Teaching Mennonite Literature as Witness

"The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment." (George Eliot, "The Natural History of German Life" 263)

"Stories animate human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided."

(Arthur W. Frank, Letting Stories Breathe 3)

My upbringing, first on a Mennonite farm in southern Manitoba and then on a Bible school campus in northern(ish) Saskatchewan, provided me with lively, sustaining human community; still, from childhood onwards, the beloved presences in my life that challenged and shaped me extended to art as well. Less an object placed under the gaze of the individual subject than a force in its own right, art, as Arthur W. Frank incisively notes, has the capacity to "work on people," to affect their entire psychosomatic beings and, at times, to reshape their conduct (3). Attuned to the transactional nature of the relationship between art and the individual, it was with no little trepidation that I, a professor at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario), undertook to design and teach a graduate course entitled "Literature as Witness," a course that brought affect and trauma theories into dialogue with North American Mennonite literature.

With its themes of persecution, dangerous flights, exile, familial and communal splinterings as well as internal and intra-communal violence, the intellectually and affectively fraught literature by authors including Rudy Wiebe, Di Brandt, Audrey Poetker-Thiessen, and Miriam Toews possessed the potential not only to edify but also to disturb the class. And I had as explicit warning the theoretical text with which I began the class, the aptly entitled Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, which is co-authored by the literary scholar Shoshana Felman and the psychoanalyst Dori Laub. Focusing on Holocaust narratives of extreme suffering, they graphically illustrate the crises that the first-order witnesses to violence endure when they find themselves compelled to revisit the past in order to find a language to communicate their wounds. In addition, the coauthors emphasize that attentive second-order witnesses to trauma narratives necessarily inhabit an estranged space in which the personal and familiar recede as they struggle to function as caring, empathic listeners to others whose disorienting experiences defy rational explanation or comprehension. Moreover, this estrangement, or feeling of being drawn into proximity with that which is "apart from" the self (Eliot 263), affects both physically present listeners and spatially-temporally distanced readers.

In Felman's account of her first graduate class on literary and video witness to the Holocaust, her students experienced profound emotional upheaval and cognitive dissonance. Brought into proximity with the "answerlessness" of acute suffering, they experienced "existential crises" in which the conventional boundaries between self and other, past and present, narrative and event, became porous (xvi, 50). They felt themselves claimed by a past that permitted of no easy resolution—or perhaps of any resolution whatsoever. As I said, I had ample warning. If, at the same time, I was unsure that the Mennonite literature on offer in the class would elicit anything approaching an intense response from students who had, with a very few exceptions, not even heard of the consanguine heirs of the Dutch and Russian Anabaptists, I did believe in the communicability of deep, often painful, feelings and in the shared responsibility for the witness to them.

On three separate occasions I have presented the Literature as Witness class and, in each instantiation, its far-reaching impact on the majority of the participants exceeded anything I expected or, for that matter, could have desired in the abstract. In 2013, my initial offering of the course, the students turned increasingly reticent a few weeks into our weekly meetings, a state of affairs that seemed dire by the time we took up Di Brandt's Agnes in the Sky (to which I return below). When I inquired into the meaning of the halting conversations and protracted silences, they spoke emotionally, confessionally, about feeling too much and lacking a language to address such moving, disturbing art in the context of the academy. They—we—needed to open up the pedagogic space of encounter to uncomfortable affective transactions, to express ourselves not simply in the self-possessive language of knowledge but also in the parlous language of woundedness. We needed to grapple with the wounds of others and with what they animated in us.

While we are not defined by the sum of our wounds, our tales of hurt and pain have much to teach us about ethical ways of being in the world. Pain is experienced individually, but it can also serve as a common link among us. If, as some recent affect and trauma theorists postulate, one's affective state is never a purely individual matter, narratives of pain might at times reveal forms of brokenness in the world that call for address and repair. (Ann Cvetkovich, for example, writes of depression as the symptomology of a sick culture.) But first and foremost pain narratives offer us the opportunity to learn to dwell with vulnerabilities: to learn to bear compassionate witness to what is mortal and fallible in others and in ourselves. Though the engagement was costly, my graduate students and I undertook such difficult witness, allowing ourselves to express confusion, anxiety, grief, hope, and frustration. Sometimes people choked back tears; on a few occasions, someone wept. Deep feeling met with deep thought as we fumbled our way through perceptual and affective disturbances, tentatively shaping our mouths to speak an affective-intellectual language of selves stretched in discomfiting yet heuristic ways. The classroom became a site of risk and intimacy; pedagogy took the form of ethical explorations into how to acknowledge suffering, how to give it place and space, whether the pain was bewilderingly foreign or all too familiar, whether it permitted of assuagement or continued unabated. Literature was teaching each of us about being "here" in the world as "one of the many lost & found" (Brandt, Agnes 2).

