In Search of Women's Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time

An address prepared for Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries. This conference took place at Eastern Mennonite University in July 2017.

The title of my talk is “In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time.” There’s a suggestion of movement there, and maybe also a bit of a detective story, in terms of that search, the search for history. My subject here is really recognition. To show you what I mean, I’ll start with a quotation, a short poem:

On the Texas coast

between Mobile and Galveston

there is a fine rose garden, and in it a house

that is also a rose.

A woman often walks

in the garden all alone

and when I pass by on the road lined with linden trees

we glance at one another.

As this woman is Mennonite,

her rose bushes and dress have no buttons,

and as my coat has lost two,

she and I are almost of the same religion.

Guillaume Apollinaire

Guillaume Apollinaire

This is a poem by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a foundational figure in the surrealist movement. Born in 1880, he was involved with several early twentieth century art movements, including Dada and Cubism; he was wounded in the First World War, published a literary manifesto, and died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. I’m sure all of this is very interesting, but ever since I stumbled upon his poem about the rose garden, with that sudden emergence of the Mennonite woman, to me totally unexpected, all I care about is this poem and this woman. Where did she spring from? When was Apollinaire in Texas? What is this Mennonite community on the Texas coast? Who is Annie?—for that is the title of the poem: “Annie.”

I wonder if any of you recognize this detective impulse: this desire to investigate, to fully possess, the image of the self as seen by someone else. I am interested in this feeling. I’m interested in the little jolt I felt when reading Apollinaire’s poem, when I was blindsided by the appearance of a Mennonite woman among the roses. I would call it a basically happy feeling. There’s a small flash of joy as I perceive the word Mennonite, blooming in the exotic garden of a French poem. At the same time, there’s a heightened sense of anxiety, a little sting that awakens me. I sit up, alert. What’s a Mennonite doing there? What does she represent? How is she being used? What exactly is Apollinaire saying about her, about us, about me? How is he making me look to French readers? If this attitude seems excessive, it’s because my senses are a bit skewed, knocked slightly off kilter by the experience of belonging to a small minority group. It’s a common dynamic among people from this kind of community, people with reason to believe that what is said about them by members of a dominant group will be more widely heard, and more easily believed, than what they say themselves. So I meet Annie in the rose garden with excitement, delight, and trepidation. It’s a sweet feeling, and one with thorns.


Off I go, crossing time, crossing borders, in search of Annie’s history. Apollinaire’s poem was published in 1912. It leads me to a Mennonite community established in Fairchilds, Texas in 1896. Fairchilds is in fact located, as Apollinaire writes in the poem, between Mobile City and Galveston. I believe I have found Annie’s people. Apollinaire most likely met them a few miles north, in Richmond, where they relocated after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In fact, most of the Mennonites left Texas after the hurricane. Only a tiny community remained at Richmond in the early years of the twentieth century, to be followed by other Mennonite settlements established further south, at Tuleta, and in the Texas Panhandle. In a book called Mennonites in Texas: The Quiet in the Land, by Laura L. Camden and Susan Gaetz Duarte, I read that between 1905 and 1908, a handful of families worshipped together in a schoolhouse in Richmond, TX. They included, I read, seven members of the Nebraska and Minnesota Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Conference. As this woman is Mennonite, her rose bushes and dress have no buttons. How marvelous that Apollinaire managed to come across this woman, during the few years of the early twentieth century when she was there, walking up and down under the linden trees.

This discovery has a special resonance for me, as I am in the midst of researching a short-lived Mennonite community in Uzbekistan, a project that has consumed me for four years. I have a deep interest, an affinity, for short-lived communities, for brief points of contact and temporary habitations. I don’t know exactly where I get this interest in contact zones of short duration. You could say it’s natural in a person of Mennonite background, considering how often, over the years, Anabaptist groups have been forced to move. You could also say it’s natural in a person of Somali background, a product of a nomadic society in which migration is expected, organic, and human. Or you could say that it’s natural in a person of mixed background, someone who finds it hard to fit seamlessly into any group, and who is therefore drawn to ephemeral homelands, fragile and truncated solidarities, and uprooted communities that lack the permanence required to make nations, borders, and fixed identities. I accept any and all of these explanations. Whatever the reason, my discovery of the Texas community gives another layer to my reading of Apollinaire’s poem. There’s a new poignancy to the woman’s lifted eyes in the glow of the rose bushes, to the brief eye contact she makes with the strange Frenchman as he passes on his walk. This split-second of contact comes to stand, for me, for Annie’s unstable, tenuous presence in Texas, for the fragility and persistence of her roving and scattered community. I recognize her.

