Learning, Teaching and Creating Mennonite Literature

Shortly after I discovered that poetry by Mennonite writers actually existed, and had begun work on creating the anthology of those I couldn’t find, I was fortunate enough to be hired at Goshen College in the English Department. I came to Mennonite literature as a scholar of African American and other multicultural American literatures as well as a closet poet; it was Ervin Beck, the chair of Goshen College’s English Department, who first brought me into the fold of Mennonite literary studies through trial by fire—inviting me to share the stage with Jeff Gundy and Hildi Froese Tiessen at a plenary session in 1997 at the Mennonite/s Writing conference at Goshen College, the fall before my teaching appointment began.

I wasn’t fully aware of how intimidated I should have been in this company—partly because I was new to the field, but also because I was self-conscious about the 6-month pregnancy I was wearing. I already had three children and a husband—a new baby had not been a part of the job conversation. Nonetheless, Jeff and Hildi proved to be gracious company. I found resonances between their words and mine that made me glimpse new possibilities of conversation about Mennonite Writing—in fact, it felt like we were weaving a word hammock into which we could invite many readers and writers to relax and think and dream a while.

In 1997, Mennonite literary criticism was still in its formative stages—indeed, I’d been scribbling revisions on my talk all the way to Goshen—and added a few more when poet Julia Kasdorf greeted me before the plenary and told me about Franconia Conference’s decision to remove Germantown Mennonite Church’s membership because of the congregation’s welcoming stance to members in same sex relationships. Already it seemed to me that Mennonite/s Writing had the potential to embrace and transcend such divisions—to be a space in which we could hold and sit with all of the hurts and divisions and ponder them with compassion. After all, literature by its very nature crosses borders.

In putting my hand to the plow of teaching and writing about—and perhaps even producing—Mennonite literature, I found myself committed to a task that would outlast the pregnancy and grow up with my youngest child, the baby I brought with me to Goshen the following summer. Along with my family, I also brought a manuscript in progress, an anthology of poetry by Mennonite writers I had begun to compile after my new friend, poet Julia Kasdorf, introduced me to a constellation of Mennonite writers and voices during the Cincinnati Mennonite Arts Weekend in 1995, where Jeff Gundy, Raylene Hinz-Penner, and David Walter-Toews were also reading their work. That weekend I was moved to tears numerous times—where had this blessing of the arts been when I was growing up Mennonite? It was a time of integration for me that led me, ultimately back into the Mennonite fold. I decided to make the anthology I wished I had had, not only for myself but for other writers growing up in the Mennonite tradition—and for the world of poetry, whose serious recognition of Mennonite writers seemed long overdue.

As my youngest child grew up in the Center for Young Children at the college, my knowledge of Mennonite literature increased. I participated on the planning committee for the 2002 Mennonite/s Writing conference at Goshen College, co-sponsored by Conrad Grebel University College. My first book of poetry, Empty Room with Light, appeared in 2002 from Dreamseeker books, which made me a Mennonite writer. And my anthology, A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry, appeared from University of Iowa Press in 2003, which made me a critic of Mennonite literature. When Ervin retired in 2003, I inherited the legacy of the Mennonite Literature course. I wasn’t sure I was ready for this daunting responsibility. For one thing, it meant that I had to buckle down and read the novels of Rudy Wiebe and Miriam Toews and Sandra Birdsell. No regrets. Teaching Mennonite literature means learning even more about Mennonite literature—sometimes afresh, and sometimes returning to favorite works through your current students’ eyes. It has allowed me to integrate teaching with my continuing scholarship on Mennonite literature—a rare occurrence at a small liberal arts college where a small number of faculty “cover all the bases.” In teaching variations on what appeared to be a very specialized class in 2006, 2011, and 2013, I found that Mennonite literature could engage a wide variety of students in reflecting on the construction of their own lives, families, values, and world view.

