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!


Songs for the Chaco

The Chaco of Paraguay is one of those places that cries out to be captured — described — appropriated somehow. Its climate and landscape are often inhospitable, yet there’s a compelling beauty about it too. Blood and sorrow run over it — from the awful Chaco War (between Paraguay and Bolivia) through the suffering and difficulties of Mennonites from both Canada and Russia trying to settle and survive it. A complex and fascinating mix of people have gathered to live in it, side by side, from various indigenous groups to German-speaking Mennonites to Latinos. 

There have been any number of fine attempts to reveal the soul of this place and its people through non-fiction, one of the most recent in English being Garden in the Wilderness by Edgar Stoesz and Muriel T. Stackley, and a classic in German being Immer Kreisen die Geier by Peter Klassen.

But the Chaco more than anything else, it seems to me, needs fiction and poetry and paintings and film and music — the kind of creative endeavours that tell its truth, but tell it “slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it. Here too, there have been various artists at work, including the afore-mentioned Peter Klassen, a resident of the Chaco, beginning with his stories in Kampbrand. For English audiences, there’s Rudy Wiebe’s stories in The Blue Mountains of China. I gave it a go with one woman’s story in Under the Still Standing Sun. Dave Dueck and Otto Klassen have done storytelling in film.

Locally, literature and the arts are beginning to flourish — something that is often possible once the heaviest problems of pioneering have finally been solved. So the above is no comprehensive list by any means, but it does bring me to “Paraguay Primeval,” a collection of 11 musical compositions by Carol Ann Weaver, soundscapes, photos, and readings, which premiered at Conrad Grebel College last Wednesday, March 4. 

My husband and I arranged a visit to our son and daughter-in-law in Toronto around the date of this premiere. H. grew up in the Chaco, lived there until 19, and I came to know it through him and his family who are still there.

I’m afraid I don’t have the musical vocabulary to describe what Carol Ann Weaver (below) does with her impressions of the Chaco, gleaned through her visit there after the Mennonite World Conference in Asuncion last summer, and with the texts she discovered through her reading afterwards, except to say that we both found ourselves deeply moved by the work of this talented and energetic composer.

Weaver tells stories, yes, but because melody and rhythm, and the sound of voice and instruments, carry the words. Thus one perceives the narrative and emotion directly and quite intensely. You feel “magnificent the Chaco sky” and 

strange beauty in this Chaco land
strange beauty in this promised land 

The songs tell of coming from Russia by ship, by riverboat up to Puerto Casado, by train past swamps and into the dense bush and open campos of the Chaco. Of well water “hardly drinkable” because of the heat. Of the death of an entire family from typhoid fever. Of the village settled by women who lost their husbands in Russia. Of the contrast between the indigenous Lengua women who walk like “stallions in spring” and the Mennonite women who cast their eyes to the ground. Of the beauty of springtime and nighttime.

There’s even a tango, called, fairly enough,  “Tango — If They’d Have Tangoed.”

One of my favourites was “Chaco Christmas” which sings of the heat and dust of December in the Chaco, and then breaks into “Leise Reiselt der Schnee” (Softly Falls the Snow), to the accompaniment of the harp. This was a Christmas song the Russian Mennonites brought with them. For those who’d known snow, homesickness wound through the words, no doubt; for their children who had never seen snow except on pictures, there was mystery.

“Paraguay Primeval” was performed to a more-than-full-house at the Conrad Grebel College chapel. Composer Weaver was at the piano, Rebecca Campbell did the majority of the vocals, and Paul Dueck, Chris Snow, Kyle Skillman, and Ben Bolt-Martin accompanied with harp, percussion, and cello. (Here’s a KW Record report of the event.)

I don’t think that anything quite like this has been done to bring the story of the Chaco to English audiences, and I can only hope that it will land on a CD so that many others besides the March 4 audience can hear it. 

Paraguay Primeval

Just a heads up — especially for readers who may live in the Kitchener/Waterloo area of Ontario — about the premiere next week of a new multi-media piece, “Paraguay Primeval,” with music by Carol Ann Weaver, text by various Paraguay writers, including yours truly, at Conrad Grebel Chapel/University of Waterloo. It’s a noon-hour concert, March 3. More information in Events. H. and I hope to attend; we’re combining it with a visit to our children in Toronto, and looking forward to both!