For Apollinaire, there is another meaning to the Mennonite woman. He is interested in her lack of buttons. Her austere dress comes from doctrine; his, perhaps, from poverty, from the rigors of travel, or from an artist’s disdain for social norms. The poet’s coat with its missing buttons evokes a disheveled, romantic appearance, the flair of a tramp. By using the Mennonite woman and her religion in his poem, he gives this bohemian disarray a deeper meaning, a spiritual tone. Maybe it’s an excessive claim on his part; maybe it’s a little too easy. He’s certainly making those missing buttons do quite a lot of work. You have to wonder: since he and the Mennonite woman are “almost of the same religion,” if all the buttons fall off his coat, is he going to magically become Mennonite? But for all that, I don’t mind. I appreciate his gesture, the way he reaches out across that country road. In silence, he meets the woman’s eyes. In her sober dress, he sees himself reflected. He recognizes himself in her.

This recognition is inherently social. You can’t give it to yourself. It’s a glance that traverses the space between bodies, cultures, and histories. When I come across traces of an Anabaptist presence in works by people with no connection to those traditions, it can feel like a gift. I think of the old Mennonite chair in Mexico, its cane bottom replaced with canvas, that appears in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, All the Pretty Horses, or the family of eleven Mennonite children on their way to Buffalo, New York, emerging suddenly in Bhanu Kapil’s hitchhiking novel, Incubation: A Space for Monsters. But it’s also true that this Anabaptist presence can feel like a misrecognition. I want to look at a few images from popular culture now, images that, although they often misrecognize Anabaptist traditions, and especially Amish and Mennonite women, also have a lot to say about how we see ourselves, and the images of ourselves that we project into the broader culture.


For me, as perhaps for some of you, the journey began with Witness, the first R-rated movie I was allowed to see. The fact that my parents broke one of their own most sacred laws, and took me, a thirteen-year-old, to an R-rated movie, heightened the solemnity of the moment in which I was going to see the Amish on the big screen. The Amish, a people I had been taught to regard with respect and affection, as well as a sense of kinship, as if they formed a kind of collective older cousin, were practically unheard of at my New Jersey middle school, and I was amazed to see the line at the theater, and also quite gratified, as if I’d been paid a compliment. The movie starred Han Solo as a hard-bitten detective and Kelly McGillis as an Amish mom with dishearteningly impressive breasts. I was elbowed during the barn-raising scene—“Now this is what we came to see!”—but mostly remember the final kiss, a kiss of such jaw-shattering enthusiasm that I thought then, and still think now, the actors must have found it painful. With this film, I received an education, not about Amish society, since there was nothing about that subject in the movie that I hadn’t been told before, but about the relationship between Amish communities and the dominant, secular American culture, which is the central theme of the film. Symbolized by the two lovers, this relationship was presented to me as one of attraction, repulsion, seduction, and guilt. I was informed, on a deep level, that the most interesting thing about the Amish is Amish women, that these women conceal their sexual availability under a mask of piety, and that their relations with the outside world are doomed.


Witness, it turns out, was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the American fascination with Amish and Mennonite women, a fascination that, in recent decades, has spawned a massive industry of romance novels set in Anabaptist communities. If you’re interested in this phenomenon, please read Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s excellent book on the subject, which is worth purchasing for the title alone: Thrill of the Chaste. Weaver-Zercher delves into the Amish romance industry, discovering not just stereotypes and repetitive book covers, but a complex dynamic of recognition and desire among non-Amish readers who find comfort, inspiration, and even spiritual sustenance in these novels. Personally, I’ve never gotten into the so-called “bonnet rippers,” but I couldn’t resist reading just one book from a related subgenre: an Amish vampire romance, the first in a series called “Plain Fear.” Like Guillaume Apollinaire, the author of the series is really interested in buttons, or the lack thereof. Here’s an immortal line describing the hero: “His coat had no button or fastening and so it gaped open, revealing his chest and belly, his muscles firm and toned.” The heroine’s clothes don’t gape, but we are assured that “Even beneath that shapeless dress and apron that looked like every other Amish woman, her womanly shape couldn’t be hidden.”

