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!