The Noise of Identity: Turning to Attentiveness and the Receptive Ear

A Response to "After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America"

Both Magdalene Redekop and Hildi Froese Tiessen refer to the work of Wai Chee Dimock in their contributions to After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America. In the case of Redekop, this is to ground her chapter in Dimock's "theory of resonance," which argues that texts "touched" by "readers on different wavelengths" result in "unexpected vibrations in unexpected places" (Dimock, "Resonance" 1061 quoted in Redokop 200). For Tiessen, Dimock is evoked in order to heed warnings against "literary causality" derived from prescribing to "a territorial [or territorialized] jurisdiction" and "analytical domain[s] foreclosed by definition" (Dimock, Through 3 quoted in Tiessen 212, 221). Dimock's theory of resonance, caution against literary causality and belief that texts are "continually interpretable" ("Resonance" 1061) speak to current efforts to release North American texts and writers from their Mennonite origins and thus move the discussion of Mennonite/s writing beyond a focus on identity. The resonating text depends on and nurtures "the human ear" as "the most marvelous of receptors" (Dimock, "Resonance" 1065).

I am convinced that a readerly position of attentiveness and receptivity to the sounds of the text can contribute significantly to a relegation of identity to a secondary position without discarding it altogether. Receptive listening can call forth sounds and voices that have been excluded, narrowed or diminished by the habit of giving identity the top billing.

Contributors to After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America, edited by Robert Zacharias, provide a variety of possible ways to understand the "after" in the phrase "after identity." The volume places itself firmly in a "post-identity age" (Zacharias, "Thing" 120), thus starting the work that needs to be done rather than simply calling for it.

As a non-Mennonite teaching Canadian Mennonite/s writing at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, where few students identify as having Mennonite background, I spend time explaining and filling in the background and history while simultaneously trying to wrestle the writers and literature away from the essentialized assumptions and voyeuristic curiosity that accompany them. After Identity provides specific advice and strategies for "thinking differently about identity" (Zacharias, "Introduction" 12). I heed, for example, Redekop's "rejection of monologic definitions of identity that lead to reductive interpretations of art" (206) and Tiessen's persuasive invitation to offer "new—possibly disruptive—readings," not by ignoring identity, but by "refus[ing] it the front seat it has occupied for so long in Mennonite literary discourse" (223).

My reading of Mennonite/s writing in Canada has grown out of my teaching of several texts over the years, which I now see in three stages, reflecting to some extent changes in Canadian Mennonite literature, its readership and critical reception as outlined by contributors to After Identity. As a new and nervous graduate teaching assistant at McMaster University in 1979, I was given Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many as the first text of my teaching career. Wiebe's novel as an introduction to a Canadian Mennonite community (presumably a factual/fictional blend) and to Canadian Mennonite literature had a powerful impact on me, but I left it there.

This was before the "Mennonite miracle" of the 1980s (Zacharias, "Introduction"1; 15, fn.1) and thus for me, at the time, this text stood on its own. The novel was all about identity—an identity that stressed otherness and difference in its presentation to the reader. During this first period of teaching Mennonite literature I imposed the historical facts, myths and narratives onto the fiction as prompted by Wiebe's foreword.

Then at the beginning of my university teaching career in the early 1990s, I taught Blue Mountains of China in a team-taught Canadian prose course at Trent University. In the years between my teaching as a TA in 1979 and a beginning instructor in 1991, the effect of the "state-supported rise of multicultural literature" in Canada and the foregrounding of "ethnic literature" (Zacharias, "Introduction" 3) had become apparent in the placement of Blue Mountains in a popular section of the course entitled "Crossing Cultures," alongside Adele Wiseman's Crackpot and Rohinton Mistry's Tales from Firozsha Baag. I thus studied and taught Blue Mountains with an emphasis on the elements it shared with other diasporic texts in the Canadian multicultural canon of the time. The shared characteristics of Crackpot and Blue Mountains were apparent in the whiteness of the characters, particularly when contrasted with the racism levelled against the Parsi immigrants in Mistry's short story collection. Jewish, Mennonite and Zoroastrian beliefs and traditions were integral to the texts, with the class discussion usually focusing on associated social traditions and practices, which, for Blue Mountains, fell more often than not on the perceived "insularity" of the communal group—Northrop Frye's "garrison community" in the extreme.

