The Scope of This Project

1. Notes Toward a Dream

These are notes toward a dream: the dream of a world Mennonite literature.

When I was asked to write an essay on postcolonial Mennonite writing, this dream occurred to me, or rather revived in me, welled up, for it is a dream I have dwelt with for some time.

To me, the phrase "postcolonial Mennonite writing" means work by Mennonite writers of the postcolony. It means work by writers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It means the literary production of those regions where the Mennonite church is largest. It means the writing of the majority. It also means the work of minority writers in North America, of black, Latinx, and indigenous Mennonites, whom I include in the postcolony, not only because they are marginalized members of settler states but because, historically, they came to the Mennonite community through a process of missionary outreach. Only a constellation of all of these writers would allow us to speak of global Mennonite literature, of world Mennonite literature. The consideration of postcolonial Mennonite writing is a necessary step on the way to that dream.

Until now, postcolonial Mennonite writing has not been a subject of discussions of Mennonite literature. Reading anthologies of Mennonite writing, literary criticism and conference proceedings, one would never guess that most Mennonites today live outside the United States and Canada. If this fact is mentioned, it happens briefly, usually in the introduction, sometimes in a regretful tone, the editors announcing that while a truly global anthology of Mennonite writing is an excellent idea, it is beyond the scope of their project. The time for postcolonial Mennonite literature is perpetually, it seems, not yet. I want to move toward that suspended time. I want to trace, if possible, the contours of this project, which remains in the subjunctive, out of reach.

The dream of world Mennonite literature is certainly an ambitious one, but contemporary critics have a number of tools at their disposal. In the past twenty-five years, there has been an impressive amount of scholarship on the concept of world literature, produced by theorists in search of ways of engaging in literary study beyond the old models of (restrictive) area studies or (Eurocentric) comparative literature. Today, a scholar who wants to study world literature can choose from a number of approaches, including circulation and reception studies (Pascale Casanova), distant reading (Franco Moretti), dialogic pairing (David Damrosch) and investigations in deep time (Wai Chee Dimock).[i] All of these approaches will be useful to scholars of Mennonite literature.

Yet to many of these scholars, as well as interested readers, it may seem too soon to be talking about methodology. These approaches are all very well, but where is the object? Where is postcolonial Mennonite writing? Where are those creative works from around the world that would allow us to talk about world Mennonite literature?

Like any literature, world Mennonite literature has to be created. That is the daunting truth, the vast scope of this project. As a step in this direction, I want to discuss one major challenge and two possibilities.

Notes, all of them, toward a dream.

2. The Missionary Legacy

The major challenge of world Mennonite literature is the dual significance of the word "Mennonite." At once faith and ethnicity, church and culture, the element identified as Mennonite is carried both in the soul and in the skin. It is possible to do a great deal of literary study without directly confronting this problem: simply choose a working definition and stick to it. Even a curious object like "postcolonial Mennonite literature" can be explored without too much trouble, as long as you don’t try to study ethnic Mennonite literature at the same time. Put them together, though, and the definitions clash. How do you compare two poets—for example, the Canadian Mennonite poet Di Brandt and the Zambian Mennonite poet Sichala—when the ethnic Mennonite experience of the former is so far removed from the doctrinal base that defines the devotional poetry of the latter, that makes the latter a Mennonite poet? It’s not merely that each expresses different aspects of Mennonite identity. It’s that what constitutes Mennoniteness for each is absent from the other. This is the challenge of global Mennonite literature: a challenge produced, like global Mennonite identity itself, by the missionary project.

The scene: Members of an ethno-religious group travel the world in order to spread their faith. Detached from ethnicity, the faith takes wing. Mennonite churches around the world develop independence, they are led by indigenous pastors, they produce missionaries of their own. In this global context, to be Mennonite is to be a believer in Christ. Meanwhile, in North America, some of the children and grandchildren of missionaries, the nieces and nephews, the cousins, the ones who read the newsletters that come home—they rethink, they withdraw, sometimes they break with the church, they grow critical of missionary work.

The problem of the missionary legacy in the study of Mennonite literature is not just methodological or intellectual. It is political and affective. Once, writes the poet Patrick Friesen, he loved listening to the stories missionaries told, but soon he realized he didn’t like what they were doing. "It seemed unfair to intrude on people in other countries and put the pressure on them to drop their religions and cultures and pick up the new sanctified ones. As if only people who called themselves Christian (who rejected other branches of Christianity) had a monopoly on wisdom and on what led to wisdom." For Friesen, missionaries are "the soft armies": "Wearing their pith helmets and safari shirts. They brought the Word, as they understood it, and this Word fell like a sledge on delicate old worlds."[ii]

For some, the existence of Mennonite churches around the world is cause for celebration. For others, it is a source of sorrow. There are those who rejoice in new life and those who mourn delicate old worlds. This difference in feeling is the greatest challenge to the study of world Mennonite literature. It is a challenge more formidable than the issues of working in different languages or accessing hard-to-find materials—problems world literature scholars overcome every day.

What if we went ahead anyway, through this welter of feelings? I suggest two directions for study: song and diaspora.