Obviously this is a very silly book, and I was disappointed that the author didn’t fully explore the interesting potential conflict between pacifism and blood-sucking. (It’s worth noting, however, that in their efforts to rid themselves of the vampire scourge, the Amish consult a Catholic priest: an example of ecumenical collaboration we can all admire.) My point here is that when you have Amish vampire romance, you know that you have a firmly established perception of Amish culture. It’s very solid, easily recognizable by a wide audience, and that’s a different context, I think, than we had when Witness came out. With Witness, there was a need to explore and explain the Amish in a way that there isn’t now. The tropes associated with the culture—barn-raising, plain dress, and so on—are so firmly set that they can be played with and parodied. And primary among those tropes is the figure of the plain woman waiting to be seduced.


I confess to having watched, in its entirety, Season One of Breaking Amish. Even people with no connection to any Anabaptist tradition will find plenty to be embarrassed by in this show. If you’re not familiar with Breaking Amish, I’m sorry to be ruining that state of grace: It’s a reality TV show that debuted in 2012, focusing on five young people, four Amish and one Mennonite, who go to the big city of New York to explore modern life and decide whether they want to remain Amish or Mennonite, or join the English. As with many reality shows aired on TLC, or The Learning Channel (also known as “The Leering Channel”), the relationship between Breaking Amish and reality is tenuous at best. So in looking at the figure who interests me, Sabrina, the young Mennonite woman on the show, I want to be clear that I’m not taking her story at face value. I actually have no idea how much of it is made up. But because I’m exploring images here, Sabrina’s story as presented on the show is useful. The images in art and media, however false their claims to represent lived experience, do reveal cultural assumptions and desires. These images may not be factual, but they’re true.

In Season One, we learn that Sabrina was adopted by a Mennonite family in Lancaster County. Her ethnic background is Puerto Rican and Italian. Once she gets to New York, she goes in search of her biological father, who is Puerto Rican. She discovers a restaurant owned by her family. She goes there. She doesn’t speak Spanish, doesn’t understand anything. She’s tentative, breathless with excitement, pinned between laughter and tears. The young women at the restaurant, who are perhaps biologically related to Sabrina, are kind to her. They do her hair, they give her a pair of hoop earrings. The meeting with her Puerto Rican family represents an important stage in Sabrina’s transformation from cape dress and covering to low-cut T-shirts and tight shorts. She’s thrilled by her new family, and especially by the daring new way of being a woman that Puerto Rican culture seems to offer.


Can we recognize ourselves here, in this meeting of two kinds of women, this transformation from one kind of woman into another? This is deep, mythic. These images of women, presented as opposites—the plain, chaste Mennonite and the sassy, sexy Puerto Rican—these images are bound together like a double helix. They depend on each other to operate, for in this culture, our common culture, a covered woman always suggests a revealed one, and every bad girl contains the shadow of her opposite. Together, these images generate further images like themselves. What they are making is the myth of recognizable identity, the ways of being available to us. What they are making is culture.

In order for this to work, in order for the energy between these images to go on churning out repetitions of the same thing, the images must stay separate. Each must retain its integrity. There must not be anything like the title of the conference we’re attending here: Crossing the Line. Because the show displays a transformation from Mennonite to Puerto Rican, there must not be any suggestion of a connection between those two terms. Sabrina cannot know about Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico. She cannot know the history of Puerto Rican Mennonite congregations in New York City, where she is. She cannot know that Latina Mennonites exist. She must not be allowed any information that would introduce the possibility of being Mennonite and Puerto Rican at the same time.