My first experience teaching Mennonite literature was in the spring of 2006. My students were a mix of majors from Bible and Religion, English, Nursing, Social Work, History, and the Sciences. In Canada, where Mennonite writers are well-known bestselling authors, it makes perfect sense to frame Mennonite literature from within the field of Canadian studies; in a U.S. setting—Northern Indiana, to be precise, at a historically Mennonite institution where students are increasing less Mennonite—both Canadian literature and the Canadian Mennonite narrative needs introducing. With a one-semester shot at making sense of Mennonite literature and the array of Mennonite communities, contexts, and issues it represents, it seemed necessary to teach a bit of history and devise a framework that could contain the narratives of Russian and Swiss Mennonite traditions, the narratives of Canadian and US and contemporary cross-cultural Mennonites, classic and contemporary Mennonite works from 1960 to the present, and a nod to the ongoing flurry of activity in the field. Yet I didn’t want to overwhelm students with background information. I wanted to find a way for them to connect.

Two of Ervin’s assignments helped me to bridge this gap: he always asked students to write a personal essay for this course, and to create a family tree. Ervin’s training in folklore, as well as in literature, created a strong rationale for developing creative assignments that brought together lived experience as culture and literary study. The magic of these assignments as a form of pedagogical engagement helped students from all backgrounds to make something in language that reflected the concerns of much Mennonite literature—the emergence of the self, and its place in family/religious/cultural heritage and community.

Two former students influenced by Ervin Beck’s Mennonite literature class include Sidney King (Pearl Diver, 2004; A Shroud for the Journey, 2002) who told Mennonite stories in these films http://www.mennonitewriting.org/journal/2/7/mennonite-screenwriter/, and scholar Daniel Cruz, who wrote his first piece of Mennonite literary criticism, “How Julia Kasdorf Changed My Life,” as an essay for this class. Cruz subsequently edited a collection of student essays from the class under the same title, published by Pinchpenny Press in 2002.

Each time I’ve taught Mennonite literature I’ve encouraged students to do self-reflection and writing as part of their reading and learning process. I found that non-Mennonite students, or newly Mennonite students, are also attracted by the challenge of writing about their own cultural experiences. The heavy emphasis on “coming of age” in Mennonite fiction allows ample opportunities for students to see how authors represent characters who share many of their life-stage concerns negotiating demanding situations: taking a pacifist stance in a time of war, surviving the violence of the Russian revolution, looking for meaning in a community where wealth and rules are plentiful, but real kindness is lacking.

The texts I chose for the 2006 course included four coming of age novels that emphasize Russian Mennonite stories: Peace Shall Destroy Many, Rudy Wiebe’s historic first novel, and three 21st century works: A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, Katya (in Canada, The Russlander), and The Book of Flying by Keith Miller. I taught Sleeping Preacher by Julia Kasdorf to represent the Swiss/Amish/Mennonite journey, and heavily supplemented with poems by Jeff Gundy and others. Students chose a poet from A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry to research and read critical essays from Migrant Muses, a collection of essays seeded at the 1997 Mennonite/s Writing conferences, edited by John D. Roth and Ervin Beck and published by The Mennonite Quarterly Review. Here students could read the polished version of the plenary talks that Hildi, Jeff and I had given at the first Goshen Mennonite/s Writing Conference. (The first ever Mennonite/s Writing Conference, brain child of Hildi Froese Tiessen, took place at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo in 1990). At this they remarked: “Everyone in this field seems to know each other.” Indeed. In this class, students contributed weekly to an interactive discussion board (the college had just began to develop the technological capacities of the classroom), giving them a palpable sense of creating critical knowledge outside the confines of the class period. Most of them also attended the Bluffton Mennonite/s Writing conference, where they got to meet many of the critics and writers in person.

