Personal Narratives of Place and Displacement: Day Three

I’m not as tired this evening as last. I’m buoyed, in fact, with the energy that the end of a conference often carries–the goodbyes, the summing-up words, the realization that 38 presentations have gone by and wow! they were rich individually and as a collective and we’ll all be carrying fragments of the event home with us, like the baskets of leftovers gathered in the Gospel feeding-of-the-multitudes stories after everyone was fed, for our ongoing nourishment into further endeavours of writing or reading or scholarship or just plain living.

Today was “Keynote” day. Julie Rak of the University of Alberta was invited to the conference as an “outside” academic known for her work on the Doukhobors and on memoir and such forms, someone who could bring critique and ideas from her areas of interest into the themes of our conference. She’s been attending the sessions, listening, and today she had her word: “CanLit, Genre, and Cruel Optimism”. She interrogated the concepts of Canadian and Literature in the CanLit project, especially as represented in the recent book by Nick Mount, Arrival. It’s safe to say that she’s definitely not impressed with Mount’s book and its narrow idea, both in terms of historical time and genre; she sees CanLit as an example of “cruel optimism” (as defined by Lauren Berlant, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”) She also told us about recent events surrounding the UBC firing of Steven Galloway, in which a cohort of CanLit heavyweights protested on his behalf and another group–Rak and indigenous writers and others–put their writing futures on the line to counter-protest on behalf of the victims, the whole thing a “situation” with the potential to break open current notions about literature, nation, etc. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to have a good audience discussion of Julie’s paper, especially in fertilizing its critique into what we’ve been doing at the conference, but let me suggest what I’m taking from it for us: don’t get too settled into MennoLit origin stories, reach backwards and sideways to see writing and forms of creative production before or alongside the “classic” texts, and embrace widely in the current moment. (In Mount’s system, “genre does the work of exclusion.”) Attendees who read this may have other ideas what the “lesson” is!

And then this evening: keynote, keynote! In the persons of Miriam Toews and Rhoda Janzen on the stage together, each reading so wonderfully from their books (Irma Voth and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress) and since both use humour–“as a tool” (Janzen) and because it’s “entwined with sorrow…some members of my family suffered so much it became my job to make people laugh” (Toews)– the evening had laughter and great joyfulness about it.

But no singing. Not this evening. We sang this afternoon. The only literature conference of many he’s attended, Rob Zacharias said, where participants sang, and that in four-part harmony. The way it happened was this: Elsie Neufeld told the moving story of her mother’s life of displacement, first physically through a long trek out of Ukraine during the Second World War and on to refugee settlement in Canada, and painful displacement from communion in the MB church because Suse and her husband had not been baptized by immersion, through further losses and her current Lebensmuede (life weariness), and at the end of this account, Elsie asked if we could sing the Doxology, which we did, 4 parts for sure, and later, in the discussion, Elsie noted that she can’t “fix” anything about her mother’s life but she can bear witness, she can tell her story, and now I think, perhaps singing together after a difficult story is a kind of communal bearing witness too.

Stories. That’s what stands out to me from today. Jeff Gundy’s journey into poetry via his generation’s singers and poets. A young boy Henry carried off to Saskatchewan and only learning at 16 that he’s not actually the son of the family, this within Larry Warkentin’s paper on peasant-poet Peter Gunther. The life of Hans Kroeker, “imperfect” in many ways, told by his grandson John D. Thiesen (“I carry his hard life around with me.”). Daniel Shank Cruz on Wes Funk with his strong “prophetic” call (via two encounters Cruz calls “ghosts”) to be a voice for the experience of exile as a gay man, the call embuing him with a sense of purpose and insistence that the gay life should be visible. Myron Penner telling us about a theatre project that brought (and is bringing) the voices of refugees to audiences in a powerful way. And Dorothy Peters setting the Genesis story of Judah and Tamar (Dorothy is a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls) next to the stories of her two grandmothers, and her saying she wishes the Mennonite meta-narrative could have given the grandmother who witnessed the horrors of her sister’s rape and father’s death “space” like Genesis gives the Judah/Tamar story space–oh I loved this weaving in!

