What are you doing here?: Mennonite Literature and de Englische Professor

Whenever I teach Canadian literature, my first task is to find out what students expect Canadian literature to be, and my experience suggests that the students tend to be fairly conservative in their expectations, partly because their previous educational experiences have led them in that direction. By "conservative" in this case, I mean that students generally expect to read "books that define the nation" circa 1975: realist novels from which I will magically draw out a definition of "Canadian identity" for them. Like many Canadian literature specialists, I'm not interested in doing that, mostly because I think students are going to be living in a contemporary Canada that will demand much more complex thought about citizenship and history, and the need to shift the prevailing narrative from Canada as the colony that prospered to Canada as a global entity in process. The biggest surprise for the students appears to be that I am aware that CanLit is a problem rather than a solution.

Sometimes the students have read the syllabus, and they speak earnestly about Canada's multicultural policy of the 1980s and 1990s. To help them with that articulation, I usually start off a course by introducing students to some of the shifting contexts of Canadian literature as fractured, as informed by multiple diasporic histories, as an entity that has colonized First Nations voices and is now (sometimes) including them, as a project that operates under multiple historical constraints. I throw in a little Marxist criticism too, because it's hard to talk about diasporic movements without talking about ideology and class. That's another thing teaching CanLit inspires in me; it reawakens my awareness (as though it ever sleeps!) of my own working-class, mostly rural background. I had to wait until I was a Master's student to hear a professor admit to having a working-class background. In academia, I still feel the legacy of coming from a background like mine: with parents from rural regions who were perpetually grateful to have lived through the Depression and weren't too sure about my interest in this university thing but would tolerate my involvement with it because maybe I could fool people into thinking I was one of them. Maybe. I come to Mennonite literature with the common soil of southwestern Manitoba on my boots and a trace of my mother's rural accent in my speech. I'm the neighbour from two towns over: de Englische with a local context.

I frequently teach Di Brandt's poetry and Miriam Toews's novel A Complicated Kindness, and to give my students some context and history before diving into the texts, I teach a brief history of the Mennonite diaspora. As I do, I estimate that in any given iteration, at least half of my students are encountering this material for the first time. Most are shocked to discover historical context for the text: a reminder that students are all too used to operating without history when they read. I teach A Complicated Kindness in a course on contemporary Canadian literature and in a course on Canadian women's writing; sometimes I teach my selected collection of Di's poems, Speaking of Power (published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in 2006) in the Canadian women's writing course, and often teach Di's poetry in my Writing Poetry course, moving from "when I was five" to "shades of sin" and "what de Englische / didn't understand" to the "Zone: <le Détroit>" sequence.

In my classroom, Mennonite texts are never solely Mennonite texts; they operate in context with a form or genre, a national literature, a history, or a writing practice. These kinds of combinations keep my anxieties alive and well and living on the cusp of negative pedagogy: suspecting that there isn't a right answer and encouraging the same questing spirit in my students. I was at a Mennonite literature conference in the university where I took my undergraduate degree and a former professor saw me and came over to talk. His eyes flicked to my nametag, and I didn't think anything of it; I can't always recall names of former students either. But then he said, "What are you doing here?" and I saw that he was not happy that I was giving a paper in Mennonite literature; he was even less happy when I pointed to the book table, where my edited collection of Di Brandt's poetry was for sale. But what could I say? One of the results of the growth of Mennonite literature in Canada and the United States is that non-Mennonites read it, and in some cases, we teach it.

Kindness and Other Sass: what the students say

This fall, a student sat in my office and complained mightily and at length about Canadian literature as it was taught to him in high school, including a vociferous verbal screed against Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness. (He had similar things to say about Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, for the record.) I teach both of these texts and thought his distaste a bit out of proportion until he asked why instructors thought that he should relate to Nomi. That absolutely is not my expectation. For me, telling students to "relate to" protagonists is antithetical to the reading project. In fact, a pedagogical insistence that a 15-year-old boy in a downtown Toronto school in 2010 must "relate to" Nomi Nickel's late-1970s small-town Mennonite cultural lockdown would make the instructor a bit desperate. The force of that desperation may have fuelled the reaction I was hearing several years after my student's high school experience. I have no idea what my students relate to, not because I am not paying attention, but because they have various and shifting tastes. I am much more skilled in finding texts that will broaden their perspective.

