Thirty Years of Mennonite Literature: How a Modest Course Became Something Else

A Fragment of Literary Memoir

You never know, someone told me once upon a time, with urgency, what sorts of things might spin off from almost anything you do, anyone you know. Well, my experience with Mennonite writing and Mennonite writers might be a case in point. Mind you, I’m not sure my earliest encounters with Rudy Wiebe in 1962, when he was a Young People’s sponsor in a Winnipeg Mennonite Brethren Church and I was, briefly, one of his teenage charges, led to anything in particular. Nevertheless, I recognize in retrospect that our meeting then might have been a kind of starting point to my journey into the land of MennoLit.

My work in Mennonite literature began a few years later, in 1970-71, when Canadian literature courses had barely begun to be offered in undergraduate and graduate programs in Canadian universities. I had the singular opportunity to take a graduate course in Western Canadian Literature in the Department of English at the University of Alberta (U of A) in Edmonton. Rudy Wiebe, after the conflicted reception of his first novel and a sojourn at Goshen College in Indiana (1963-1967), had returned to the U of A, where his position as a faculty member in the English Department did not preclude his work’s being included among the assigned reading for that course. So I took the opportunity to write one of my papers on Wiebe’s first two “Mennonite” novels: Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962)and The Blue Mountains of China (1970). That student paper was subsequently published in the Journal of Canadian Fiction (1971), and later re-published in a collection of essays entitled The Canadian Novel: Here and Now (1983); it was the first article on Wiebe to appear in an academic journal, and seems to have linked me to Wiebe’s work ever since.

Besides our being participants in the same English department then, Rudy and I attended the same church, Lendrum Mennonite Brethren, in Edmonton–a church that then had an active drama society that staged a full-length play every year. Rudy and I co-directed (not without mainly friendly disagreements) Kobe Abe’s Friends one year in the early 1970s, and in a subsequent year I directed an adaptation (composed by members of the drama society) of “The Vietnam Call of Samuel U. Reimer,” a chapter from Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China. And the junctures between our personal and professional lives, and our shared interests, grew.

Like so many scholars of Canadian literature during that era of vibrant cultural nationalism (under the first Prime Minister Trudeau), I was not a Canadianist. One barely had the opportunity to become one then, since the field was so young and academic mentors who were trained in the literatures of Canada were few. My area of scholarly pursuit was British modernism, which I studied with the Canadian novelist and scholar Sheila Watson. I was focused, in particular, on the nature, the dynamics, and the politics of literary community as it was expressed in the UK after the Great War. It was much later, after I had settled into a vocation focused on the creative work of Canadian and American Mennonites that I came to realize that I had not shifted as far from my original field of study as I had thought: I might not be studying the figures of British modernism, but I surely remained interested in the nature and dynamics, and even the politics, of literary community–the Mennonite literary community, as it took shape over the last decades of the twentieth century and into the present.

Rudy Wiebe followed me, figuratively speaking, even after I left Alberta and began to move east–first, for a year, to my hometown of Winnipeg (home of Mennonite writing in Canada) and then to Kitchener Waterloo. That is, the fact that I had published an essay on Rudy Wiebe began to shape my identity as a young scholar, especially when, in 1974, in Waterloo, I found friends and academic conversation partners among the faculty at Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo. I was invited to become a Fellow of the College, and to deliver guest lectures on Mennonite literature in the College’s course on Mennonite History, taught by the then College Dean, Rod Sawatsky.

It was at Rod’s invitation that in 1983 I developed a course on Mennonite literature and art. I was teaching down the street from Grebel then, at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), and would not become a full-time member of the Grebel faculty until 1987. For reasons too involved to go into here, the course I taught on Mennonite literature (and art) at Grebel was initially offered not through the Department of English at the University of Waterloo, but rather under the rubric of something called “Interdisciplinary Arts.” (My interest in the visual arts part of the course was rooted in my graduate work on modernist art movements, my teaching of film studies at WLU, and my collaborations with my husband Paul Tiessen on developing a small boutique press–Sand Hills Books– that published the work of photographers and painters, many of them Mennonite.) It was several years later that the course I had developed was re-named and re-framed as a literature-only course: “English 218: Mennonite Literature.”