Two of the most memorable pedagogical exchanges in the Witness course involved texts by Di Brandt and Miriam Toews. I present them as sample case studies, as it were, of what Mennonite writers of hurt and pain have to offer a secular classroom in an increasingly corporatized university. Di Brandt has been an author whose work has claimed and provoked me from the day an undergraduate professor shoved photocopies of poems from questions i asked my mother into my hand, casually saying, "You should read her. She's good." Oh, yes, she is. Though I fret every year about which of her works to exclude (fantasizing that we're back in a different era in which one gets to teach an entire class on one writer), I typically begin the course with a selection of the essays that merge her first-person accounts of growing up Mennonite with a broader Anabaptist history. Hers, as Ann Hostetler perceives, is writing that enacts complex reparations. It acknowledges the generative, counter-cultural practices of the Mennonites that repeatedly put them at odds with socio-religious authorities and attends to instances in which their attempts to live non-violently within chosen community went awry (81). Brandt recovers wanted as well as disavowed, troubling histories. Essays such as "how I got saved" and "this land that i love, this wide wide prairie" call attention to traumatic histories that implicate the ostensibly pacifist Mennonites in injurious acts against other vulnerable groups (such as the Metis) or in psychosomatic harm of their own community members. As Brandt poignantly states, "the violence of the persecutions got internalized in our psyches and we began inflicting them on each other, the same violent subjugations of body and spirit the Inquisitors visited upon us" ("this land" 3). Such subtle, multi-faceted representations consistently resonate with the graduate students, who are acutely aware that counter-cultural communities as much as hegemonic ones require ongoing, vigilant practices of implementing charitable relations and of staving off internal corruption. In Brandt's work they hear an invitation to discern failed social relations in order to foster reparative ones—an invitation to arduous, ethical practices.

One year the class began unpropitiously. I had asked the students to introduce themselves and explain their draw to the course. One young man, Kevin, emphatically retorted, "I'm here for the theory, not for the Mennonites." Others echoed these sentiments and I desperately considered a pacifist retreat to another university, if not another country. Covering up my chagrin, I accommodated the wish of Kevin for a presentation date that enabled him to avoid the literary texts, though I had paired a selection of Brandt's essays with the trauma theory of Felman and Laub. A week later, when he came to discuss his ideas with me prior to the presentation, he entered my office waving a book, enthusing, "Di Brandt, Di Brandt! She's awesome." Oh, yes, she is. What Kevin responded to with such fervour was her modeling of difficult loves and of the productive work of attending to unresolved traumas. Building on the criticism of Hostetler and of trauma theorists Eng and Kazanjian, Kevin argued that "Brandt wishes for us to see how the very act of re-embracing and re-engaging oneself with a traumatic past previously effaced is essential to re-imagining a newer, more hopeful present and future. . . . Trauma refuses forgetting, and[,] in its insistence on being heard and remembered[,] art is needed to reconcile its pain with its necessity. Brandt's poetic project works towards an acceptance of Mennonite trauma, and forgiveness of her own suffered trauma."