But I worry about the emphasis on "relating" and its concomitant pushback. Perhaps born of good intentions, and more often passed down as a curriculum requirement, the task of teaching otherness out of existence–this is, teaching otherness as inevitable, inarguable sameness–may seem like the way to affirm a half-digested form of "national unity" in the classroom. However, a good deal less "relating" and more emphasis on curiosity about history and culture makes a better reading experience for the students, and in the end, enables them to ask the question that I think is vital to Mennonite literature as a microcosm and Canadian literature as a larger context: why are some texts important enough to teach? Why is creating–and teaching–a "canon" of books that represent cultures or nations both a boon and a perpetual problem?

I have found it productive for the students' thinking to pair A Complicated Kindness with Thomas King's Truth and Bright Water. King's novel, set in twin towns divided by the Canada-U.S. border between Alberta and Montana, follows two months in the life of a young Blackfoot man. The two novels share some stylistic and narrative similarities–a first-person narrator with a limited perspective that is important to the movement of the plot, a young protagonist with latent artistic abilities, a community whose love and violence face off in a kind of death match for the protagonist, a history of outsider violence that threatens the community–but when the novels are "twinned" in this way, the pairing also gives students a chance to contemplate their differences set in relief against the other book.Why does Nomi need to leave her community while Tecumseh does not need to leave his? How do smart adults redeem the past for the young people? How does culture underscore the impossibilities of being young? What can art do to save people in distress? What is a giveaway and how does a community receive it? What can a comparison of the novels tell us about the differences (and sometimes, the similarities) between a diasporic culture and an Indigenous culture? It is as important to suggest that texts produced in Canada should be read against each other as it is to suggest that every text emerges from a cultural or historical tradition.

How well does this work? Let's see. This term (Fall 2015) when I taught A Complicated Kindness, I asked my undergraduate students about their experience of reading Toews's novel. They were under no obligation to answer; no one earned bonus points or extra credit of any kind for responding, though I can't swear that students were 100% disinterested: is anyone? Their replies were various, and in the spirit of letting the students speak for themselves about how they perceived the value of their reading, I'll quote a few:

"A Complicated Kindness was unique because it broke down stereotypes I had about Mennonite culture. In the media, Mennonites are portrayed in this very traditional, technology-hating, very religious way. However, Nomi's narrative gives readers a perspective of someone who is struggling with her community."

"Recognizing that within Canadian culture there is a subculture like Mennonites challenged my reading of Canadian literature and my understanding of Canada as a whole."

"[A Complicated Kindness is] an in-depth look at a community that I have lived next to and yet knew very little about. It's like sharing a house with someone without knowing much about them. I understand the text was only one person's fictionalized experience, but it was fascinating."

"As someone who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home I saw a lot of parallels between Nomi's experience and my own… This story will resonate with anyone who has experienced the loss of their religion and been made angry, afraid and liberated by it."

"This book has all the sass of Lemony Snicket and none of the self-awareness. Sorry!"

These comments are worthy of analysis by themselves. I wonder if the student who claims to have had her understanding of Canadian literature challenged thought that this was what I wanted to hear. And maybe it is. I love the metaphor of sharing a house with someone without knowing them: very apt. The "this story will resonate with" comment came from a senior student taking the course who modelled her comment on a book review right down to the phrasing. I had to laugh at the final comment that damns via faint praise: so begrudging! It reminds me of one of Nomi's final observations addressed to Mr. Quiring: maybe I'm still trying to impress you with my (love of another kind of) story. Sorry.

Student sass: it's complicated.

What de Englische didn't: Di Brandt's poetry

If teaching A Complicated Kindness rattles the requirement to relate, teaching Di Brandt's poetry lights a fire under students whether I teach it in a strictly academic course or in the creative-critical mode in a course on writing poetry. Whenever I teach Di's poetry, students begin to talk about their own restrictive upbringings in all kinds of heritages and religious traditions: Sikh, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, fundamentalist Christian. Students are eager to find their own way to read resistance, to claim an affinity for defiance and a context for rebellion no matter what their backgrounds are. I note that the impact of Di's early work is being felt by a generation of students and young writers who have texted all their adolescent lives, who have never known a world without the threat of international terrorism: post-9/11 citizens. These students are still discovering and still debating what they can put down on paper, what's allowable, what's radical, what's doable, what poetry does–or can do–in the world.