During those early years of our settling in Waterloo, I became re-acquainted with Harry Loewen, whom I remembered fondly as my high school history teacher at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute (MBCI) in Winnipeg. When Paul and I moved to Waterloo in the 1970s, Harry was a member of the German Department at WLU, and he and I encountered each other often. An eclectic academic with scholarly interests in history and theology as well as literature, he would go on to become the Founding Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg (1978), where he established the Journal of Mennonite Studies. It was in the first volume of that journal (1983) that he published an essay entitled “Mennonite Literature in Canada: Beginnings, Reception and Study.” And he taught courses in Mennonite studies in Winnipeg then, courses that included the reading of literary texts by and about Mennonites.

One of Loewen’s closest collaborators in those ventures at the University of Winnipeg was Al Reimer, with whom, as an undergraduate, I had taken a senior course in literary criticism. Ever the most irrepressible of raconteurs, Professor Reimer would regale my student colleagues and me for at least a quarter of the time allotted to any class with stories about his upbringing in Steinbach. He considered himself a refugee from small town Manitoba (where, my aunt told me long ago, as a difficult-to-manage teenager, he was sent by his father to spend a few weeks of being straightened out by my grandfather on my grandfather’s farm. My mother’s youngest sister added then that it was there that she fell in love with him–though nothing came of her summer crush.) Al Reimer would gradually rediscover his Mennonite roots and write substantial works of fiction about both Mennonites in Russia (My Harp has Turned to Mourning) and the Mennonites who peopled his own southern Manitoba Mennonite childhood home (When War Came to Kleindarp).

Harry Loewen and Al Reimer belonged to one of the two relatively distinct Mennonite literary communities in Winnipeg in the late 1970s, two groups of people who belonged to two generations. The first of these was comprised of faculty members like Loewen (Mennonite Studies) and Reimer (English) from the University of Winnipeg, alongside Victor Doerksen (German), Elisabeth Peters (German), Roy Vogt (Political Science) from the University of Manitoba, and George K. Epp (who taught at several colleges and universities in Winnipeg and was, for a time, President of CMBC, now CMU: Canadian Mennonite University). These scholars, who focused more on German Mennonite literary texts than English, found expression primarily in the Mennonite Mirror (the precursor to Rhubarb magazine), the Journal of Mennonite Studies, certain literary publications of the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society such as The Collected Works of Arnold Dyck (1985-86), and the small, independent Hyperion Press, which published translations of fiction (German to English) by Al Reimer and collections of essays in Mennonite studies such as Visions and Realities: Essays, Poems, and Fiction Dealing with Mennonite Issues, edited by Loewen and Reimer.

The second Mennonite community in Winnipeg during those early years when Mennonite literature began to be taught in the university classroom consisted of the younger generation of emerging writers: Patrick Friesen, Victor Enns, Di Brandt, Armin Wiebe, Sarah Klassen, Sandra Birdsell and others, for whom German (even though most of them understood it–both High German and Low) was not a language in which they chose to communicate (though instances of code-switching are scattered throughout their work). The members of this younger generation, while they drew the attention of the Mennonite Mirror and the Journal of Mennonite Studies, were published mostly by strictly secular enterprises such as Turnstone Press and various little magazines across Canada, including, most prominently, Winnipeg’s own Prairie Fire. None of these literary venues had explicit ties to any Mennonite community.

Loewen and his colleagues were less interested in these “promising young writers” (as this new generation was referred to by members of the older generation in those early years) than in the earlier, German-language writers who had emerged among Canadian Mennonites, most notably Arnold Dyck. Interestingly, Rudy Wiebe’s first novel foregrounds the language shift among (Russian) Mennonites in Canada, from German to English–a shift that seemed, to some, to threaten Mennonite self-identity during the second half of the last century. It was Wiebe, who wrote in English of course, along with the new generation of writers Turnstone Press was publishing who were accessible to a new generation of readers in Canada, and who became the subjects of my own investigations when I began to teach Mennonite Literature in 1983.

