Reflections on “Finding Father”

A friend recently asked me if I missed my dad. After stopping to think, I said no, not really, it’s already nearly ten years since his death and, because he had Alzheimers, it seems he’s been gone even longer. So, no.

Then I happened to be in my 1993 journal, looking for something else, and I came across a really lovely letter he wrote me that year, this after I’d pushed somewhat impetuously — in the midst of a mid-life exercise of figuring myself out as it were and re-visiting my upbringing — to discuss my perceptions of our relationship when I was a kid. He’d been exemplary in so many ways, a good provider, but always busy it seemed and also being relatively quiet, left the verbal articulation of affection up to Mom, who was much more outgoing. The letter acknowledged all this, used the word “shy” about himself, and then set down exactly what I suppose I was after: words of pride and love. Much felt resolved on account of it and it must have been how I realized that we were both introverts and that I actually took after him and not my mother in personality, much as I’d aspired to be like her. Re-reading the letter, I missed him.

I was also reading Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters, an anthology of 13 personal essays, edited by Mary Ann Loewen (University of Regina Press, 2019). It made me miss him too, because good personal writing not only enlarges our awareness of others but turns us back into ourselves. I think this is especially true if one shares some things in common with the authors, which in this case includes being a daughter, but also being Mennonite and in the same demographic as many of them.

At any rate, I enjoyed this collection very much. There’s variety of voice and approach. Elsie K. Neufeld movingly excavates her father’s history as a soldier in the German army and then postwar immigrant; Magdalene Redekop structures her “findings” around seven incidents with her father, the incidents rather small but together conveying an entire relationship; Jean Janzen begins with a poem and moves into poetic prose befitting the bond between this father and daughter; Raylene Hinz-Penner wonders if her father’s Lutheran roots accounted for his confidence, exuberance, and subversion of the dour pieties of their Mennonite environment; Cari Penner writes of a man who remains a stranger to her. And so on and so on.

I noticed something interesting happening by the time I finished the book, comprised as it is of numerous voices and relationships. The fathers seemed to have merged in my mind into one father, one good man, tall and dark-haired and somber in his Sunday suit, carrying sorrows from his immigrant or near-immigrant past, trying his best, silent or inarticulate about many things. Part of the patriarchy to be sure — the one sitting in the driver’s seat– but certainly not its most negative representative. None of the fathers in the anthology is the father I’ve just described, but somehow they’d fallen into line behind this composite figure. What remained more distinctively individual, however, were the daughters — the writers — and what they were doing in their pieces in terms of understanding, reaching back and towards, praising, longing for, or defending. Each had been shaped by her father, but each seemed to have become fully herself, whether with the help of or in spite of this first and vital man in her life. And now she was able to write perceptively about him, and with the perspective of her own life experience.

Sally Ito: Becoming oneself through language

I miss the occasional lunches I enjoyed in Winnipeg with writers Sally Ito, Joanne Epp, and Sarah Klassen. I always came away warmed by their friendship and stimulated by our conversation, which sometimes continued later via email exchanges.

Reading Sally Ito’s recent memoir, The Emperor’s Orphans (Turnstone, 2018),¬†shortlisted for the nonfiction prize at the Manitoba Books Awards this year, felt like an extended and wonderful such lunch. The Emperor’s Orphans is full of colourful characters, stories, and ideas that elaborate on the role of writing as “a becoming of oneself through language.” This “becoming” has particular currency for Ito as Japanese-Canadian. “I write to find my cultural identity,” she says.ItoSally_photosByMarlisFunk_0x280 (1)

The memoir is a multi-layered exploration, both in genre (diary excerpts, poems, essay, and storytelling) and in people and places. So rich and complex are the layers, in fact, I longed for a family chart to help me keep names and relationships straight, as well as a glossary of Japanese words! This is a minor critique, however. One can simply sink into the complication that is any personal or family story and observe the way being shapes and shifts. Identity, as her series of essay-like chapters demonstrates, isn’t linear as much as overlapping circles, turning ever deeper into legacy and geography, into past and present meaning.

download (1)Born to a Japanese couple in Alberta and growing up mainly in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Ito’s life and genealogy tugged between Canada and Japan. Some members of her fore-family immigrated to Canada and then returned to Japan, others remained there, yet others moved from their first Canadian home in southern B.C. to an internment camp and then to the flats of southern Alberta. Her story includes the challenges of immigration, race, assimilation, but also the reality of Canada’s insensitivity and injustice to her citizens of Japanese descent at the time of the Second World War.

