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.


News and notes

1. The launch of my book, This Hidden Thing, is about a week and a half away now. I expect that for a short time, at least, the book will have something of a life of its own, so I’ve given it a separate page, above. I’ll probably say something about the launch event here after it happens on May 19, but I’ll park reviews and other stuff related to it there. Already up, the news release Jonathan Dyck of CMU Press put together, the book flyer, and order information. 

2. I’ve agreed to serve on the advisory council for the Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg for the next three years. This is a relatively easy and also pleasurable task, involving free lunch twice a year at the university and listening/responding to a report of what Royden Loewen, as well as students and other professors involved with the Chair are up to. They’re up to a lot, actually, including the planning of two conferences this year, one on Mennonites in Siberia which is taking place in Omsk, Siberia in June, and one in Winnipeg, Oct. 14-16, called “Mennonites, Melancholy and Mental Health: Historical Reflections.” I’m under no obligation to “do press” for the Chair, but some of the papers proposed for the latter (examples: “Madness in my Family’s Journey,” “Duke Ferdinand vs Pilgram Marpeck: Lunatics or Preachers of Care,” “Trauma, War and Soviet Mennonite Women Refugees”) sound so interesting I’m keen to offer advance notice. Further information here.

3. Another event that greatly intrigues me, which unfortunately I not be able to attend as we’ll be away on holidays then, is “Celebrating 150 Years!” This has been organized by Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) for June 5-6 in Winnipeg. I’ve mentioned the 150 year celebrations of the Mennonite Brethren in this blog. This conference recognizes that anniversary, but also the 150-year anniversary of the formation of the General Conference Mennonite Church formed in Iowa in 1860. (This body is now Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.) These two 150-year-old bodies are the  supporting denominational bodies of  CMU — “two compelling stories…brought together in a special way.”

“[I]t is appropriate to reflect on what we have experienced and learned with and from ‘the other’,” states the conference invitation. Presenters of workshops and discussions have been drawn from both bodies and topics include “Exploring Stereotypes,” “Marriage across the MB-GC Divide,” and “Periodicals as Windows.”

Immigrants in Prairie Cities

Canadians know themselves as ethnically diverse, as belonging to a country where multiculturalism is “official.” Although we probably think first of major cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver when we consider where this concept is displayed, the cities of the prairies – Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton – have also shaped “a distinct variation on the Canadian model of cultural diversity,” say the authors of Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth-Century Canada (U of T Press, 2009).

They were relatively smaller, inland cities, and received wave after wave of immigrants, thus requiring “sustained inter-group contact.” They were “a forcing ground” for Canada’s long and ongoing discussions of multiculturalism.

Royden Loewen and Gerald Friesen were professors of mine when I returned to university, about a decade ago now, to do a master’s degree in history. I also sat in on a few meetings of a group of post-doctoral and graduate students whose research would contribute to this volume.

Their book examines the ethnic networks or “webs” that immigrant communities developed in their new environments, and the activity in the “boundary zones” where established residents encountered immigrants. It also pulls into the mix the largest single group of “foreign” newcomers to the city – those second and third generation Canadian immigrants who were part of a great mid-century migration from the prairie countryside into the city.

If there’s one overarching impression Loewen and Friesen leave, it’s how rich and complex the whole process of immigration has been in prairie society. Immigrants faced huge challenges within, and sometimes against, established groups and structures. But they seemed endlessly inventive in negotiating identity and well-being in their new country. Religion and family were very important, though there was also conflict in these spheres as generational and gender expectations shifted.

The “old” Canadians changed too, of course, sometimes intentionally, sometimes reluctantly. (Loewen and Friesen take on the Canadian myth that we’re not a racist country. It’s exactly that: a myth.)

I’ll leave the scholarly assessments to other historians and just say that I enjoyed this book. I’ve lived in three prairie cities and am the granddaughter of immigrants to the prairies, so it felt more than theoretical to me at many points. I think it would be of interest, and useful too, to anyone who finds themselves in situations of ethnic diversity – in boundary zones, as it were – wherever it might be in Canada, but especially in one of the prairie cities. Knowledge of the past goes a long way to explaining the present and, in demonstrating how “old” and “new” have interacted, also suggests correctives and hope for the future.

My only critique would be of the cover. The painting, “Saturday Night,” is lovely but there’s an elevator in the background and to me the scene has the feel of a small town rather than a city.