There were some texts available to be taught in 1983, to be sure: besides the early work by Rudy Wiebe, there were books by Sandra Birdsell, Patrick Friesen, and David Waltner-Toews, for example. In fact 1983 itself was a good year, with new work by Rudy Wiebe (My Lovely Enemy) and David Waltner-Toews (Good Housekeeping), and Barbara Smucker (Amish Adventure). But Armin Wiebe’s first fiction, The Salvation of Yasch Siemens (1984), Al Reimer’s My Harp Has Turned to Mourning (1985), Audrey Poetker’s i sing for my dead in german (1986), Di Brandt’s questions i asked my mother (1987), and Sarah Klassen’s Journey to Yalta (1988) had not yet appeared.

There was at least one American whose work was available–if barely: Warren Kliewer, whom I contacted when I began to teach Mennonite writing, and who then generously sent me “the last remaining copies” of his collection of zany stories The Violators (1964)–a stash of (by then) slightly musty green-jacketed volumes I sold at cost to my students until they were pretty much all gone. Dallas Wiebe’s controversial novel Skyblue the Badass (1969) which, in the words of Jeffrey Hillard, “rose provocatively and crashed silently” was out of print by 1972. I’m not sure about his collection of stories The Transparent Eyeball (1982), but it doesn’t really matter because I would not become aware of Dallas’s work until 1989, when I contacted him because his name was Wiebe and, like me, he had written a dissertation on the British Modernist Wyndham Lewis. I had seen a citation to his dissertation on Lewis in a bibliography and wrote to him, asking whether he was Mennonite, and–because I was soliciting material for the special issues I was editing at the time –whether he was a creative writer (years later I could have Googled him …). He responded by sending me the manuscript of Our Asian Journey, which he had circulated among several publishers by then, none of whom would publish it. I included an excerpted chapter in The New Quarterly special issue (1990), and Dallas, founder of the Cincinnati Poetry Review in 1975 and the University’s Creative Writing Program in 1976, came up from Cincinnati that spring for the first Mennonite/s Writing conference in Waterloo. Oh, he was beyond delighted to have found in Waterloo so large a Mennonite literary family. Between conference sessions he expanded for himself the Mennonite family trope, posing for photographs between Rudy Wiebe and Armin Wiebe at every opportunity. It was years later that I once more took off the shelf the novel manuscript Dallas had sent me in 1989, and Paul Tiessen worked with Dallas to bring it to light (1997).

Well. Back to that course in Mennonite literature. Recognizing in the late 1980s that there were individual short stories by Mennonite writers scattered in collections and magazines here and there, I was compelled to assemble a selection of them into a volume I could use as a text. With the support of a grant from the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism in that heady early era of multiculturalism in Canada, and with the aid and support of Gloria Smith, publisher at the University of Waterloo Press, I edited Liars and Rascals: Mennonite Short Stories. The first printing (1989) sold out soon enough; there was another printing the following year.

As had been the case with my Rudy Wiebe essay, Liars and Rascals made me visible (once more) as a scholar of Mennonite literature. When plans for the 1990 Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg began to take palpable shape, I was invited to edit a special issue on Mennonite writing for Prairie Fire (in Winnipeg, where every year more Mennonite writers were finding an audience) and for The New Quarterly (Waterloo)–an ambitious little magazine with an established history of holding annual conferences featuring new Canadian writing. Compelled by Miriam Maust (an American Swiss Mennonite who had settled in Waterloo and was one of the poetry editors of The New Quarterly), the editorial team of The New Quarterly invited me to work along with them as programmer and “host” of their annual conference, which would become the first international conference on Mennonite/s Writing.

That conference, which attracted a number of prominent Canadianists along with Mennonite writers and critics in the spring of 1990, and the special issue that was distributed at that event, were both remarkably successful ventures, drawing positive attention not only to The New Quarterly, but also to the new minority literature they were celebrating. I remember one of the Canadianists who had been there declaring with great passion every time we would meet at conferences for years afterwards what a remarkable conference that had been. And it was, not least because of the freshness of the idea, and the warmth of The New Quarterly hosts, and the fact that every session was a plenary session (we were all in it together), but also because so many Mennonite writers from so many different provinces and states became acquainted with each other there. And developed lasting literary friendships.