Do you see how we’re caught here, how relentlessly we’re ordered not to cross the line, not to recognize ourselves on the other side? Do you see how this absolute separation, which is a racial separation, enables the ongoing consumption of the young women on the show as sexual objects? What happens if Latina Mennonites exist? Everything’s muddy. Suddenly the images start breaking down. A Latina Mennonite doesn’t fit the categories. Is she plain and chaste, or sassy and sexy? Is she a good girl waiting to go bad, or a bad girl who needs the figure of the good girl in order to exist? I don’t know. Is she operating outside the good girl and bad girl matrix? Is that possible? This is cultural anarchy! The images are out of control.

We should think about the images of ourselves we put into the world. When we use the word “Mennonite” to signify ethnicity, when we suggest to ourselves and others that the word “Mennonite” means northern European ancestry and its related cultural forms, we should think about it. We may be contributing to the circulation of images of ourselves we find unrecognizable.

I mentioned to you earlier that I’ve been researching a Mennonite community that once existed in Uzbekistan. This community was established in the 1880s, when Mennonites from Southern Russian migrated to what was then the Khanate of Khiva in Russian Turkestan. They lived in a village there until 1935, when the community was broken up by the authorities of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic for refusing collectivization. Most were deported to a desolate part of Tajikistan, and when borders loosened during the 1980s, many of their descendants moved to Germany. I’m interested in this story, and especially the time during which Mennonites made their home in Central Asia, because it represents an early Muslim-Mennonite encounter, and this seems to speak to my own story, as my family is Muslim on one side and Mennonite on the other.


As part of my research efforts, I went to Uzbekistan last year on a Mennonite heritage tour that followed the path of the Great Trek to Central Asia. This was an incredible experience, and I recommend it highly. One of the things I found most powerful was Uzbek interest in the Mennonite story. We met a historian who is writing a book on the Mennonites in Russian, grounding his research in recently opened Soviet archives. In the city of Khiva, once the capital of the khanate where the Mennonites settled, there is a Mennonite Museum. When I visited last year, it was not yet open, but the director let us in and showed us the exhibits, photographs, models, and maps. A woman from the museum team displayed for us the clothes they had made based on photographs of the Mennonites in their archives. The time they spent on this project, their meticulous observation of the old photographs, their tiny stitches, their attention to cuffs, to the pleats on a child’s pinafore—all this is recognition, and it is a gift.

What a short time Mennonites were there. Fifty years. Less than a generation. And how faithfully they are being remembered.

It was especially moving to me that it was the women of the Uzbek museum team who worked on the replication of clothing, who spent that time, energy, and attention in repeating Mennonite women’s work of a century earlier. I found very few women’s voices while I was researching the trek. There is a wonderful memoir by a woman named Elizabeth Unruh Schultz, who was fourteen years old when her family joined the trek, and it’s truly a treasure, probably the most vivid account of the journey. But most of the archive is written by men; we receive that history as written by men. In my book project, I write of this. I write: “How difficult it is to discover the history of women.” I write of the women I see in the Uzbek countryside: “Outside the window women are selling bread from a cart in the land of men, a land also known as planet Earth.”

We need all the women’s voices we can get. We need stories of Anabaptist women from every time and place. Only a multiplicity of voices can resist the weight of stereotypes that make us so vulnerable to sexual objectification. I don’t mean that just because we tell a variety of stories, as we’re attempting to do here at this conference, we will never again see ourselves parodied on so-called reality shows, though I do believe we can affect the broader culture over time. What I mean—what’s important—is that the more we tell these stories, the more we cross these lines, the more fully we will comprehend our own cultural richness, and the more adept we will become at recognizing ourselves.

As a gesture toward that project, I’d like to share, before concluding, three brief stories of Mennonite women. These are excerpts from my book, in which I’m fortunate to have a short memoir my grandmother wrote before she died, as well as a personal essay of my mother’s. In the book, I place my grandmother’s story and my mother’s story beside a memoir of my own time as a student in the dormitory at Lancaster Mennonite School. I include these stories in the book as a kind of tribute to Elizabeth Unruh Schultz, the woman who wrote a memoir of the Great Trek to Central Asia, and as a way of asserting that our stories, however small they seem, are valuable: they too must be recognized as Mennonite history. I’m going to share just a taste of each story with you: first my grandmother’s, then my mother’s, and finally mine.