Her dual loyalties, she says, have led to an interest in translation. Via translation, she shares the writings of her grandfather Toshiro. “He brought into consciousness everything he observed in words,” she comments. His writing was not about identity, for he was Japanese “through and through.” She, however, was “hybrid.” In high school, she began to write. She realizes she was, in this way, beginning to piece out her hybrid identity. “I felt the frisson of the creative energy and clarity words can give to an otherwise unexpressed thought or feeling. I became hooked on writing to find out what it could tell me about myself and the culture I felt I was so much in jeopardy of losing.” Despite growing up in Canada, she was “looking for the motherland.” In 1982, before university, she went to Japan for a year, for in Japan “was embodied the loss of what I felt was missing all these years in my life in Canada.”

Some years later she would return to Japan for a time with her own family. The last chapter of the memoir describes what she admits as perhaps quixotic efforts concerning land in her grandfather Saichi’s name (he immigrated to Canada as a young man), a quest bringing together “a remnant of the fringes of the family tree.” Although this didn’t work out in terms of the land itself, what she gained was “the land of story.”

I found this book fascinating, and recommend it.

‘Mennofasto’ for a new era: Miriam Toews’ Women Talking

Back in 2009, a man whose name I won’t reveal, because he wouldn’t want me to, persuaded me and several other Winnipeg women to respond to what was then coming out in the news, the so-called “ghost rapes” of Mennonite women in a colony in Bolivia. Turns out the rapes were dreadfully real, not ghostly at all; rendered unconscious by anesthetic spray, the women had been raped by men within their own community. The police were eventually called in, and eight men were arrested.¬†I confess that I was reluctant to get involved; in spite of a growing amount of credible reportage, I felt on distant and shaky ground with the context and facts. Nevertheless, my braver friends and I planned and led an evening of prayer and lament for the women, with monies raised going to a women’s shelter in their vicinity. It was our best way of drawing attention, of demonstrating solidarity, even if the victims might never hear of it.

downloadBut I don’t think any of us ever thought it was enough. When I heard, last spring, that Miriam Toews had written a book reacting to these events, I was excited — excited to read her “take” on it since I greatly admire her writing, and excited that her status as an internationally recognized author might bring wider attention — dare I say further prayer, lament, perhaps even solace? — to the women.

Well, the book is out and I’ve read it, and it’s solace alright, but far more than that, it’s a manifesto, born out of vulnerability, complication, and strength, and wonderfully distilled to the essence of what the novel’s women want. A manifesto not only for them, in my opinion, but for women period. In other words, it carries universal heft, even if pointedly specific.

For an example of the specific, and perhaps my favourite laugh of the novel (in spite of pain and anger, there’s a lot of laughter here): after the eight women, who’ve assembled in a hayloft while the colony men are away to the city to post bail for the accused, have rehearsed at some length their options about what to do next, they agree on three things they want. (This happens too far into the book not to be a spoiler, so I’ll be mum on what they are.) One of the women, Ona, seems in reverie about the consensus they’ve reached.

“This is the beginning of a new era, she says. This is our manifesto. (She says “manifesto” in English but with her Mennonite inflection it sounds like “mennofasto.”)

Back-tracking: as far as what the book’s about, it’s what the title implies, mainly women talking. Post the rapes. Since the women are illiterate, teacher August Epp, who’s also in love with Ona, is asked to keep “minutes” of the meetings. The talk is what extended talk can be, revealing of personality, digressive, argumentative, supportive, but there’s urgency here, for the men will soon come back and the women must decide what to do. Theological urgency too, about whether they’re animals (they’ve been treated as such; the spray is an animal anesthetic), about forgiveness, and much more. The novel is mostly talk, yes, but there are turns and surprises, and talk coalesces into action that feels, for the reader, exactly right.

Let me back up some more, to another confession. I found the novel/narrator wooden at first and experienced some of the frustration I’ve felt occasionally with Toews’ Mennonite stories, where bits seem drawn from anywhere in Mennonitentum, a borrowing that makes the group represented seem not entirely consistent to itself. (I remember this same frustration with Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress). It’s a problem of me also being Mennonite, I suppose, too aware of subgroups and nuances and how we imagine the “others.”) So I closed the book some ways in, took a week’s break, lectured myself about this being a novel and not journalism, and began again, suspending disbelief into the fiction of the story — and therefore into the truth of it — and sure enough, it was quite as remarkable as I’d wished it to be. It’s full of layers, teases for a reader’s own digressions within the conversation. Narrator August, for example, whose mother’s name is Monica, who once stole pears, a kind of Saint Augustine? His paean to Ona, “the soul of Molotschna,” her name a version of Anna perhaps, or meaning “graceful” in Hebrew, or are we to think of Blake, or all of the above?

It’s a big story, this narrative towards manifesto, but crazily and specifically Mennonite too — big and unsplintered. As August notes in the discussion of the mennofasto:

“Well, it’s not quite precisely put, Salome says. But it sounds perfect to me.”