Canadian Mennonite Literature
When I graduated with my first, shiny new degree, I thought I knew one thing for sure: almost any piece of literary fiction in the world would interest me more than Mennonite literature. Though culturally “non-practicing,” I am Mennonite by heritage, and to my relatively unworldly, baccalaureate self, international literary fiction seemed to surpass local Menno lit both in style and diversity.
What bothered me then about Winnipeg’s literary scene was its apparent insularity—its seeming determination to glamourize a residually religious literary subset obsessed (for better or worse) with Mennonite history and its inherent hierarchies.
The danger of such cultural inwardness, perhaps, is that it begins to look exclusively within its own frameworks for answers, for inspiration. It delves into the local past at the expense of the non-local present. It stops registering the gaze of the outsider, with her alien preoccupations, as significant. The conversations grow stale, tilting toward the circular.
I wanted to get the hell away from this stifling literary climate, with its fixation on Mennonite religious, political, and cultural peculiarities. I wanted to hear other names than Toews, Bergen, Friesen, Wiebe.
I wanted to get away, and I did: I fled to Newcastle University in the north of England, where I discovered (predictably) a literary climate similarly focused on local religious, political, and cultural peculiarities.
Adapting to England’s pervasive damp chill (somehow much colder than Winnipeg’s dry sub-zeroes), I wandered among the established literary colonnades of Northeast England. I sat transfixed before the passion of poet Colette Bryce at readings, debated my use of metre and rhyme with my advisor, the celebrated poet Sean O’Brien, and bought up paperback copies of Simon Armitage’s latest collections in the university bookstore. I discovered Gillian Allnutt, a poet well-known in England and virtually unknown overseas. I read lines like:
the wind an ear
At dry stone walls
Allnutt’s wind and walls are those of the rising and falling sweeps of empty landscape flowing up the Island to meet Scotland’s rugged Highlands, pebbled with fences, some of them as old as Hadrian.
As my bookish sensibilities brewed in Newcastle’s misty cauldron, I began to wonder if all local literary cultures veer toward ethnocentrism. Granted, large-scale international writers’ festivals are numerous and frequent in Europe (even in Northern England), and attract, through proximity alone, a much larger catchment of international authors—so the focus, at least at those events, is broad.
But there is always a small-scale. There has to be. Small-scale tributaries feed larger rivers and those rivers feed oceans.
I wondered: do Northern English poets have anything to say to Prairie writers, and vice versa? The only connection between the two cultures, it seemed, was me. Somehow I was simultaneously explicating my Menno roots to curious British friends, while being wooed by the local literary tradition of Northumberland—its dry Geordie humour, its preoccupations with that bright cold salt-sprayed landscape, those soaring Newcastle bridges, and the icy river rushing below them.
These days I serve as books editor for the Winnipeg-based Rhubarb magazine, which defines itself as “an independent, secular, not-for-profit magazine for the general reading public … featuring the writing and visual images of diversely defined Mennonites—genetic, practicing, lapsed, declined and resistant.”
There it is again, that word: Mennonite. Negatively or positively, and whatever the content of their work, most Mennonites still loop Mennonitism into their self-definition. Whether or not their literary projects deal with Mennonite themes, they are generally considered works of “Mennonite literature” by virtue of their authors’ lineage, and marketed (or publically hailed, regardless of the marketing) as such.
In her keynote presentation to the International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 2012, Miriam Toews spoke about the tension of being constantly referred to as a Mennonite writer:
I would never need or want to deny my Mennonite background and culture; even if identity is multiple and evolving, forever subject to the judgments of others, I’ll always feel like and be identified as a Mennonite, and therefore possess that little extra authority on all matters Mennonite. I also see myself as a Canadian writer, very much implicated personally in all matters Canadian. Like every Canadian, I have been taught that one of the most important functions of art is to supply and elaborate the myths and narratives of nationhood […] So for me, to be granted a place under the banners of Mennonite Literature and Canadian Literature is an honour.
It might feel stultifying at times, but can you really—should you really—yank local cultural preoccupations out of your literary sensibilities in an attempt to appeal to the global, the general?
The Opening Sky by Joan Thomas
I have returned to, and now work within, the very literary borscht that made me hot under the collar as an undergraduate. Even though I still find myself on the edges of this culture (I’m still “non-practicing,” still often annoyed by the Mennonite fixation on Mennonite norms history, and name-games, still to some extent confused by the perpetuation of Mennonite themes by Mennonite writers, many of whom are—like me—“non-practicing”), I continue to turn my gaze, sometimes admiringly, sometimes resignedly, on Mennonite lit.
Recently, I’ve been reading a spate of local luminaries for review in local and national publications. Mennonite or otherwise, many of these Canadian authors keep the writing close to home—Joan Thomas, in The Opening Sky, focuses the novel’s action within Winnipeg’s Wolseley neighbourhood, and does it with precision and power. With his trademark honesty and lyricism, Rudy Wiebe writes Edmonton’s orderly, wintery traffic grid into the heart of Come Back. David Bergen recently wrote a letter to the Winnipeg independent bookstore McNally Robinson, explaining the local resonances in his latest novel, Leaving Tomorrow:
I have no interest in getting sentimental about the prairies and animals and the wide-open spaces. Though I cannot deny that the sparseness of my own writing comes from the sparseness of my place. No lush, bucolic language, but rather a hard sensuality that runs beneath things. There is an inevitability to my settings. I didn’t choose to be raised here in Manitoba, but I did choose to stay. I like to see this as being faithful to the place I come from.
A few weeks ago I attended the book launch for Maurice Mierau’s memoir, Detachment. The packed crowd included a baker’s dozen of well-known Mennonite (“genetic, practising, lapsed, declined and resistant”) writers. But Mennonitism, while inherently present at this event, did not predominate: what did predominate was warmth: writers celebrating and stewarding each other’s stories, cultivating a community of care.
Prairie writers have a kind of cold-sharpened vision, sight that is brightened and focused by constant exposure to light and wind. When they turn their gaze on the cultural and religious depths of the local—the skeletons buried beneath the earth on which we tread—they do so with a firm sense of place, and, often, kindness.
Mennonite writing is transcribed in a language that sometimes requires patient explanation to outsiders, and can often fetishize nostalgia or harden historical stereotypes. But this language has the potential to create a living link between a rural, localized past and the globalized city. Local stories are tributaries that feed larger rivers that feed oceans.
But in my experience, Prairie writers are best read alongside Newcastle poets.