After reading Di's poetry, students often say with astonishment, "I didn't know you could do this with punctuation/the line/argument" shortly followed by: "How can I do that?" Their astonishment sometimes carries a hint of accusation towards me as a stand-in for every professor: why have we (i.e. the academy) been keeping this kind of poetry a secret from them? I ask my beginner poets to read Di's "when I was five" out loud so they can feel the way the breathlessness of the poem works with its enjambment. They are also excited to discover that they are allowed to write about childhood incidents that stick in the mind because of the profound ambivalence they inspire. To foster this, I often teach "but what do you think my father says" as a poem that serves in many ways: as an introduction to the prose poem, as an example of confrontation with the patriarchy, as a revision of the rules of punctuation, and as a familial poem about rebellion. Sometimes, with poems like these, the fact that Di is Mennonite doesn't come up because the students are so focussed on how the poem's punctuation and syntax work, and because it's clear that many of them understand the argument between parent and grown offspring in their own contexts. This poem grants students permission to examine closely the ideological structures of authority, and it's not unusual to see a few green faces around the room after I teach it. I know that some of my students go home on weekends and have those same conversations with their parents, and these students feel a bit (or a lot) queasy seeing their home lives on the page. But I teach this poem to underscore that political thought and action are not academic, that they can be homegrown and practical, and there may be shouting and tears before you're done. Di's poetry gives students permission to write expansively while they make the much larger negotiation about how and why to exert their own pressures on language, to defy the rules as they have learned them and foster creative disobedience against the laws of language. This is inevitably good for their critical thinking as well as their writing.

And there's also this moment that happens whenever I teach Di's poetry, and I want to end this essay with that moment as a sample of what is inescapable for me when I teach these Mennonite texts, whether I teach them as steeped in or separate from their cultural context. I ask my students to read "what de Englische / didn't understand" from Di's 1992 book mother, not mother, the first stanzas of which I'll quote here:

what de Englische

didn't understand:

that telling my story

didn't make me one of them.

that my fear of being silenced

isn't obsolete.

i came from far away

& brought everything with me.

the body remembers being

beaten & tortured & killed.

i stole the language

of their kings & queens,

but i didn't bow down to it,

i didn't become a citizen.

Students align quickly with the speaker of this poem, and who wouldn't want to be aligned with someone who didn't bow down to outdated hierarchies? I want to be aligned with that speaker, too. It's just the sort of rebellion to which young people (and many not so young people) aspire. But I also aspire to bringing the students into a historical consciousness of their own positions, and so I ask the students who among them grew up in the Anabaptist tradition, or a First Nations tradition, or a Jewish tradition, or who comes from a non-European culture? The students with these backgrounds, in my institution at this time, will comprise about 10-15% of the class. To everyone else in the room, I have to break the bad news: we are de Englische and I wonder if we do, or can, understand. We are the Wasps who Di is glad she is not. I know that "telling my story" of a working-class upbringing didn't "make me one of them" in the academy. My understanding of Mennonite literature is less than perfect and always will be, whether I invoke my outsider-insider status as the neighbour from two towns over or am just plain non-Menno. But that's never a reason to stop reading, or teaching, especially in a course in Canadian literature where the nation we thought we could tidy away under the file of "identity crisis" is proving more multiplicitous and less inclined than ever to be simplified, categorized, homogenized, or dehistoricized.

Works Cited

Brandt, Di. Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt. Ed. and intro. Tanis MacDonald. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006. Print.

Toews, Miriam. A Complicated Kindness. Toronto: Random House, 2004. Print.

About the Author

Tanis MacDonald

Tanis MacDonald is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Her book, The Daughter’s Way: Canadian Women’s Paternal Elegies (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012) was a finalist for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism. She is an award-winning poet and the editor of Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt (2006). She also authored a scholarly afterword to the 2015 reissue of Brandt’s first, award-winning book of poems, questions i asked my mother.