Personal Narratives of Place and Displacement: Day Three

I’m not as tired this evening as last. I’m buoyed, in fact, with the energy that the end of a conference often carries–the goodbyes, the summing-up words, the realization that 38 presentations have gone by and wow! they were rich individually and as a collective and we’ll all be carrying fragments of the event home with us, like the baskets of leftovers gathered in the Gospel feeding-of-the-multitudes stories after everyone was fed, for our ongoing nourishment into further endeavours of writing or reading or scholarship or just plain living.

Today was “Keynote” day. Julie Rak of the University of Alberta was invited to the conference as an “outside” academic known for her work on the Doukhobors and on memoir and such forms, someone who could bring critique and ideas from her areas of interest into the themes of our conference. She’s been attending the sessions, listening, and today she had her word: “CanLit, Genre, and Cruel Optimism”. She interrogated the concepts of Canadian and Literature in the CanLit project, especially as represented in the recent book by Nick Mount, Arrival. It’s safe to say that she’s definitely not impressed with Mount’s book and its narrow idea, both in terms of historical time and genre; she sees CanLit as an example of “cruel optimism” (as defined by Lauren Berlant, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”) She also told us about recent events surrounding the UBC firing of Steven Galloway, in which a cohort of CanLit heavyweights protested on his behalf and another group–Rak and indigenous writers and others–put their writing futures on the line to counter-protest on behalf of the victims, the whole thing a “situation” with the potential to break open current notions about literature, nation, etc. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to have a good audience discussion of Julie’s paper, especially in fertilizing its critique into what we’ve been doing at the conference, but let me suggest what I’m taking from it for us: don’t get too settled into MennoLit origin stories, reach backwards and sideways to see writing and forms of creative production before or alongside the “classic” texts, and embrace widely in the current moment. (In Mount’s system, “genre does the work of exclusion.”) Attendees who read this may have other ideas what the “lesson” is!

And then this evening: keynote, keynote! In the persons of Miriam Toews and Rhoda Janzen on the stage together, each reading so wonderfully from their books (Irma Voth and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress) and since both use humour–“as a tool” (Janzen) and because it’s “entwined with sorrow…some members of my family suffered so much it became my job to make people laugh” (Toews)– the evening had laughter and great joyfulness about it.

But no singing. Not this evening. We sang this afternoon. The only literature conference of many he’s attended, Rob Zacharias said, where participants sang, and that in four-part harmony. The way it happened was this: Elsie Neufeld told the moving story of her mother’s life of displacement, first physically through a long trek out of Ukraine during the Second World War and on to refugee settlement in Canada, and painful displacement from communion in the MB church because Suse and her husband had not been baptized by immersion, through further losses and her current Lebensmuede (life weariness), and at the end of this account, Elsie asked if we could sing the Doxology, which we did, 4 parts for sure, and later, in the discussion, Elsie noted that she can’t “fix” anything about her mother’s life but she can bear witness, she can tell her story, and now I think, perhaps singing together after a difficult story is a kind of communal bearing witness too.

Stories. That’s what stands out to me from today. Jeff Gundy’s journey into poetry via his generation’s singers and poets. A young boy Henry carried off to Saskatchewan and only learning at 16 that he’s not actually the son of the family, this within Larry Warkentin’s paper on peasant-poet Peter Gunther. The life of Hans Kroeker, “imperfect” in many ways, told by his grandson John D. Thiesen (“I carry his hard life around with me.”). Daniel Shank Cruz on Wes Funk with his strong “prophetic” call (via two encounters Cruz calls “ghosts”) to be a voice for the experience of exile as a gay man, the call embuing him with a sense of purpose and insistence that the gay life should be visible. Myron Penner telling us about a theatre project that brought (and is bringing) the voices of refugees to audiences in a powerful way. And Dorothy Peters setting the Genesis story of Judah and Tamar (Dorothy is a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls) next to the stories of her two grandmothers, and her saying she wishes the Mennonite meta-narrative could have given the grandmother who witnessed the horrors of her sister’s rape and father’s death “space” like Genesis gives the Judah/Tamar story space–oh I loved this weaving in!

And Margaret Steffler reminded, in Rudy Wiebe and Miriam Toews, of mourning as a narrative act, and Di Brandt passionately urged wider practices in Mennonite writing. And then there was the barn. I was a town girl growing up, neither born in a barn or often inside one, but how I enjoyed David Elias taking us today into the barns of his past–the barn of his childhood “almost like entering a church…in the barn I felt free”. But the barn then altered, factory-like to house 30,000 turkeys–“I walked through and felt exactly nothing.” And then moved to another area of the province and rebuilt. But this upheaval of barn and David’s life was catalyst: “displacement,” as Ann Hostetler had reminded us earlier in the conference, “as necessary for art.”

From here on out, I will look at barns with a kind of fondness, I think, and maybe the sight will take me “over the threshold” into places of my own “memory and musing.”

And that’s a wrap. Goodnight.




Worscht en Rhubuaba

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). Continue reading

Why add to a tsunami of words?

Last evening, we attended a reading at McNally Robinson Booksellers. It was the launch of Home Place 3, a Prairie Fire publication featuring Manitoba writers living outside Winnipeg. We enjoyed hearing samples of work, quite varied, including lovely “wilderness” poems by my friend Fran Bennett, poems by J.L. Bond whose work also appeared in the MB Herald some years ago and by well-known poet/professor Di Brandt; fiction by accomplished short story writer Lois Braun and by Paul Krahn, who once taught our sons at MBCI (his was a delightful excerpt about shopping at an MCC Thrift Store); and much more.

All well and good it was indeed, but there’s something about being at McNally’s, that amazing emporium of words, that pulls me two ways. As a reader, it’s heaven — I mean of the kid-in-the-candy-store variety: all this, available for me? As a writer, it’s overwhelming too but with a little anxiety to boot. So many hundreds of books seeking readers, mine on a shelf among them, one voice in a massive chorus of them all bleating, “pick me, pick me!”

In the latter frame of mind (I imagine the question hits most writers some days: why am I doing this, why do I persist?), I found two of the pieces posted at today’s Arts and Letters Daily encouraging. Alix Christie asks why, in light of the odds, in the midst of “this tsunami of freshly published words,” anyone would bother writing a novel. She sets the angst up well, quotes Mario Vargas Llosa that “fiction is an art of societies in which faith is undergoing some sort of crisis,” suggests it’s about courage, “an act of faith.” She provides something of a pep talk.

Then, an interview with South African writer Nadine Gordimer offers additional reasons to write. “For me, all writing is a process of discovery… the process of what it means to be a human being.” She makes a helpful distinction when she says it wasn’t the “problems” of her country that set her to writing (such writing would be propaganda) but rather, “it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface” of South African life. Great image that, and true: writing can send one “falling, falling” through the surface of things.

Last night, surrounded by books, we heard from established and beginning writers. Many of them will persist, as I will, in spite of the odds. I don’t generally like to talk about the discouragements of those odds. (Everyone, after all, no matter what they work at, has their challenges, and if there’s grousing to be done, it’s best done with colleagues in the same business. Enough to admit one has such moments.) Today I’m grateful for these two pieces of writing at Arts and Letters, for yesterday’s showcase of writers, and for the readers each of us finds for the words we add to the flood.