Kevin stressed that Brandt undertakes the exceptionally costly work of forgiveness—not to be equated with forgetting or excusing violence—in part because she discerns that the Mennonite values of pacifism and non-hierarchical community still offer a powerful vision of what her people wish to be and of what society could. As a class, we felt the magnitude of her counter-cultural stance of love and forgiveness, for we struggled to bear witness to—let alone practice—such largess, especially after reading Agnes in the sky. This collection of poetry, her second, bespeaks her personal experience of intra-communal violence, the physical and sexual violence inflicted on her as a child. Agnes gives ample evidence, too, of the psychosomatic "stigmata" the adult speaker endures as a result of the abuse and of the harrowing work of healing (41). Yet we were exceptionally disoriented by her loving, recuperative depictions of those who injured her and of those who could not or would not protect her. Indeed, a few of the class members felt trapped by or tricked into a generosity they did not want—one woman compared herself to a hostage—by the poems in which Brandt moves beyond a binary representation of oppressor and victim. In "i'm finding myself again in the healed heart," she cries her "father's anger" and "cruel hands," her "mother's silence her fear," while going on to imagine a reciprocal, posthumous reconciliation with her father. Summoning his spirit to watch her healing—"& he didn't know such an outrage such a / great wounding could be undone"—she, in turn, experiences his anguished tears as a "blessing" (14). Her inter-subjective model of healing shook the class not simply because it suggests that harmers require forgiveness from those they hurt, but also because the Agnes collection repeatedly troubles all boundaries of selfhood: "i," "we," "you" are shown as crucial to the testimonial process of creating dialogues about the issues and people the majority of us would rather vilify than dignify as human. The poem that created the greatest upheaval was the banquet poem, a poem of radical hospitality that explicitly puts the onus of active forgiveness onto readers:

you prepare a banquet in your mind

for your mother & the man who shared

your grief in the night . . .

. . . you gather wildflowers to

put at their places fireweed foxtail

goldenrod . . .

you leave

a place for the stranger (17)

Brandt testifies to and as one of the many vulnerable members of community (Mennonite or not) who has experience both physical violation and cultural silencing. In the "banquet" and other Agnes poems, she multiplies the self ("i," "you," "we,"); she opens up herself to her past woundedness and to the wounds of others; she humanizes the abuser; she invites all into a potentially reparative process of testimony and dialogic address. Many in the class chose to enter into this precarious, vulnerable exchange, coming to feel and see that "the banquet," the nourishment on offer, was the poetry itself. With its revolutionary love that forgives what even the harmer imagines is beyond repair, the poetry nurtured us affectively, moving us to practice an ethics of care that may relinquish a juridical, rights-based model of judgment, punishment, and repentance—a strict accounting that precludes bounteous, undeserved loves. We heeded Brandt's call to learn to be willing to host strangers and damaged peoples who commit "outrage[s]," seeing them as fallible and needy. We worked to prepare banquets in our minds, which is to say that we attempted to shape our minds and affects to welcome difficult intimacies so that "great wounding [might] be undone," or at least confronted.

Like Brandt, Miriam Toews mobilizes love as a force that makes space for the uncomfortable. I've now taught a number of her texts, but it is Swing Low, her account of the rich and demanding life of her father as a man afflicted with but not defined by his bi-polar disorder, that galvanized the most passionate responses in students. Most of the class members had not experienced the suicidal death of a close relative, as Miriam did when Mel Toews ended his pain on a railway track. However, to a person we possessed first-hand knowledge of the pangs of mental illness and we collectively responded to this text with intensities that indicated we entered fully into the real-world wounds and joys it portrayed. Our fervent conversations recurred to the fact that the stakes were high when it came to questions of how we do and should interact with the mentally ill. What constitutes an appropriate witness to the pain of another? The risk Miriam took in writing in the first-person voice of Mel struck some class members as a "beautiful transgression," but a transgression nonetheless. That she allows her father to voice the contradictions of his life certainly constitutes one of Swing Low's beauties.

In the Prologue to the book, she registers his despairing claim on the day before his death of "Nothing accomplished" (1). The rest of the "memoir" rebuts this claim as the Mel recovered by Miriam narrates both the pleasures he takes in his family, his garden, and his generations of elementary school students as well as the tremendous resilience he manifests in spite of bewildering highs and several debilitating depressions. Swing Low resolutely elucidates the pained life as worthwhile and honours the struggling man as a substantial contributor to his community, the class concurred: in such ways, Miriam's text effectively counters the social stigmas and fears that still attach to the psychically fragile. We worried, though, about many aspects of the text. Mel, who in life chose to remain silent about his difficulties and might have preferred for his story to remain untold, becomes a subject exposed to a wide public gaze. As Toews candidly admits in her Prologue, she turns to writing to alleviate her pain by confronting the "awful details" of mental illness and suicide, an approach her father did not share (4).