3. Song

"I was born into a household of song," writes Jean Janzen, "my six siblings all playing the piano and harmonizing. Surely the voice stretching the sounds of language into song lured me to venture into unknown territory."[iii] Janzen, an accomplished poet, has written a number of hymns; her example offers a place to start looking at Mennonite poetry in a global context. For if Mennonite poetry in North America begins in song, the same can be said of Mennonite poetry around the world. A study of postcolonial Mennonite writing might begin with hymns, examining the poetry of hymn texts from different congregations.

Imagine what might arise, for example, from a comparison of Janzen’s hymns to those of the Congolese hymn writer Malumalu. There are opportunities here to study the way poets use Biblical texts, the practices and experiences of congregants, and various forms of theopoetics. Religious music outside hymnals may offer another rich archive: Imagine a comparative study of 1970s Mennonite music performance that would treat the African American singer Barbara Sowell, the Spanish gospel music of the Lawndale Choir, and the Indonesian Sangkakala Band.

Song is a good place to look at world Mennonite literature not only because it is so universal, but because it is so portable. The stretching voice, says Janzen, lured her into unknown territory. Songs pull us across borders. Every Sunday, the hymns sung in Mennonite churches in North America propose, melodically and insistently, a global Mennonite identity. These hymns are Croatian, Tshiluba, Japanese, Plains Indian, Filipino. Mennonite churches elsewhere also express a complex identity in song. "We can say with certainty," write Pakisa K. Tshimika and Doris Dube, "that our songs are a better reflection of the reality of ethnic diversity of African Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches than anything else. It does not take very long for a foreigner travelling to any of our churches to realize that rather than hearing one language during a church service, she ends up hearing three or four languages used in the same service. The diversity of language is most often expressed in song, thus making our songs a powerful unifying force for our diversity and ethnic divisions."[iv]

Dreaming of world Mennonite literature, I think of song as a powerful unifying force. How open we are when we sing, held by other voices. A model, if you like, for the study of world literature, which no one can do alone.

4. Diaspora

In writing of song, I propose a research direction based on form. I would also like to propose one based on content. The notion of diaspora, with its attendant themes of migration, persecution, homelessness, and nostalgia, holds a wealth of possibility for the study of global Mennonite literature. "What’s the master narrative that I hear operating in this meeting?" asked Robert Kroetsch, chair of the closing panel at the first Mennonite/s Writing Conference in 1990. "It has something to do with the question, ‘where is home?’. That is the question that I hear operating so intensely."[v]

Stories of scattering, of movement, of place and displacement, of losing and finding community: such themes cry out for consideration in a global context. The question "Where is home?", which has rung through decades of Mennonite writing in the U.S. and Canada, is surely heard in India, in Ethiopia, in the Paraguayan Chaco. It is surely heard among Mennonites of various backgrounds who are making their way among the tensions of their home cultures and their chosen communities.

In Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, for example, Felipe Hinojosa writes that for many in these communities, becoming Mennonite means leaving home: "Our family becomes the church."[vi] The question "Where is home?" must be heard, too, among those for whom attending a Mennonite church means worshipping in a foreign language, and among the students from all the corners of Mennonite influence who travel for an education at Mennonite schools, who find themselves far from home.

In searching for postcolonial Mennonite writing, I have suggested, scholars might begin with hymns; we might also look at the literary journals and publications of Mennonite colleges and universities, which draw students from a variety of contexts. To conclude these thoughts on diaspora, I will share an interview with a writer who was once one of those students: the Somali Canadian poet and peace activist Mohamud Siad Togane, who graduated from Eastern Mennonite University (then Eastern Mennonite College) in 1969. Togane’s volume of poems, The Bottle and the Bushman, published in 1986, refers often to his experience with Mennonite missionaries in Somalia, and in subsequent work he has returned again and again to these memories as he expresses and wrestles with his own spiritual identity. In interviewing him, I decided to ask him the questions Ann Hostetler asked at the 2003 Associated Writing Programs Conference, addressing some of the poets she included in her anthology A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.[vii]

How has your Mennonite connection informed your work as a poet?


Absolutely! I am so Mennonite that once, in my Eastern Mennonite College days, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I called myself Charlie Stoltzfus, trying to shed my real Moslem name: Mohamud Siad Togane. If I had to label myself now, I would call myself: Moslem-Mennonite or MoMennonite.

Would you write different poems if you hadn’t been shaped in a Mennonite crucible, so to speak?


Yes, I would. The Mennonites encountered a Caliban and created almost, but not quite, a Prospero!

They taught me their language
and my profit on ’t
that now I know
how to curse
how to piss off people
how to bless
how to bear witness
how to speak Truth to Power
how to put bastards & bitches in their proper place
how to mau-mau mofos
how to wield the word
which is the sword of my spirit.
May Allah bless the Mennonites
For learning me their language!

What attracted you to Mennonites?