The postcolonial climate in which these texts were taught stressed persecution, marginalization and oppression in liminal spaces and contact zones based on majority/minority and centre/peripheral dynamics. The postmodern climate encouraged the integration of material from the Kabbalistic, Lurianic, Anabaptist and Zoroastrian traditions to contextualize and reflect the fragmentation of diasporic movements and scattered identity. This second period of teaching consisted then of tracing and connecting qualities of Wiebe's novel with other texts in the establishment and recognition of textual communities within Canadian literature.

I taught Blue Mountains for the first time in many years this fall (2016) in what I see as my third stage of teaching. The New Canadian Library edition now includes a 2008 autoethnographic announcement entitled "Origins." Although placed at the end of the novel, presumably for minimal interference, its presence assumes that current readers, even more than past readers, need nonfictional explanations to address what Julia Spicher Kasdorf sees as the disturbing assumption that "the people depicted in the novel [. . .] were too strange to be comprehended through their embodiment in the text" (27).[1]Paul Tiessen's discussion of the impact of "multiple points of origin," "hybridity" and "multiple ownership" of texts (73) in "Double Identity: Covering the Peace Shall Destroy Many Project," his contribution to After Identity, is applicable here. Kasdorf and Tiessen draw attention to the noise of the material text and paratext, which can detract from readerly attempts at attentiveness and receptivity.

Not surprisingly, I noticed a shift in students' responses to Blue Mountains in 2016. The diasporic journey is familiar rather than strange in our globalized world and the movement in this novel is no longer seen as unusual or unusually horrific. I do not mean to imply that students are not shocked and disturbed by the sacrifices, degradation and loss of humanity experienced by those escaping persecution, but that such tragedy and loss are now part of ongoing stories of displacement as told, for example, by refugee families arriving in Peterborough, Ontario from Iraq, Somalia, Syria and other countries in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

The familiarity with the shapes and conditions of movements of displaced peoples and, in some cases, personal experience in such movements mean that the seminar discussion has shifted from a focus on the diaspora itself to an examination of the moral dilemmas facing individual characters during that migrant journey. Acts of deserting family members or heroically keeping families together, addressed by Wiebe in Blue Mountains, are excruciatingly relatable in a globalized world. The experience is seen as a human journey rather than a specifically Mennonite one, which goes a long way in wrestling the text away from a specific focus on identity.

This third stage of teaching also includes Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness and All My Puny Sorrows, but before I look at the teaching of Toews's texts in an "after identity" climate, I want to refer to specific positions of contributors to After Identity in order to offer my response to the call to read, teach, talk and write in the context of the "'post-identity' turn" that goes "beyond autoethnography" (Zacharias, "Introduction 5).[2]My approach deliberately abandons the imposition of meaning and the tracing of connections practised in 1979 and the early 1990s in favour of attentiveness and a receptive ear.

In his chapter, "Towards a Poetics of Identity," Jeff Gundy calls for more "praise of the world [. . .] more loving attention to the creation that (of course) includes each other" (171). I see this outward turn as one way to "ease the Mennonite text away from its context" in a deliberate attempt to "dislocate and relocate it" (Tiessen 213), but only after hearing exactly what it is in the world that is calling for praise and only in conjunction with a fresh look at the personal and private rather than a turn away from it. Gundy is confident in his recognition of himself as "belonging only partly to my self but also to the larger networks, social, physical, spiritual, in which I live and move and have my being" (171). Similarly, Di Brandt urges inclusiveness and a concentration on the present through a series of questions, culminating in "Why not, rather, move toward appreciating more truthfully, generously, gratefully, inclusively, interactively who we were well before the sad moment of our historical displacement into suffering and, above all, who we are now, and where and what we are now" (139). In the here, now and what, individual voices make up the we, and it is incumbent upon us to listen to each voice attentively as the source of the singular sounds that create the choral music.

