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.

 

Besa: The Promise

H. and I saw a remarkable documentary at Canadian Mennonite University last evening. Besa: The Promise told a story I’d not known, of Muslims in Albania taking in and saving Jews during World War II. It seemed unexpected, surprising actually, that this would have happened–Muslims and Jews are enemies, aren’t they?–and the more inspiring because of it.

BessaRescreenBesa refers to an Albanian honor code: one opens the door to a knock, one offers safety to refugees, one keeps one’s word. Several stories played within the larger story: the narrative of the German invasion and hunt for Jews with commentary from elderly survivors and their Muslim hosts; a Jewish photographer’s quest to honor via portraits the Albanians who’d responded so nobly and at great danger to themselves in those evil times; and most compellingly, a Muslim man’s attempt to fulfill a promise made between his late father and his wartime Jewish guest. Since I hope others will see the film, I won’t say more about that particular promise. Continue reading

A bow to the past in Kansas

In the spirit of the rather fitful reporting to which this blog has devolved, I’m here this Monday afternoon to say that I was away four days in Kansas, hanging out with historians and archivists. (I believe I’ve mentioned before that these are some of my favorite people.) I’m on the Historical Commission of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) denomination, which meets once a year, rotating between the four archival centers in Kansas, California, B.C., and Manitoba. We hear reports from the centers, undertake various publishing projects (including both scholarly and popular history–last year’s was the fascinating mystery-biography, It Happened in Moscow by Maureen Klassen, which has sold astonishingly well), sponsor research grants and an archival internship, and occasionally plan symposiums, all to foster the preservation of, study of, and reflection on our history. Continue reading