Tribute to Jean Janzen and Rudy Wiebe

Jean Janzen and Rudy Wiebe each read from recently published books at the conference. Julia Spicher Kasdorf's introduction to their plenary reading honors their productivity and demonstrates the power of a literary legacy.

I’m very honored to be asked to introduce Jean and Rudy this afternoon. Both of them are so important to me personally that I couldn’t figure out how to write a proper, professional introduction. As a young writer trying to find her way, I pursued both of them, and they have been generous friends and mentors, especially when my own parents where adjusting to the disturbing discovery that they had a writer in the family. That unpleasantness is so far past, it’s hardly worth mentioning, except to say that in the early 1990s, I desperately needed to find other mothers and fathers who could help me figure out how to come from a Mennonite home with conservative ideas and values, and to flourish in the world as a writer.

Jean and Rudy and a handful of other Mennonite artists and intellectuals provided essential conversations. So, by way of introduction, I’ve thought about the particular lessons I learned from each of them.

I first heard about Jean Janzen in the early 1980s, when a fair-skinned, freckled young woman with kinky blonde hair showed up in Kulp Hall. At Goshen College in those days, students from California were rare and exotic, addicted to a new thing called “aerobics,” and always complaining about the failures of the Indiana sun. This one also mentioned that her mother had finished, or was working on, a poetry thesis at Fresno State University. At that time, I could not imagine anything more incompatible with writing poems than being someone’s mother, so I dismissed as impossible this distant Mother Poet.

Five or six years later, probably around the time Three Mennonite Poets appeared from Good Books, I’d read Jean’s work, and wanted to meet her, so (as I’ve explained before) I journeyed to her imposing house here in Fresno, a bouquet of flowers in hand. In those days, 1986 or ‘87, if you lived in New York City, as I did, you had to go all the way to California to find a serious (by which I mean university-trained and actively publishing) Mennonite poet who was also a woman and an American.

Later I’d learn that Jean was born in Canada (of course)—but she has lived here, in the San Jouquin Valley since 1961, and this place has shaped her writing in many ways. She finished her BA at Fresno Pacific, and—as the mother of four in her early 40s—studied creative writing at Fresno State. She’s published seven collections of poetry since then, and two books of essays, Elements of Faithful Writing, drawn from her Menno Simons lectures at Bethel College in 2003, and a collection of personal essays, Entering the Wild. Her work has appeared in many distinguished journals, and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1995. Jean taught creative writing at Fresno Pacific and Eastern Mennonite Universities and served on the boards of Fresno Pacific College and the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. She is an abiding influence at College Community Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Clovis. Her hymn texts are sung by at least 8 denominations in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Germany and China.

Jean’s life and work have been constant reminders to keep it ALL in play: write hymns and erotic love poems; celebrate the domestic and the wild; praise the eternal and the earthy, nurture others and assert your own voice, and do it all honestly, with a sweet, sometimes sly and knowing, smile. Perhaps it’s just enough to say that Jean Janzen is the only person I know with a theological idea tattooed onto her body: Beloved (in cursive) just above her ankle.

What the Body Knows, her latest collection, released by Cascadia Books just in time for this conference, delivers the wisdom and urgency that come with eighty years of experience. I love the crystaline clarity of this collection and its spiritual depth. I think it’s her best so far. Please welcome our very, very beloved Jean Janzen.

As far as I know, Rudy Wiebe does not have a tattoo, and pursuing him was harder than showing up with flowers. At the first Mennonite/s Writing Conference, which Hildi Froese Tiessen organized in 1990 at Conrad Grebel University College, I’d published no book. In fact, I had not yet managed to pass the French exam to finish my master’s degree in creative writing. So, as an excuse to get up to the conference, I offered to write a story about the emergence of Mennonite Writing in Canada for Merle and Phyllis Good at Festival Quarterly magazine. In hallways between sessions, in crammed back seats riding to restaurant meals, and on the fringes of a reception at an old farm house, I hastily interviewed writers Di Brandt, David Waltner Toews, Sarah Klassen, and Patrick Friesen. All of them named Rudy Weibe—and the scandalous publication of Peace Shall Destroy Many—as profound influences. (Let me give you some perspective: in the fall of 1962, when Rudy’s first novel appeared, Di Brandt was 10, David Waltner Towes was 14, Patrick Friesen was 16, and I was born in December of that year.) During the final panel of the conference, I recall Rudy pronouncing something from his place on the stage while Di Brant, quarreling with him from the audience, wept.

This father so essential to the story on Canadian Mennonite literature I was trying to write eluded me the entire conference. Without deigning to say so directly, he refused the interview. I went home, wrote the article, and when it was published, mailed a copy to Edmonton. Thus began our twenty-five year correspondence. Sometime after that, I recall reading his short story, “Sailing to Danzing,” from a pocket paperback, standing in a crowded F train, probably on my 90-minute subway ride home from work. When I reached the last short paragraph, I found myself weeping. “Wybe Adam von Harlingen, where are you now? Your cables are gone. Only the memories of songs remain.”

Who is this writer who makes poets cry?

I sent a Metropolitan Transit Authority post card depicting the interior of an F-Train car to Edmonton. Some time after that, when he tried to visit Big Bear’s medicine bundle at the Museum of Natural History, Rudy also visited our apartment in Brooklyn. A few years later he visited my classroom at Messiah College. On a blackboard, he demonstrated the difference between fact and fiction for my students: it is so slight, he said, eraser and chalk in hand, just change three little letters.

Some facts: Rudy Wiebe was born in 1934 at Speedwell, Saskatchewan, a homesteading settlement that no longer exists. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta, and thereafter received a bachelor of theology from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg. He was founding editor of the MB Herald, and taught creative writing at Goshen College from 1963-1967, before returning to the University of Alberta where he taught until 1992. With his wife Teena, Rudy has been a longtime member of the Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church in Edmonton, a congregation that did not expel him when the larger denomination might have. He has published 10 novels and numerous collections of short stories and works of non-fiction, including Stolen Life, a collaboration with a Cree woman, and his own memoir, Of this Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest. His writing has been adapted for film and television and translated into many languages. He is an officer of the Order of Canada and twice the recipient of Canada’s highest literary prize: the Governor General’s Award, both times for books that deal with encounters between the British, Mennonites or Anglo-Canadians, and Canada’s Aboriginal people.

Mennonite writers have rightly noticed Rudy’s pioneering role as an English-language author in our community, but his lifelong engagement with Cree and Dene people makes his work profound in other, perhaps more important, ways. I think of Hal Weins, young character in Peace Shall Destroy Many who befriends Métis children on the edge of the Mennonite village, and Hal Weins, the old man in Rudy’s most recent novel Come Back, who is guided through grief by a Dene friend named Owl. I think of Big Bear, whose life Rudy recovered from the archives before the historians paid much attention, and Yvonne Johnson, Big Bear’s descendant, who reached out to Rudy from prison, to ask that he help her write her life story. Again and again, Rudy has shown us that it is the conversations we have with those unlike ourselves that widen the world and finally reveal the most about ourselves.

More than anyone else, Rudy reminds me to hang on to my writing, even when life’s demands would compel me to do otherwise. These days, when I get discouraged with a project, I call Rudy. I imagine him sitting at the large desk in his home office surrounded by thousands of books, and after a long conversation, I am able to return to my own desk. What greater gift could I ask of a literary father or friend?

Thank you Rudy; you have beaten a path for all of us.

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.