Ann Hostetler, in her chapter, "After Identity: Gender, Voice and an Ethic of Care in the Work of Di Brandt and Julia Spicher Kasdorf," encourages the praise of the world and the concentration on the present endorsed by Gundy and Brandt. She emphasizes through the "intersection of the terms 'Mennonite,' "woman,' and poet'" (87), Brandt's and Kasdorf's engagement with feminist themes and an "'ethic of care,'" which leads outward to "an ecological awareness of the human impact on the planet, and a commitment to share resources and live responsibly with others in the world," in conversation with and "in relationship with the broader literary community." Hostetler pursues the question of how "the ethnic woman writer" can pursue such a relationship while "retaining, or transforming, her relationship with her ethnic origins" (88). The personal and private cannot simply be discarded in favour of an unmoored outer world, but must be connected to it in new ways that transform how we understand and talk about being in relationship with that world. Daniel Shank Cruz, for example, in his discussion of queering Mennonite literature, points out that "personal experience is always connected to broader, collective realities" and eloquently advocates for the role of the personal in "working for social justice" (145).

New and transformative connections between private and public can be established by giving identity a back seat without kicking it out altogether. In my teaching, I am all too aware that readers not only want "the Mennonite thing," but crave it as if it will somehow satisfy vague expectations and even longings. Hildi Froese Tiessen identifies the "desire" to read texts as Mennonite (223), such texts serving as "objects of desire for . . . reading publics" (Karem 213 quoted in Tiessen 221). This desire is particularly strong among readers who do not identity as Mennonite but are attracted to whatever they think such an identity entails.

Zacharias points out how the reader's "desire" can be disrupted by writers who manage "to engage the conventions of Mennonite identity without fully occupying its predetermined position," thus simultaneously "satisfying and disturbing their readers' expectations for the Mennonite Thing" ("Thing," 120). For non-Mennonite readers of "transgressive fiction," which works by "shocking, provoking, and offending many of its readers," the tendency is the formation of an "interpretive community" (Beck 53, 57) that separates itself, too easily I would argue, from those who are shocked, provoked and offended.

This is certainly the case in the reception of the novels of Miriam Toews, but more nuanced and complex readings emerge when the "the Mennonite thing" is downplayed, identity is given a back seat and the inflection of the text "tunes the ear to what eludes the eye" (Dimock, "Resonance" 1066). Toews's novels are good places to listen for "the individual voices in the texts who declare who they are—as individuals, not as members of a collective" (Tiessen 223). Jesse Nathan refers to a "Mennonite inflection or accent" (190), which Redekop notes is discernible to the non-Mennonite ear (207). Perhaps the non-Mennonite ear can shift its receptors, tuning them to human voices that just happen to be Mennonite rather than diligently seeking and identifying the Mennonite sound.

Such an approach leads to a focus on the moral dilemmas facing characters, not as Mennonites, but as humans. In a January 2015 interview with Rumpus, Toews brought up the mysterious and anonymous author, Elena Ferrante. Toews's wistful comment was "There's so little we know about her! That's so cool. That's so mysterious. We can't all do that" (Turits). Nor would we want to. We know the autobiographical background of Toews's fiction, particularly the centrality of the suicides of Mel and Marjorie Toews, which Miriam Toews has talked about so openly. Toews's identity as daughter and sister of Mel and Marjorie has a powerful impact on her fiction. Her identity as Mennonite can be seen as secondary—can be given a back seat, along with the Mennonite identity of Nomi in A Complicated Kindness and Yoli in All My Puny Sorrows. When this occurs, personal identity is transformed from a singular concentration on ethnic origins to an identity encompassing daughter, sister, friend, lover, niece, cousin, mother in an expanding relationship with humanity in all its breadth and diversity.

