Worscht en Rhubuaba. I can’t actually say it, not correctly at least, not having grown up with Low German (though I learned to understand it as a adult living in Paraguay for a couple of years), but I spent Saturday and part of Sunday last week at an arts festival by that name. Meaning sausage and rhubarb. It was a Manitoba Mennonite Creative Arts Festival so the reference was perfectly appropriate, if somewhat nostalgic, given that nowadays Mennonite writing (“if there is such a thing” — a question one of the Round Tables asked) is so large, so diverse, so out of the village. But never mind that, it was a great event, put together by the energetic and talented Di Brandt and others from Brandon University (Dale Lakevold, Audrey Thiessen).
I went with friend and poet Sarah Klassen, one of the featured readers. Rudy Wiebe, considered the “father” of contemporary Mennonite writing, was also there and honored for his huge contribution. Others readers included Armin Wiebe, Di Brandt, and Patrick Friesen, as well as several newer writers.
Two aspects of the festival struck me in particular. One was the space devoted to drama. Excerpts from three excellent recent plays by writers of Mennonite origin were presented: Dionysus in Stony Mountain by Steven Ratzlaff, The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz by Armin Wiebe, and The Sitter and a Short History of Crazy Bone (in progress) by Patrick Friesen. Theatre is such an amazing medium of word and presence and it was significant, I think — and a great treat — to have it highlighted.
I was also pleasantly surprised by connections organizers had managed with Brandon’s two Mennonite churches, or those churches’ willingness perhaps to hear the writers (in Sunday school), whichever it was. Mennonite may be an ethnic identity and/or religious as well. The relationship between creative types and the Church, however, has often been one of mutual suspicion. Rudy Wiebe spoke of the quintessential myth of the first generation of Mennonite writers who were “kicked out into exile.” Clearly things have changed. Sarah Klassen noted that “the shock” was absorbed by early writers like Rudy, Di, and Patrick, “the ground prepared” for her and many others who followed. (“Were we making the changes or documenting them?” Di wondered.) At Richmond Park MB Church, where I attended, the visiting writers were received warmly and engaged with, and apparently this was also the case at Grace Mennonite.
As for the Round Table question, “Is there such a thing as Mennonite writing?” some responses were “I’m a writer who happens to be Mennonite” and “There are still many Mennonite stories to tell.” Nothing definitive emerged, however, which provides an excuse — surely — to have more festivals and conferences of this kind; it’s always fun to get together!