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2016, vol. 70

Review: After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America

by Brad S. Born

Brad S. Born is professor of English at Bethel College.

Robert Zacharias, editor. After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

In this collection, Robert Zacharias gathers together 12 essays that enact the ambivalence of the book’s title, which simultaneously asserts (before the colon) that it’s time we moved beyond religious/ethnic identity politics in literature, and (after the colon) that there is still such a thing as “Mennonite” writing. Should one still make claims for an essential “Mennonite” ethnoreligious identity in literature? As Zacharias acknowledges in his introduction, ambivalence over such a claim has been present in the very title of the series of seven “Mennonite/s Writing” scholarly conferences that have been staged in Canada and the United States, beginning in 1990. So is there such a thing as “Mennonite” literature, writing characterized by a singular, stable, ethnoreligious identity, which merits definition and continuing preoccupation? Or is this all a looser construct, writing by persons who somehow might be identified (or self-identify) as Mennonites, but whose identities are multiple and changing?

Following the sixth “Mennonite/s Writing” conference held at Eastern Mennonite University in 2012, Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Zacharias collaborated to host a four-day symposium at Pennsylvania State University (Kasdorf’s academic home), to which they invited 10 additional writers (Royden Loewen, Ervin Beck, Paul Tiessen, Ann Hostetler, Di Brandt, Daniel Shank Cruz, Jeff Gundy, Jesse Nathan, Magdalene Redekop, and Hildi Froese Tiessen), thus forming the group of 12 who contributed essays. The result of their collaboration, in Zacharias’ words, “aim[s] to interrogate what is at stake in – and potentially to initiate a move beyond – the field’s ongoing preoccupation with Mennonite identity itself” (1).

Zacharias’ introduction frames the collection well, providing a helpful review of the “identity” theme as it has played out in Canadian and American settings, and explaining why we might now be in a post-identity age. He traces important moves in the broader literary world (e.g., in multicultural and post-colonial studies), and also reviews some of the key, earlier thinkers (e.g., John L. Ruth and Al Reimer) on the narrower Mennonite question.

As one might expect from essays that began their life as presentations for a Mennonite/s Writing conference, not all of the ones in this volume aim principally to “interrogate” or “move beyond” a preoccupation with Mennonite identity. Several instead offer particular readings or interpretations of works deemed “Mennonite.” Ervin Beck’s “Mennonite Transgressive Literature” looks at seven Mennonite texts (ranging from a 1936 novel by Gordon Friesen to a 2009 memoir by Rhoda Janzen) considered to be “transgressive” by “lay” or nonprofessional Mennonite readers. The wisdom rendered by these “folk” readers, Beck asserts, should merit more attention. Another example of an essay that presumes, more than interrogates, Mennonite identity is Ann Hostetler’s “Gender, Voice and an Ethic of Care in the Work of Di Brandt and Julia Spicher Kasdorf.” Hostetler is certainly well-versed in the larger theoretical issues regarding identity, but her primary goal here is to offer insights into the achievement of these two writers – not to engage the larger post-identity question. Similarly, Jesse Nathan in “Question, Answer” provides a close reading of numerous poets (Dallas Wiebe, Jeff Gundy, Keith Ratzlaff, Ann Hostetler, Jean Janzen), finding in their writing a particular “question-answer form” that one might call a “Mennonite inflection or accent” (190). Daniel Shank Cruz’s essay “Queering Mennonite Literature” would appear to reimagine Mennonite identity radically, and it does just that. But in making that argument, it too must assume a Mennonite identity with a heteronormative center, even as it seeks to erase (or at least ease) the border patrol at its boundaries.

Other essays in this volume do interrogate, or at least complicate more explicitly, the concept of “Mennonite literature.” Julia Spicher Kasdorf provides a strong lead piece in her playful challenge of the “The Autoethnographic Announcement” present in numerous works deemed Mennonite. Even as she argues that no “individual imagination can represent an entire community or race” (33), she tags these autoethonographic markers as declarations of identity, as if the writer is announcing: “’I’m it, we’re it, you’re not it, but here it is: the real story about who we are!’” (25).

Paul Thiessen’s essay on the publication history of that granddaddy of all “Mennonite novels,” Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, reveals in concrete detail how this ur-text of Mennonite literature was in fact the product of “multiple, including particularly ‘non-Mennonite’ hands” (70). So Thiessen invites us to regard “Mennonite” writers as “hybrid creatures” in whose works “complementary and contradictory” forces are at work, revealing the “Mennonite writer” as always a “non-Mennonite writer” too (71).

Di Brandt advances that theme of hybridity more broadly in “In Praise of Hybridity.” In her opening paragraphs, she reflects on her own multiple, occasional identities (Canadian, Daoist, Beat mystic, etc.) and suggests that embracing postmodern hybridity need not erase Mennonite identities. Such multiple, hybrid identities are present in the very cuisine we elevate as Mennonite, Brandt reminds us: Ukrainian borscht, zweibach from the Netherlands, Polish pluma moos and plautz, German sauerkraut.

Jeff Gundy offers the only essay in this volume to reflect on his own process and aspirations as a creative writer in order to address the “After Identity” question. And while his professed impatience with such theoretical questions is in part the poet’s pose, I found his essay the most compelling of the collection. It enacts one of Gundy’s own pronouncements, that “It’s the writing that matters” (167). He writes: “Mostly, as I have suggested, I am quite content these days to leave discussions about Mennonite identity, before or after, to those with a different sort of patience than I have. In some moods, I enjoy wrangling over such questions, and I am happy enough to be ‘a Mennonite’ if the alternative is ‘an American’ or ‘a white man,’ troubled as those identifiers are. But at least according to my willful yearnings, I would claim first to be a poet, and so my first calling is to bring new and beautiful things made of words into the world” (163).

Fittingly, as the editor of this volume, Zacharias also contributes the meta-critical commentary on the collection. In his clever and insightful essay, Zacharias demonstrates how these writers individually and collectively are doing “the Mennonite Thing,” evoking an essentialized ethnic identity even as they question it. Rather than agonize over this ambiguity, Zacharias embraces it, offering both theoretical and commonsensical rationale for such response. Much as the title of the book enacts that ambiguity, so too does the book’s cover image, of a painting that “can be viewed as either coming into focus or expanding into pieces” (Zacharias, viii). So be it. For readers interested in the Mennonite thing, all of the pieces of this collection are well worth viewing.