And Margaret Steffler reminded, in Rudy Wiebe and Miriam Toews, of mourning as a narrative act, and Di Brandt passionately urged wider practices in Mennonite writing. And then there was the barn. I was a town girl growing up, neither born in a barn or often inside one, but how I enjoyed David Elias taking us today into the barns of his past–the barn of his childhood “almost like entering a church…in the barn I felt free”. But the barn then altered, factory-like to house 30,000 turkeys–“I walked through and felt exactly nothing.” And then moved to another area of the province and rebuilt. But this upheaval of barn and David’s life was catalyst: “displacement,” as Ann Hostetler had reminded us earlier in the conference, “as necessary for art.”

From here on out, I will look at barns with a kind of fondness, I think, and maybe the sight will take me “over the threshold” into places of my own “memory and musing.”

And that’s a wrap. Goodnight.




Personal Narratives of Place and Displacement: Day Two

It’s been a long day, a good day, and I’m tired, but a few thoughts as promised about day two of the Mennonite/s Writing VIII conference. Beginning from the end.

The conference re-located from the University of Winnipeg to Canadian Mennonite University across the city this evening for what was billed as a “Creative Evening.” That is, we listened to five writers of varying ages and genres as well as a pair of musicians: Jennifer Sears, Len Neufeldt (his writing read by Robert Martens), Jessica Penner, Casey Plett, Maurice Mierau and Carol Ann Weaver on piano with Marnie Enns singing. Although not all these artists are young or entirely new to Mennonite Lit, in the main they are newer voices gaining strength and recognition among us, and it was a delight to hear them.

Before that, I enjoyed a wonderful supper with friends Elsie Neufeld, Magdalene Redekop, Elizabeth Falk, Mary Neufeld and Joyce Locht, and I had the pickerel, which was a real treat for a returning/former Winnipeger. (At lunch I had the pleasure of catching up with Sue Sorensen, CMU prof and friend and my editor for This Hidden Thing; people-meetings often end up being the highlight of events like this.)

As for the day’s twelve papers, I’m only going to get myself into trouble if I try to summarize or mention each one, so let me say at the outset that they were all excellent. Someone mentioned to me that they liked that the conference is not running concurrent sessions, and I agree that this is a strength of this event–we all hear the same papers. I did mine today–the narrative of trying to get to know my father-in-law, whom I never met, becoming informally and privately a biographer–and it went well, I think, especially since young Andrew Harnish kindly helped me get my photos onto the main computer and showed me which buttons to push to advance them through my paper.

Speaking of Andrew, I really liked his paper “But Peace Does Not Destroy Everyone” in which he reflected on his church experience compared to that of Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many–his was gentler–and Miriam Toews’ reflections in a Granta paper under the same title. Nevertheless, looking closer he realized it’s not only the Deacon Blocks who bully their people; probing his experiences as a gay man growing up in the church he saw violences and complicity beneath its apparent gentle simplicity. And speaking of Rudy Wiebe, a paper by Paul Tiessen revealed Wiebe’s “recent displays of affection” for the Mennonite Brethren; in a recent essay he confessed he had been too hard on them for the loss of his job as editor of the MB Herald, and according to Tiessen, “rehabilitates” B.B. Janz and H.H. Janzen, his earlier “rogue gallery.”

Land, land, land. A recurring theme of Mennonite wrestling, and even when not the main topic of papers it emerged in a variety of ways. I want to learn more about Jane Rohrer after a paper about her by Julia Spicher Kasdorf; Rohrer’s life was shaped by re-location, she resisted romantic notions of land. And then Magdalene Redekop, who always thinks about the “smallest” and most interesting things, musing on shtap (Low German) versus steppe.

And there isn’t time to go into Travis Kroeker’s “magic trick” of turning Miriam Toews into a theologian (“the word became flesh”) or Connie Braun’s story of a visit to a former Jewish camp in Poland, near her ancestral home, where the “tangle” of her stories “confronted with darkness,” or Mary Ann Loewen’s discovery of the great “yearning and admiration” expressed in stories of daughters about their fathers for an upcoming volume she’s edited, or Raylene Hinz-Penner wondering “When did Mennonites become white?”