  1. Amy Kreider Glick

At the request of my daughter Lydia, I will attempt to put in writing some of the happenings of my life.


I was born August 5, 1903, in a farm house near Palmyra, MO. I was the seventh of the nine children born to John Mellinger Kreider and his wife, the former Hettie Elvina Buckwalter. This couple had been married in Lancaster County, PA, at the home of the church bishop, Ira Eby. They operated a truck farm of ten acres near Soudersberg, PA, and attended the Paradise Church.

A group of people had moved from this area to Palmyra, Missouri. They wished to have a church in this new area and needed a pastor. They sent word to the leaders of the church at Paradise, requesting that John M. Kreider be ordained and that he come to be their pastor. This took place in 1897. At this time, my parents had four children, Lena, George, Anna, and Jesse. They loaded their furniture and other belongings onto a box car at the railroad station. On the day when they, my uncle John Hershey with his wife, and maybe two children boarded the train that was to take them to this far away place, friends also came to bid them farewell. One of those present said that there was more weeping at this farewell than at a funeral.

I grew up seeing that furniture always in our home. My father lived on rented land until after my birth when he bought the adjoining farm of 160 acres. This had been a slaveholder’s home. Missouri at one time owned slaves. On this farm there was a large bank barn and a large brick house. It was readily noticed in the house that part of it had been built for slaves to work in, and another level was for the masters to live and work in. The woodwork was nicer in the upper level. It was anything but modern by today’s standards for a home, but we loved this home. On the lawn there were large maple and elm trees, the shade of which was a great blessing on a hot, summer day. I was told that when I was born, I tipped the scales at five pounds. The other children rejoiced that they had a baby sister, since the three children preceding me were boys—Jesse, John and Daniel.

When I was five years old, typhoid fever struck our home. A doctor Sanford from Palmyra visited our family. My brothers, Jesse, Dan, and Philip, and my father were all in bed. I was playing about as usual. The doctor asked that my temperature be taken. I was told that it was very high—105 degrees, so to bed I had to go. This was a very trying time for me. My mother, sisters Lena and Anna, and my brother John had the responsibility of the farm work. We always milked cows. I wish I could know how long we were bedfast. Trained nurses were hired to help care for us. I recall that one my mother got along well with, but not so well with the other. For some years after all of us had recovered, when visitors came to our home and the conversation turned to the time when we had typhoid, I always had to cry, no matter how hard I tried to hold back my tears. That illness was a very serious matter to me.

I suppose I started grade school at the usual age of six years. I do not recall that time, but I know my teacher’s name was Miss Pearl Clouse. One thing I appreciate to this day about my growing up in this area was that I was taught to always address my peers and elders with a title. It was always Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. Slaves had been forced to address their masters in this manner, and it carried over to the white race as well. My father was always addressed as Mr. Kreider, my older sisters as Miss Anna and Miss Lena. It was a shock to me after we moved to Dakota to hear ministers in our church talk of using their first names rather than “Brother so-and-so.” Also, to have my husband called, “Andy.” We always spoke of older ones in the church using a title before their names.

The school house I attended was maybe one half mile east of my home, and we walked to school. I recall the interior of this building—three windows on the south side and three on the north. There were blackboards on two sides. A box was fastened onto the north wall, which was our library. There was a small collection of books. I do not recall that we were encouraged to read these. There was a wood burning stove which the teacher kept fired with large pieces of wood, which was ricked on the school yard. During noon and recess times, we played Dare Base, Black Man, and Drop the Handkerchief . . .

2. Lydia Glick Samatar

What Happened in My Life

I was born, Lydia Glick, the sixth child, to a farm family in North Dakota seven decades ago. It was a long time before I learned that my parents took up farming on the great plains during the Great Depression and that my older siblings had grown up in harsher and starker conditions than I would ever know. By the time I came along, a child’s days were no longer all work and no play. I had hours and hours to play. I just turned one year old when my next brother was born. We became the best of playmates and thought we’d marry each other when we grew up.