Between the Mennonite Literature classes I taught in 2006 and 2011, Ervin Beck and I founded the Center for Mennonite Writing on the web, along with its online Journal of CMW, in January 2009. The focus of its inaugural issue was Orality in Mennonite Writing, and featured an essay by Magdalena Redekop, “The Mother Tongue in Cyberspace,” with sound bites, originally delivered at the Bluffton Mennonite/s Writing conference. http://mennonitewriting.org/journal/1/1/mother-tongue-cyberspace/

Ervin had often expressed the wish for a Center for Mennonite Writing at Goshen College, and after the Bluffton Conference we lamented the lack of venues for the more informal or hybrid essays (such as Redekop’s, which depended on sound effects) as well as the creative pieces. Online publishing and journals had become increasingly more respectable, and I suggested creating a virtual Center on the web. With Ervin’s blessing, I proposed creating a Center on the Web as a student/faculty “Maple Scholars” project during the summer of 2007, and involved colleague Kyle Schlabach and then-student Matt Yoder in the project. Due in large part to Kyle and Matt, this project laid the platform for the current website and journal, now in its eighth continuous year. Although www.mennonitewriting.org is not a traditional classroom, I view it as an extension of teaching Mennonite literature. My next dream is to create an interactive online Mennonite Literature class and a semi-annual book discussion group on the site. Meanwhile, my increasing familiarity with the web began to shape my teaching of Mennonite literature in the classroom.

In my 2011 Mennonite Literature class, I asked students to keep response blogs to the class materials. These blogs, still available at http://mennoniteliterature.blogspot.com/, put students in the position of being cultural commentators and taking on the responsibility of authors. Sometimes this resulted in surprising conversations, as when a current student wrote a critique of a previous student’s essay in How Julia Kasdorf Changed My Life and heard back from him. Talk about finding out what the author really meant! Students were also able to share their stories and reveal varied responses to the responses and the reading. Both Mennonite and Non-Mennonite students learned a lot about each other and the insider/outsider tensions at the college, as well as the literature.

I used Sidney King’s film, Pearl Diver, to introduce students to the intersection of Russian and Swiss Mennonites narratives, after which we arranged a Skype interview with King, who graciously answered our many questions about the film. We even found that some of the decisions we attributed to artistic choice were in fact due to the constraints of the film’s budget, which King had to underwrite himself. The film gave both Mennonite and non-Mennonite students a common experience of experiencing artistic representation of Mennonites by a Mennonite for a general audience, and served as a text for theoretical discussions about representations, archetypes, and stereotypes.

In my zest to teach current literature, I introduced Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a new memoir that had reached the bestseller list, and that had been reviewed in The Journal of CMW by Jessica Baldanzi, as well as in The New York Times and many other places, some of which heavily criticized Janzen for her portrayal of family members and the Mennonite community. I invited my students to get involved in the discussion. Students were mixed in their responses, but the book opened the door to frank conversations about writing and life that we otherwise would not have had. Then I added in the heavier reading: novels by Wiebe, Toews, and Birdsell, along with poetry and criticism. We had a reprieve from literary art when Jack Dueck, Canadian storyteller and former Goshen College English Department faculty member, came to visit: all of the students fell in love with his oral storytelling. As part of the course, I asked student to help curate a college student issue of the Journal of CMW. The responsibility landed primarily on the shoulders of Sara Wakefield, a senior member of that class, who focused on memoirs by four college students in that issue.

About this time, Goshen College began offering Faculty Research Fellowships through its Lilly Grant-funded Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning. I applied to obtain a grant to develop a Latino literature class and study “Redefining Critical Consciousness as a Goal of Ethnic Literature Classes.” Ross Peterson-Veatch, our current acting dean and former associate dean, suggested that I apply to do a study of my Mennonite Literature class. I was surprised, as the current research fellows at CITL did not consider Mennonites an ethnic group, but I followed his advice and was able to spend a summer, again with a Maple Scholars research project, analyzing qualitative data from the student blogs in the Mennonite literature class with two excellent students—Lauren Stoltzfus and Rebecca Weaver. In particular, we looked for “triggering points” in the ethnic literature curriculum—the moments at which the discussion became gridlocked. This happened, not surprisingly, around pacifism in Mennonite literature, but also around the creation of family trees—one student’s lack of access to her family genealogical information only increased her sense of alienation, but later led to a student project in which she wrote a poem about her imagined ancestors, a poem published in our Broadside publication the following year. The research reinforced the importance of creating room for student voices, and spaces for holding disagreements in an accepting tension, in the classroom. Many pieces of Mennonite literature address tensions within a community that is crucial to the characters’ identity, which in turn allow discussions of individual and group differences in the classroom.

