaking from a MB perspective—Hillsboro is an MB town with a few GCs thrown in) seem much more committed to the physical culture. I grew up surrounded by zwiebach, borscht, peppernuts, New Year's Cookies, and so on. The Swiss Mennonites seem to hold those less important—at least the more liberal ones. They cling to theological traditions rather than the physical: peace and justice, pacifism, etc. In Hillsboro, the commitment to pacifism and social justice had begun to fade in the generation after World War I. There's a memorial to veterans of the Korean War in a park in Hillsboro that has many Russian Mennonite surnames. I believe my paternal grandfather worked at a factory that built war planes during WWII.

When I was in MVS, I got to know a Canadian MB. She and I talked about how we were much more aligned with the Swiss Mennonites theologically, but that we were torn about pulling our membership from our respective churches. We felt it would be disloyal, and would take us further away from the MB traditions than we already were. I finally did join a MCUSA church a few years ago—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—and when one of my mother's friends found out, she mentioned (with suspicion, I believe) the fact that I'd joined a much different group of Mennonites. My mother said, "Well, her husband joined, so she joined." I guess that made it more palatable, since I was following his lead.

I am still interested in the differences, but in a different way. I'm more aware of how Mennonites feel about those differences. In New York, I was the interesting minority. In Harrisonburg, Virginia, I'm not. You can have fun playing around with truth when you're in New York. It's a bit harder when you're surrounded by the folk you're stealing traits from. I wonder if I could've started this book had I not lived in New York at the time.

JK: Among those traits stolen from the Swiss tradition are the head covering and selection of leaders by lot. The head covering and long hair are quite essential to your story about Russian Mennonites in the early twentieth century, although they would not have been an essential part of their religious practice. Why did you borrow those details?

JP: I'm not sure I knew why I used the head covering to begin with, but as time went on, I realized I wanted to show a non-Mennonite the differences that are hidden, and, like the covering, are lost during American assimilation. A friend once said the head covering was a kind of McGuffin. Even though Russian Mennonites/MBs always looked like non-Mennonites, they were set apart from the world, but didn't want to be. When Mennonites first came to Kansas, they set up villages much like the ones in the Ukraine—the buildings and farms quite close together—but soon they began amassing land and grew farther (thus further) apart. German was discarded within two or three generations to avoid suspicion of German loyalties during the World Wars. My particular group moved to the US in 1875, so many years passed before Mennonites' pacifism was tested. I think that's very interesting. Long enough to get a bit too comfortable to want to push that belief into the light.

The selection of leaders by lot has fascinated me for years. It's truly leaving it up to God (or chance, depending on your perspective) to choose who was going to lead the community. No consideration of personality or talents. I was trying to figure out a way for Peter—initially the holy one—to become a sinner. I believe that God (at least Peter's god) knew that Peter was weak. That Peter would crumble under temptation. Peter needed to suffer for his sins. Peter tried to change, but he never quite made it.

JK: You may have seen that Shirley Hershey Showalter and a few other Mennonite reviewers took Rhoda Janzen to task for doing a similar thing in her memoir about returning to an MB community, implying plain dress, for instance, which was not really part of her group. And then, there was the hardcover, which featured a conservative head covering on the front. How would you respond to the readers' demands for "accurate" representation?

JP: I read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress around the time it came out. It didn't really bother me that she left the MB references out. I figured people would understand that Mennonites are a diverse group. After I read her memoir, I saw Shirley's blog. I met the angry comments with some surprise. But I suppose when you are in a minority among minorities group, you are more defensive about how you are portrayed in the outside world. American Jews are a minority, yet I think most North Americans understand that there are varying degrees of Judaism, so if readers see Orthodox or Hasidim in a novel, they know it is just one reflection of the Jewish people, not the whole faith.

At first I was worried about melding Russian Mennonites with Swiss Mennonites. I wanted to be accurate, but the story demanded I stray. I confessed this to my writing teacher at SLC, Carolyn Ferrell. She told me to worry about telling the story, and focus on the truth of the characters' perspective. So for a long time I didn't think about it. Then my book was accepted for publication, and I thought of MLBD, which motivated me to write the two afterwards briefly explaining the different groups and the dialect.

I think there is a type of reader that feels the need for an ultimate truth. They want to trust the writer. I rarely trust writers—fiction writers, poets, or nonfiction writers. Everybody has her own perspective. His own agenda. Her own version of truth. That truth changes from day to day—minute to minute. I studied the oral historian Studs Terkel in graduate school, and at one point he said (this is a horrible, possibly inaccurate paraphrase) that a story changes each time a person tells it, but it is always true to the teller. My book is true to me.

JK: Are there Mennonite writers whose work has been important to you?