Always looking for new things to teach, I was delighted to find that the literature continued to grow. While the writers who were first published in the 1980s published new volumes of work, new voices emerged: David Bergen, then Miriam Toews and others. And, thanks to the generous Author Readings program of the Canada Council of the Arts, most of these writers were able to visit Waterloo, where they offered public readings to a growing south-western Ontario Mennonite reading audience (an audience peppered always with interested non-Mennonite literary types), and made themselves available to students in my course on Mennonite/s writing.

In fact the general reading audience for this literature compounded, partly because in Canada, for example, writers like Rudy Wiebe and Sandra Birdsell and David Bergen and Miriam Toews and playwright Vern Thiessen and others were winning major regional and national awards. Partly because many of their texts delivered narratives about Mennonite experience that were not accessible in any other context, and that came to represent a kind of “homeland” to many Mennonite readers who recognized that in some way these oddly familiar stories and poems made them and their Mennonite experience, as Robert Kroetsch would have observed, somehow “real.”

The critical response to Mennonite literature, which had begun to coalesce around the early special issues of little magazines and the first conference in 1990, grew as well, and flourished in numerous special issues devoted mostly to literary criticism (in Mennonite Quarterly Review, Conrad Grebel Review, and Journal of Mennonite Studies, for example). Six more international conferences devoted to Mennonite/s Writing followed (and there are at least two more in the works). The new Mennonite literature was foregrounded in Rhubarb magazine, a series of “Literary Refractions” in the Conrad Grebel Review, Goshen College’s Center for Mennonite Writing with its prodigious online journal, special sessions at literary conferences in Canada and Germany, and countless other individual literary activities across North America. Not to mention reviews of new publications, interviews with authors, and scholarly publications (including theses and dissertations in Canada, United States, Australia, Germany, Finland, Sweden, etc.) – all of which provided secondary material for students, scholars, and general readers with interest in the field.

But back, once more, to teaching. Over the years, guests of Conrad Grebel and of the course in Mennonite literature included Canadians Patrick Friesen, Di Brandt, Rudy Wiebe, Victor Enns, Sandra Birdsell, Armin Wiebe, David Waltner-Toews, David Bergen, Andreas Schroeder, along with Americans Jeff Gundy, Jean Janzen, Julia Kasdorf and others. Many of these performed for Waterloo audiences over and over, as they launched new work. And Paul Tiessen and I had the great pleasure of hosting them in our home, where literary conversations that gathered momentum throughout the evening continued over breakfast the next day and were maybe picked up again during the next visit.

Because Conrad Grebel College was, like Winnipeg, situated in a demographic that included a large population of Mennonites, my classes in Mennonite Literature tended to attract, along with students with some kind of Mennonite heritage and students who knew nothing about Mennonites, members of the community who were keen readers of every new Mennonite novel or collection of poems. Among these mostly “mature” students were “Swiss” Mennonites who, more often than not, registered wonder and surprise when they encountered the seemingly utterly foreign cultural landscapes occupied by, for example, Armin Wiebe’s Yasch Siemens. And always the persistent question: how come all the writers are Russian Mennonites; where are the writers who are Swiss?

By the late 1980s Conrad Grebel College (by 2001 Conrad Grebel University College) had become a centre for Mennonite/s writing, a venue in which Mennonite writers and readers regularly encountered each other. These encounters were frequent, entertaining, informative, provocative, stimulating, inspiring. Moreover, with a committed audience for Mennonite literary events, Conrad Grebel invited writers like Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, Julia Kasdorf and Jeff Gundy to deliver major public lectures on their work. Most of these were subsequently published in the Conrad Grebel Review.