And more, of course, but I’m so tired and I’m going to stop, except for a small anecdote that came out of the discussion for the last session’s papers. I’m not sure what the exact context was but apparently Sandra Birdsell was once asked what it was like to be on the margins, and she replied she in fact she thought she was at the centre, not the margins; the centre was writing.

Good night!


Personal Narratives of Place and Displacement: Day One

I’m in Winnipeg, at the Mennonite/s Writing VIII conference, and I thought I would  try to throw up some personal impressions at the end of each day, but if that’s not your thing, feel free to ignore the next few posts.

21740306_1107797522690988_8401081781441865621_nThis conference, co-convened by Royden Loewen of the University of Winnipeg and the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies, and Robert Zacharias of York University, brings together two streams–history and literature–under the theme of the personal narrative. Royden opened the conference by speaking rather eloquently of the two and I couldn’t write fast enough to get it down, but less eloquently I can sum it by saying some sessions, especially today, will focus on history, especially forced re-locations as provoked by the Russian Revolution (100 years ago this year) and others will consider what might be called smaller places of dislocation, more individual ones perhaps, which then find “a home in writing.” (I managed to get that phrase down, and I like it very much.)

Johannes Dyck, Germany, was first up with the migration narrative of a Karaganda church leader, Heinrich Woelk, followed by Tatiana Plokhotnyuk of Northern Caucasus University, who has been able to discover the lives and former existence of Mennonites in the Caucasus via NKVD police records of arrests and investigations.

The next session contained three papers on Adoption and Belonging: Fran Martens Friesen (Fresno Pacific U) on interviews she did with adoptive families; Hope Nisly (Fresno Pacific U) with her story of adopting two children from the foster care system and the tensions of class difference and anxieties, perhaps not enough recognized in adoptive situations; and Janice  Schroeder (Carleton U) with an astute reading of Maurice Mierau’s memoir, Detachment, about adopting two boys from Ukraine. These presentations were honest, even intimate, in their content; they pushed against love-conquers-all idealized narratives to face the complexities of adoption; (“love may not be enough for primal wounds” Friesen, “I had to face my own prejudices” Nisly). Talking about the scene in Mierau’s book where the boys react to learning some of the “truth” about their early life and mother, Schroeder asked what right have we to substitute the truth for the beautiful fiction (stories children imagine about their origins), noting that Mierau himself invents a story of his grandfather’s fate in a Russian prison which “laid something to rest” for him.

The adoption papers provoked warm affirmation from the audience as well as lively discussion. Julie Ruk (University of Alberta) asked why Americans have trouble thinking about class and instead go immediately to race. It was also noted that all the papers were about adoptive parents, not birth parents. A “birth grandmother” who had intended to present was unable to attend the conference.

I’m afraid that my impressions of the evening are fragmented, as the launch of Nine Mennonite Stories, selected by David Bergen, a Rhubarb magazine project, partially overlapped with the last session. I met a B.C. friend, Dorothy Friesen, a conference presenter, at the Cue X Cafe, and we ate paninis at a table down from the billiards tables, and then the launch started with Victor Enns introducing the book (a very good collection, if I may say so myself, each story with a response-in-art by Murray Toews) and David, the editor, introduced me, and then I read a portion of my story “Mask,” which is  in the book. It was such a pleasure to see Angeline Schellenberg and Joanne Wiebe and Marjorie Poor and other Winnipeg writers and friends, just such a pleasure to be back…! But I felt some responsibility too to the “Personal Narratives…” conference, because I’d been on the committee, so Dorothy and I slipped away before the launch was quite done, before the reading by Armin Wiebe, and then longtime Winnipegger-me led trusting Dorothy astray, nearly to Portage Place instead of the University of Winnipeg, which brought us back at the conference hall even later than necessary. So I missed what I was told was a fine paper by Robert Zacharias on Mennonite  diaries (Anna Berg’s and Dietrich Neufeld’s), and about half of Aileen Friesen’s (Conrad Grebel U.) paper about discoveries from family letters and other texts between New and Old Worlds, with the lovely title: “A Comparative Disquiet of Home.”21200728_1399550240164313_6704431195992477195_o

A good beginning then, and now it’s late, and I hope there aren’t too many typos in here, and tomorrow will be very full, so Good night until the next.