Class members became agitated and even combative, arguing the ethics of creating a posthumous voice, whether for Mel or for other silent sufferers. What is ours to represent, even when we share blood ties and the intricacies of homelife with a mentally ill person? Would we feel less conflicted if Toews had written in her first-person voice? And, why, in spite of our misgivings and internal conflicts, did the book move us to tears, even in the public space of the classroom? From what I can piece together from the written and verbal responses of the students, Swing Low—which several of them identified as one of the most important contemporary books they had read on mental suffering—works on its readers precisely because of the risks it takes and the discomforts it causes. It raises the possibility that witnessing to trauma cannot be undertaken without peril. Genuine witness has no truck with safety. Swing Low impacts us because the narrating voice is based on Mel but is not his own; it troubles us because, like Brandt's poems, it blurs the boundaries of subjectivity. The hybrid voice of "Mel" literalizes the truth that one's life is never fully one's own and calls us to new forms of affective openness, thought, and practice.

Intriguing to me was the fact that students for the most part did not register Toews' attention to the Mennonite community of Steinbach as an exacerbating factor in Mel's melancholia. The character of Mel narrates that, during one of his lengthy hospitalizations, a male nurse informs him that "there are unusually high numbers of Mennonites who suffer from depression but nobody knows why" (116). Toews, of course, does provide an etiology. In Swing Low and, more emphatically, in A Complicated Kindness, she highlights the correlations between individual suffering and impossibly high communal standards of religious purity. As Toews sardonically puts it in A Complicated Kindness, which is also set in Steinbach (fictionalized as East Village), "the emphasis here on sin, shame, death, fear, punishment and silence . . . somehow" adds up "to feelings of sadness and galloping worthlessness"(134). This tale of the Mennonite wounded by the community's perfectionist expectations and the idealization of the faith experience as rapturous and certain is a common one. When I pointed out the recurrent theme of "Mennonite Melancholia" in the course texts (Gundy 10), the students gave me an insight that I continue to treasure.

Let me preface that insight by acknowledging that I, like many consanguine descendants of the Anabaptists, have at times lamented the tendency in Mennonite North American literature to prioritize tragic tales over the comedic and pleasurable. (See in particular Redekop.) What the graduate students surprised me into seeing and feeling was this: that while the long Mennonite history of persecutions and separatism decidedly have caused harm within community, the Mennonite experience of grief and hurt makes for a literature that exquisitely captures the vulnerability of the individual who is necessarily formed in relationship to family, place, and community. Speaking their particular pains, Mennonite writers have created witnesses to woundedness who subsequently feel liberated to reveal their own sensitivities and relational intricacies. This literature that speaks of intimate hurts also seeks to close the distance between writer and reader by engaging us in the messy, urgent, unfinished task of learning to live with wounds, ours and others'.

Works Cited

Brandt, Di. Agnes in the Sky. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1990. Print.
---. "how i got saved." Why I am a Mennonite: Essays on Mennonite Identity. Ed. Harry Loewen. Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 1988. 26-33. Print.
---. Questions I asked my mother. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1987. Print.
---. "This land that I love, this wide, wide prairie. So this is the world & here I am in it. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2007. 1- 10. Print.
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.
Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012. Print.
Eliot, George. "The Natural History of German Life." Selected Critical Writings. Ed. Rosemary Ashton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. 260-95. Print.
Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Frank, Arthur W. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. Print.
Gundy, Jeff. "Scatter Plots: Depression, Silence, and Mennonite Margins." The Conrad Grebel Review 18.1 (2000): 5-27. Print.
Hostetler, Ann. "A Valediction Forbidding Excommunication: Ecopoetics and the Reparative Journey Home in Recent Work by Di Brandt." Journal of Mennonite Studies. 28 (2010): 69-86. Print.
Redekop, Magdalene. "Escape from the Bloody Theatre: The Making of Mennonite Stories." Journal of Mennonite Studies 11 (1993): 9-22. Print.
Toews, Miriam. A Complicated Kindness. Toronto: Vintage, 2004. Print.
---. Swing Low: A Life. Toronto: Vintage, 2005. Print.

About the Author

Grace Kehler

Grace Kehler is an Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. A specialist in the Victorian era, she has published numerous articles on the mutually engendering interchange between literature and opera and on the vexed relationships of Victorians with the physical, the sensate, and the evolutionary. Her ongoing research on affect theory and trauma has led her back to her Mennonite origins and to the recent Mennonite literature that witnesses to hurt and pain. Such literature not only attests to various forms of brokenness but actively works to recreate the possibility of communal connections through a process of address and response.