We all worked on the farm, went to a one-roomed schoolhouse for all eight grades of elementary school and were encouraged to attend high school and college, preferably at Mennonite institutions. This took us out of our state to Kansas or Indiana or Virginia. We were taught to think in terms of the whole world, not just our small community. Almost all of us lived or traveled abroad when we grew up. From our parents, we learned to value education, the church, and a life of service to others. Perhaps it is not surprising that we all became teachers! Most of us also took assignments with church agencies.

In college I studied Modern Foreign Languages and took a job teaching English after earning my BA. After two years at my job, I was able to repay my father for my college education. I was now free, so I volunteered to take an assignment with my church in a foreign country. I was eager to study a new language and culture. At my first interview I learned that there was an opening for a teacher in Somalia, East Africa. I simply said Yes in that interview and started to learn what I could about the country. This was long before it was possible to Google any subject on a computer!

I arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia in the summer of 1963. Stepping off the plane, I entered a new world! Nothing could have prepared me for the blast of hot desert air that hit me, nor the boisterous shouting crowds in the airport terminal, nor the immense relief of finding a fellow American to welcome me . . . but I remember it all as a time of great excitement and a real thrill.

As it turned out, I was needed as an English teacher for adults in a night school program in the capital city. I had two years of experience as a high school teacher of English in America, just barely enough to feel I had achieved some competence in my field. Now I was to teach English as a foreign language to adult men and women who spoke Somali, Arabic and Italian but were eager to find a place for themselves on the world’s stage by becoming speakers of English—the language that is spoken all over the world.

The tools I had were bare classrooms with tables and benches, a blackboard and chalk, and some British English textbooks with a few black-and-white pictures in them. How dull and depressing this task would surely be! I discovered, to my surprise, that a bare room and a dull book were no hindrance to me, as the teacher, or to my students who joined my classes with enthusiasm! First, they felt and demonstrated a deep respect for their “Ma’aalim” (teacher), all rising to their feet when I entered the classroom. I would hastily beg them to sit down and tried my best to discourage their showering such honor on me. Class became a time of practice and progress that was mutually gratifying. It became a place of sharing ideas and eventually, a place of caring for one another’s well-being. We had become friends. I had found the work I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I would stay for four years before returning to the U.S. for a year’s break. My first task was to study the Somali language, but it was not yet officially written down. The first words I tried to pick up turned out to be Italian, and not Somali. I would flounder and fumble and sound foolish forever. I would also always be fascinated and charmed by the language that remained beyond me.

It was a hot country and a poor country. It was a Muslim country. I was privileged to be a guest there for seven years. I received much more from the Somali people than I could ever give to them. It was good for me to be inadequate in their language, and to live my faith next to theirs so that I could realize how great it is—indeed how great God is.

The final gift I received was—falling in love! Oh, he was my student in Advanced English and I was his student in Beginners’ Somali, and finally, one day, in the presence of many friends, we got married outdoors on a basketball court. Then we got married again in a Muslim ceremony. The dear gentleman wanted to give some camels to my father in North Dakota as a bride price but my father thought the railroad would put the camels out of business, and he declined the offer.

3. Sofia Samatar

Memoir of Brown Girlhood

At fourteen, the child is sent to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. She is glad to go, for she is a delicate child who reads too much, and reading too much has made her socially backward in a way that creates problems for her at the rough New Jersey high school. So she is transported over a green expanse with her pillowcase, her pillow, her socks, her boxed set of J.R.R. Tolkien books. At her new school, she notices immediately and with a thrill that while there are lockers, there are no locks. So this is a land without crime.

She walks clasping her books. She wears a red shirt with a yellow jumper made by her mother, an outfit her best friend calls “ketchup and mustard.” The child has made several best friends. In the dormitory the phone peals down the hall and everyone rushes to answer it. There is a yellow light. There is a lounge where you can sit and the boys will give you backrubs. There is a cafeteria where the child washes dishes. The women who work at the cafeteria wear little white net coverings on their heads or sometimes a piece of lace fastened with a pin. The round covering is known among the dormitory girls as the “Egg McMuffin,” the piece of lace is called a “doily.” Dimly the child understands that she exists somewhere between the cafeteria women and the Ethiopian girls who receive hot spices from home in plastic bags.