Their ofay colour
Their ofay culture
Their ofay costume
Their ofay language
Their utter otherness
Their genuine gentleness
Their never wearying in well doing
Their bearing of one another's burdens
thus fulfilling the law of Christ
Their never beating me as a child
in the name of God
the Most Compassionate
the Most Merciful
as the Merciless Moslems were wont to do!
Their complicated kindness—a theme Miriam Toews goes to town on in her book: A Complicated Kindness.

How has this experience shaped your poetry?


The Mennonites came to Somalia
bearing their big black Bible
in Elizabethan English
in the King James Version
they diligently dinned that Bible
into my head
into my heart
into the marrow of my bones
That is why
when I write
what I write
cannot help but
carry the cadence
carry the majesty
carry the beauty
of the language of that black Bible
carry the hum of their hymns
for often
when I would meet with them
they would speak
to me
to one another
in psalms
in hymns
in biblical verses
in spiritual songs
singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord.[viii]

"Their ofay culture," Togane writes, using a pejorative word for whiteness, speaking a language of attraction and repulsion. Like Caliban, he curses, and then he transforms Caliban’s famous curse: "May Allah bless the Mennonites for learning me their language." His whole interview is a complicated kindness. Expressing both resentment and love, reveling in the power of language, Togane’s answers here continue his deep engagement with Mennonite identity, an engagement that has characterized his writing for more than thirty years. His work is one example of how postcolonial Mennonite writing might inform, expand, and reveal anew the question: "Where is home?"

5. Being Mennonite

The first work of Mennonite literature I read was a volume called Three Mennonite Poets, published by Good Books in 1986. The choice of poets—Jean Janzen from the United States, Yorifumi Yaguchi from Japan and David Waltner-Toews from Canada—represented an argument for a global understanding of Mennonite identity. I also read a review in Direction in which the reviewer complained that "sandwiching Yaguchi into the collection is forced at best," and that "[w]e’re told that Yaguchi is a Mennonite pastor, and several of his poems allude to pacifism, but it is never apparent in the poems themselves that Yaguchi is being Mennonite."[ix]

Surely this is what is at stake in the notion of world Mennonite literature. In order to bring this literature into being, scholars, readers and writers will have to admit ways of being Mennonite they may never have considered, and grapple with new terms like "Muslim-Mennonite." This is exciting. It may be the greatest reward of the project. Sometimes I hear Mennonite writers and critics in North America talk about being tired of identity discussions, of desiring to get past and away from Mennonite identity, and I think of how different those discussions would be, how newly troubling and electric, if we considered ways of being Mennonite outside Dutch-Swiss-German ethnicity and the North American context. The study of postcolonial Mennonite writing may enliven debates about Mennonite identity, or it may cause the very notion to crumble; in any case, it’s too early to drop the subject.

It would be a mistake to move into a post-identity mode (should such a move prove possible) before considering the perspectives of the majority of Mennonites. It would be a mistake, especially, at this moment, in the twenty-first century, among so many efforts to think in planetary terms, among discussions of globalization, environmental issues, and world literature—all ways of recognizing and emphasizing just how connected we are. In 2000, after being Mennonite for more than eighty years, churches in the Democratic Republic of Congo organized a forum on Anabaptism, eager to think about how their identity intersects with the history of the Reformation. A second conference in 2002 invited Mennonite churches from elsewhere in Africa to join the conversation. These are signs that we are in a moment of connection, of desire for boundary-crossing forms of identity, in which scholars of Mennonite literature can play a part.

The scope of this project, then, is on the scale of the planet. And if it seems intimidating, overwhelming, to try to connect in this way, to theorize Mennonite literature as a product of soul and skin, then we should consider that this is precisely where the project’s value lies. For the effort to think through different forms of sociality at the same time is what the dream of world Mennonite literature offers to the world.


[i] See Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters; Franco Moretti, "Conjectures on World Literature"; David Damrosch, What Is World Literature?; Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time.

[ii] Friesen, Patrick. "I Could Have Been Born in Spain." Why I Am a Mennonite, edited by Harry Loewen. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988. P.101.

[iii] Janzen, Jean. Entering the Wild: Essays on Faith and Writing. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2012. P. 61.

[iv] Dube, Doris and Pakisa K. Tshimika. "Introduction to Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches in Africa." Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: Global Mennonite History Series: Africa, ed. John A. Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2006. Pp. 5-6.

[v] Kroetsch, Robert. "Closing Panel." Acts of Concealment: Mennonite/s Writing in Canada, ed. Hildi Froese Tiessen and Peter Hinchcliffe. Waterloo, ON: U. of Waterloo Press, 1992. P. 224.

[vi] Hinojosa, Felipe. Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. P. 9.

[vii] A description of the panel can be found in Ann Hostetler, "Listening for the ‘Mennonite’ in Poetry." Mennonite Life, 59:2 (2004).

[viii] Togane, Mohamud Siad. Interview with the author, September 29, 2015.

[ix] Reimer, Luetta. "Book Review: Three Mennonite Poets." Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum, 16:2 (1987): 75-77. Emphasis in the original.

About the Author

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, the short story collection, Tender, and most recently Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her works have received several awards, including the World Fantasy Award. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she teaches literature at James Madison University.