What began as a relatively small course in Mennonite literature grew over the years to include a committed south-western Ontario reading community that early in 2012 gathered weekly for lectures and readings by Mennonite writers and critics in an iteration of my course in Mennonite Literature which, in winter 2012, was offered as an open series that spanned the twelve-week winter term. The series was called “Mennonite/s Writing: Celebrating the First 50 Years.” The regular audience of about a hundred and more joined the students in the course to hear Patrick Friesen, Rudy Wiebe, David Bergen, David Waltner-Toews, Darcie Friesen Hassock, Carrie Snyder, and Julia Kasdorf speak about the trajectory of their work as writers nurtured among Mennonites. (See videos of the series at https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/ events/lecture-series/menno-lit-videos-2012). The conversations among members of the audience continued during those winter evenings long after the guest writer, my students, and I retired to a seminar room where, for the remaining hours of the evening, the rest of the “course” took place. Those were special evenings, in the public space among a keen and buzzing crowd first of all and, afterwards, among my students (who, every week, had immediate access to the writers whose books they were reading).

I retired from teaching the following summer, 2012. A year and a half later, in February 2014, I wrote an email note to Rob Zacharias, whom I had come to know during his grad school years, while I sat on the committee supervising his writing of the dissertation that would become his book: Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature (2013). “Patrick Friesen just wrote to me,” I said to Rob. “He is hoping to come to Toronto (and Waterloo) to promote a new book in April 2015 ... . It occurred to me that Carrie Snyder and Miriam Toews and David Bergen are all bringing out new books later this year. With Patrick, that makes four. It would be lovely if you would get the folks at Grebel to help you sponsor a 2014-2015 reading series … .” At the same time I alerted the administrators of the College of this serendipitous opportunity to host another series. Everyone agreed that it would be a good idea to try to carry on the tradition of Grebel’s providing a home to Mennonite/s writing, even though the faculty position I had held, and my role as purveyor of the course on Mennonite literature and as organizer of decades-worth of Mennonite literary events, had come to an end.

When I retired, the literature slot I had occupied full-time for twenty-five years became a faculty position in Peace and Conflict Studies. The fate of the course “Mennonite Literature” became tenuous. Conrad Grebel University College, which never had a formalized role as a permanent site of literature teaching within the University of Waterloo’s established academic structures, now teaches primarily Music, Peace and Conflict Studies, and Theological Studies – with a small program in Mennonite Studies. So the tradition of providing a credible “liberal arts” program, which had already been threatened with the loss of courses in philosophy, for example, and sociology, has been dramatically set back. As has the possibility of the College’s providing a venue for the study of Mennonite literature. That work, which had begun to emerge in 1983, continued only informally into 2014-2015, with Rob Zacharias (who was on campus that year as a Post-doc working on Mennonite literature in the University’s English Department) organizing and hosting readings by the writers launching new work and also by Rudy Wiebe, Di Brandt, and Jeff Gundy.

I have been interested, throughout my literary career, in writing communities, writers in community, writers and communities. Who could have known that a grad-school essay and my subsequent opportunity to teach a course in Mennonite/s writing should have opened the door for me to spend some thirty years and more encountering, observing, engaging, hosting, listening to Mennonite writers, their texts, and their reading community. Ah. It would be a treat if the College that played host to these writers and their readers would find a way for the Grebel tradition in Mennonite literature to continue.

About the Author

Hildi Froese Tiessen

Hildi Froese Tiessen taught English and Peace and Conflict Studies (1987-2012) at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, where she also served as academic dean from 1989-99. She has taught, edited and published extensively literature by and about Canadian Mennonite writers. One of her most popular volumes is Liars and Rascals (1989), an anthology of short fiction by Mennonite authors. Her most recent essays on Mennonite/s writing appear in After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (2015) and MQR (Jan. 2016). Before her retirement she was literary editor of the Conrad Grebel Review and on the editorial board of Rhubarb magazine. She serves on the CMW advisory board and on the editorial board of GAMEO. She organized the first Mennonite/s Writing conference at Conrad Grebel in 1990 and has helped plan subsequent conferences at Goshen College, Bluffton College, the University of Winnipeg, Eastern Mennonite University and Fresno Pacific University. Hildi, who grew up in the Mennonite Brethren community in Winnipeg, is a member of Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener. She earned a BA at the University of Winnipeg and an MA and PhD at the University of Alberta.