If readers start with the large and public world rather than the ethnic identity of author and character in All My Puny Sorrows, they are quickly drawn to large issues such as the indictment of the mental health system expressed through Yoli's "Imagine" speech: "Imagine a psychiatrist sitting down with a broken human being saying I am here for you" (176). Listening attentively to these imaginary "I" statements of the ideal psychiatrist, the reader is led by Yoli and Toews to the heart of the novel. The question of the possibility of inherited trauma and suffering through shared ethnic memory is still there, but the more urgent and important concern is the care provided by the mental health system for all who suffer. The personal story serves the larger world. Similarly, Elf's desire to go to Switzerland ("Dignitas") to die and Yoli's dream of such an ending as the novel's conclusion opens up the personal story to the larger public issue of physician-assisted death permeating Canadian society at the time of the writing and publication of this novel. Although ethnic identity plays a role, it shrinks beside the larger concerns with suffering and death that are applicable to all of society and humanity. The reader is drawn to listen for new and urgent connections of the personal and intimate to the wider world—connections that have serious repercussions for the future through the relationship of the private with the public.

According to Dimock, "noise is the condition for the enduring resonance of texts, not a nuisance that endangers them" (1063). The "noise" of identity, however, has been a distraction that has muted other sounds in Mennonite/s writing in North America. Turning and tuning the attentive ear to the text yields not only more voices in balanced registers, but also recognizes the various tones of those voices coming together as a communal chorus.What is important is the multitude of voices—in mourning, in celebration, in whatever key they choose—and the connection of the personal with the world out there.

[1] Mistry's autoethnographic material is withheld until the final story, "Swimming Lessons." Through this delay, Mistry playfully undercuts the assumption that such information is required in order to understand the text. Wiseman's fragmented autoethnographic information similarly draws attention to the absence of a coherent announcement and presumably the lack of a need for one.

[2] In this section, Zacharias references Christopher Lee's In the Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature and Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn's introduction to Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography in an extremely valuable discussion of the complexity of identity politics in North American literary studies.

Works Cited

Beck, Ervin. "Mennonite Transgressive Literature." Zacharias 52-69.

Brandt, Di. "In Praise of Hybridity: Reflections from Southwestern Manitoba." Zacharias 125-42.

Cruz, Daniel Shank. "Queering Mennonite Literature." Zacharias 143-58.

Dimock, Wai Chee. "A Theory of Resonance." PMLA 112.5 (1997): 1060-71.

---. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.

Gundy, Jeff. "Toward a Poetics of Identity." Zacharias 159-74.

Hostetler, Ann. "After Ethnicity: Gender, Voice, and an Ethic of Care in the Work of Di Brandt and Julia Spicher Kasdorf." Zacharias 86-105.

Karem, Jeff. The Romance of Authenticity: The Cultural Politics of Regional and Ethnic Literatures. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2004.

Kasdorf, Julia Spicher. "The Autoethnographic Announcement and the Story." Zacharias 21-36.

Nathan, Jesse. "Question, Answer." Zacharias 175-93.

Redekop. Magdalene. "'Is Menno in There?' The Case of the Man Who Invested Himself." Zacharias 194-209.

Tiessen, Hildi Froese. "After Identity: Liberating the Mennonite Literary Text." Zacharias 210-25.

Tiessen, Paul. "Double Identity: Covering the Peace Shall Destroy Many Project." Zacharias 70-85.

Toews, Miriam. All My Puny Sorrows. Toronto: Knopf, 2014.

Turits, Meredith. "The Rumpus Interview with Miriam Toews." Rumpus. January 9, 2015. Online.

Zacharias, Robert, ed. After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America. Winnipeg: U Manitoba P, 2016.

---. "Introduction: After Identity: Mennonite/s Writing in North America." Zacharias 1-18.

---. "The Mennonite Thing: Identity for a Post-Identity Age." Zacharias 106-122.

About the Author

Margaret Steffler

Margaret Steffler is Associate Professor of English at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, where she teaches Canadian literature and Postcolonial literature and theory.