In the dorm you can wear whatever you want, but at school you have to wear skirts. You can’t wear earrings, though some girls get away with it by claiming they’ve just had their ears pierced: they have to keep their studs in, they whine, or the holes will grow shut. For boys, the hair must be short enough that it doesn’t hide the collar. Shoulders must be covered, and in music class, on a hot spring day, the child, who has taken off her blazer, is told to put it back on, to conceal the bony brown shoulders and the colorful flowered shell she made in a sewing class. The teacher is annoyed and the child feels frightened but also powerful, like a bad girl. She rolls her eyes, putting on the blazer, a dull blue blazer she made in the same sewing class, very badly, a near-impossible architectural project. She bends to her work: she is writing, as an assignment, a hymn in four parts. Another near-impossible architectural project. As a text she has chosen Matthew 11:28: Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

An era of experiments in clothing, of clothes worn like fabulous beasts. The dormitory girls exchange clothing so often, it seems they dwell in a single marvelous closet, a Narnian wardrobe filled with mountains, seas, phantasmagorical islands. Clothes become detached from their owners and are known by their names, like heads of state. The Purple Sweater. The Brown Skirt. To teach herself to dress, the child restricts herself, for one year, to the colors black, red, and white. The experiment ends when her uncle gives her a gift of one hundred dollars, a fantastic sum. The child walks down the highway to the mall. Carefully she searches for things on sale. She buys ten items, mostly peach-colored and pale green: recently popular, now defunct colors. She returns to the dorm proudly, a frugal queen. There, another girl—an intelligent girl, one with advanced knowledge of the world, the very girl, in fact, who told the child to start shaving her legs—this girl says that, given a hundred dollars, she would have bought only two things. A nice sweater, this wise girl says, and a bottle of perfume. The child sits open-mouthed in the lounge where the girls are going through her purchases, astounded at the thought of spending fifty dollars—a whole fifty dollars!—on one object of any kind. Several of the other girls sit dumbstruck, too, almost catatonic, as if somebody has knocked their heads together: they hadn’t even come to terms with the haul the child dragged in from the mall before this new idea exploded among them. These girls, in their sweatshirts and denim skirts, strain to imagine the kind of uncle who gives a person a hundred dollars, the dark and profligate uncle possessed by the child and also, apparently, by the wise girl, who is Puerto Rican, and possibly from New York.

Fields, churches, malls. It’s a landscape of highways and hills. You travel by car. On the weekends, the dormitory is closed. Some of the students go home, but the child lives too far away for that, so she stays with a local host family who take her to church. Sometimes she goes to her best friend’s house. The walls creak. In winter the roads are an endless mist. You look out, you see a gray field interrupted by windshield wipers. Only many years later will it occur to the child—now a woman—that there is anything drab or oppressive about this landscape



Have shared these three brief beginnings of Mennonite women’s stories, it remains only to conclude by returning to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. According to my research, Apollinaire never went to Texas. He never even traveled to the United States. The “Annie” of his poem, which I thought was the Mennonite woman among the roses, was in fact a young Englishwoman named Annie Playden. Apollinaire and Annie Playden worked in the same house, where he was the children’s tutor and she was the governess. She was also, on the weekends, a Sunday school teacher. Apollinaire began a romantic pursuit of Annie, but she wasn’t interested. Frankly, he scared her. When they were in Germany, traveling with the family they both worked for, he proposed to her on a mountainside, inviting her to contemplate the steep drop before giving her response. When she was in London, visiting her family, he showed up uninvited one night and threatened to break the door down. Harassed and frightened, Annie told him she was emigrating to America. Then, feeling cornered by her own lie, she actually did emigrate, fleeing Europe in 1904 to get away from Apollinaire.

In 1951, an Apollinaire scholar found Annie living in New York. She was married now, and known as Annie Playden Postings. She spoke to the scholar of Apollinaire’s jealousy, his violent rages. She had no idea he had become a poet.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Ervie Glick for permission to reprint the excerpt from Amy Kreider Glick’s memoir, and to Lydia Samatar for permission to reprint the excerpt from “What Happened in My Life.”

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.