Most recently, I taught Mennonite literature in the fall of 2013, offering it both as a literature and a writing elective, since I was already aware that writing was such a vital component of Mennonite Literature as I taught it. (The English Department added a Writing Major in 2010.) Students did not keep public blogs this time since it was a smaller class, but we created collaborative wikis in response to readings and critical articles, and each student reviewed a new book by a Mennonite writer. Students again wrote personal essays and family trees. They were also invited to do a final project that was either creative or critical.

Several student writing projects from this class turned into Pinchpenny Press publications the following year. Kolton Nay’s personal essay became a memoir, “ImBalance,” published by Pinchpenny Press in 2015. He later presented an excerpt at the Mennonite/s Writing conference at Fresno Pacific in March 2015. Other students from this class publishing with Pinchpenny Press in spring 2015 were Dominique Chew, who authored a memoir on being a mixed race Mennonite, The Meaning of Grace, and Hayley Brooks, who authored a collection of poetry, Hallowed. Of these students, only Chew was born into a Mennonite family, but both Nay and Brooks engaged at deep personal levels with the theological and identity questions raised in Mennonite literature. The seeds for these books were planted in Mennonite literature; the mentoring system in our new Writing Major allowed these students to develop their projects in their Sophomore Portfolio and Senior Writing Practicum tutorials. This class also included a singer-songwriter and a composer, who offered excellent creative work to the class.

Whether or not the teaching of Mennonite Literature will continue as a stand-alone elective at a small college like Goshen, steeped in Mennonite history but dedicated to serving a broad audience, is open to question. Does a focus on Mennonite literature pose an ethnocentric threat to diversity, or can it offer a door into deeper discussions of diversity? In my experience, the teaching of Mennonite Literature has opened up a window for non-Mennonite students to greater connection with and even understanding of the Mennonite heritage of the college. It often provides a window to Mennonite students who have been taught little about the culture into which they were born.

Still, I’m hedging my bets, and am committed to teaching works by Mennonite writers such as Julia Kasdorf and Miriam Toews and Jeff Gundy and Rudy Wiebe in other kinds of classes, as well as continuing to use A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry to introduce students to 24 Mennonite poets from across the US and Canada—23 of them still living. This spring I will teach Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth for the second time, this time as part of my “Crossing Borders” Goshen seminar—through which I hope to offer a complex look at a series of borders in Mexico.

With this said, I’m keenly aware that the Mennonite literature curriculum needs to more actively seek out and include Mennonite writers of color. As a living and ongoing project, the Journal and the Center Mennonite for Mennonite Writing have the capacity to bring more such writers into the conversation. Mennonite colleges have been producing writers and cultural critics for several generations now —it is time to recognize the infusion into Mennonite literature of non-Eurocentric viewpoints. The Journal of CMW is pleased of have published works by Yorifumi Yaguchi, Emma LaRocque, Ellah Wakatama, Sam Manickam, Sofia Samatar and Malinda Berry, among others. Topics for future issues include Postcolonial Writers and short fiction by Latino writers.

Until the next Mennonite Literature class comes along in my schedule, I’m excited to keep teaching and learning and creating through the theme-focused issues of the Journal of CMW with Ervin Beck and our many collaborators. Feel free to suggest a theme for one of our upcoming issues. Click in the dialogue box in the upper right hand corner of this article.

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.