JP: I have to admit, I'm usually jealous of other Mennonite prose writers who have made it. Actually, I guess I'm jealous of most prose writers who have made it. Especially if they are good. I'm reading Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant right now, and when I put down the book before I go to sleep, I want to throw it against the wall, it's so good. I felt the same way about Miriam Toews' Swing Low.

JK: In the article Ann Hostetler had in the January Mennonite Quarterly Review, “The Self in Mennonite Garb, or, Where Does the Writing Come From?” she noted that a disproportionate number of our writers come from Mennonite Brethren background. Would you care to speculate about why that might be?

JP: My mother used to have a book that had a chart that compared Russian and Swiss Mennonites. One of the blocks on the chart said something to the effect of "Russian Mennonites write dark, disturbing poetry. Swiss Mennonites don't."

I wonder how much the nearness of the immigration of Russian Mennonites has to do with it. We are really only a little under 140 years away from the First Exodus to North America. Some came as late as WWII. I feel that there's still a bit of the shtetl or, in Low German, Darp, behind the assumed American assimilation of pantyhose and pierced ears; a bit of the darkness of persecution that perches on the rim of the Russian Mennonite consciousness.

Of course, there are GC Mennonites that moved from Russia to North America at the same time. I'm sure that there are a lot more Mennonite writers out there we just don't know about—I wonder if they are less known simply because of their communities. I think that the other Mennonite groups are largely more accepting of their writers. This is good in so many ways, but can be bad in others. If you're too quickly accepted, there isn't as much pressure to continue to challenge yourself. It's too easy to become complacent in making comfortable art. There are some really good writers who could be truly great writers outside the Mennonite world, but they stay safe. Stay a bit too cute and folksy.

MB writers have to leave the MB community (sometimes physically, usually theologically) to become what they need to be. There isn't that pressure to be good but not hurt anyone's feelings. An MB writer has already hurt the feelings of the faith community. An MB writer has accepted that responsibility.

I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about it, being the "other" Mennonite and a successful writer. Would you agree with my surmise? Which is really all it is, a guess from conversations with various Mennonites and my own observations.

JK: What I make up about the MB authors is that maybe this sense of a writerly voice is related to the sense of a soul that needs saving and a soul that has a story to tell, ideas that would have entered the Anabaptist stream from German Pietism, which influenced the group in Russia, and then from North American Evangelicalism. Not that other Mennonite groups don't believe in personal salvation, of course, but I do think there's a different emphasis. I think the Pietist/Evangelical inflection might make more space for individual articulation. When an MB gets baptized, you stand up and speak extemporaneously, don't you? You tell a story of your own journey. I recall answering questions in the affirmative at my baptism, making vows with my covered head bowed. How often do people pray silently before meals in MB families, or is it more common for a man to pray out loud at the table, giving voice to what may or may not be everyone's desires and gratitude? And then, too, as members of a reform movement within the Mennonite world in Russia, the MBs must inherit a certain courage of conviction; they may be less inclined to yield. But I realize that these generalizations are rarely useful or true, and can tend toward stereotypes.

As for needing to leave one’s cradle church, I understand that impulse. If people were getting tattoos when I was in college, in the early 1980s like they do now, I would probably have tattooed "silence, exile, and cunning" onto my body somewhere, the slogan from Joyce's Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man. That was my essential attitude, but now I see that it's not everyone's path.

Rudy Wiebe didn't leave the MB church. I've visited his church in Edmonton; it's a conventional affair with fixed benches and traditional hymns and so forth. For as much as Rudy's story of exile after the publication of Peace Shall Destroy Many has alarmed Mennonite writers, it seems important to note that he has long remained a member in good standing of his local MB congregation. When pressure came from elsewhere, the congregation supported him. And really, I know it was traumatic to have to resign from his job at the MB Herald and move to the States, but is going to Goshen really exile? (From the Canadian MBs, yes, but not from a larger Mennonite conversation.) Jean Janzen remains an MB, too, insisting on women in leadership by being a leader herself.

That these writers, who are the age of my parents, stayed in the church makes me think of a chant from the gay rights movement back in the late 1980s, early 90s: "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" It takes courage and energy to stick around, just as it takes courage to leave. Peter Dula, whom you must know at EMU, once told me that if the artists keep thinking they have to leave the Mennonite church, as I did, the church will never change. He makes a point. But one can only hoe the row she finds under her feet. And hey, welcome to my old home, the Mennonite Church USA. Maybe you can stand in for me.

About the Author

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

Julia Spicher Kasdorf is author of Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields, a documentary collaboration with Steven Rubin published in 2018 by Penn State Press. Her other books of poetry--Sleeping Preacher, Eve’s Striptease, and Poetry in America--have received the Agnus Lynch Starrett Prize, The Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Writing, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches poetry writing at The Pennsylvania State University. With Steven Rubin, she is currently working on Home Place, a documentary project that involves listening to the experiences of farmers who live and work within 30 miles of her home in Bellefonte, PA.