The Fifth International Mennonite/s Writing Conference/Festival (see poster here)

Di Brandt Rudy Wiebe Pat Friesen (Vancouver), Rudy Wiebe (Edmonton) and Ann Hostetler (Goshen)

Mennonite/s Writing

Mennonite/s Writing:
Manitoba and Beyond

October 1-4, 2009

University of Winnipeg
Convocation Hall

Royden Loewen Chair in Mennonite Studies, University of Winnipeg
Hildi Froese Tiessen, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo

Host: Royden Loewen Chair in Mennonite Studies
Email: r.loewen@uwinnipeg  204-786-9391


Mennonite/s Writing: Manitoba and Beyond, the fifth international conference on Mennonite/s Writing since 1990, features scholarly papers on the work of individual Mennonite writers, on Mennonite writers inscription of Winnipeg or Manitoba landscapes, and on other subjects related to Mennonite/s writing. Writers who have grown up within the Mennonite communities of Manitoba and/or have worked in Winnipeg have made a huge contribution to Canadian literature over the course of the last half century. Many have been honoured with national literary awards. Their work is read around the world. This conference celebrates their work and the work of other Mennonite/s writing across North America.


Thursday, October 1

7.30 pm

Di Brandt, David Elias, David Waltner-Toews, Armin Wiebe

Friday, October 2

9-10.30 am

SCHOLARS PANEL 1: Mennonite Writers and Readers Here and There, Then and Now


Paul Tiessen, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo ON
“Winnipeg, a borderline case in fiction by Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, Miriam Toews, and David Waltner-Toews”


Martin Kuester, University of Marburg, Germany
“From Personal Anecdote to Literary Theory: An Outsider’s View of Canadian Mennonite Writing”


James Urry, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
“Mennonite Readers, Reading and Libraries: Reconstructing the Book World of Russlaender Immigrants”


Coffee Break

11-12.30 pm

SCHOLARS PANEL 2: Love, Martyrdom and Diaspora in Mennonite/s Writing


Edna Froese, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK
“Love’s Knowledge: Beyond Violence in Elias’s Waiting for Elvis and Bergen’s The Retreat


Noon Park, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON
“Rebirth through Derision: Satire and the Orthodox-Anabaptist Discourse of Martyrdom in Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness


Natasha Wiebe, Univ. of Western Ontario, London, ON
“Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness: Restorying the Russian Mennonite Diaspora”




READINGS: Writers Beyond Manitoba
(Andreas Schroeder, Connie Braun, Elsie Neufeld, Ann Hostetler and others)


Coffee Break






David Bergen, Patrick Friesen, Sarah Klassen, Rudy Wiebe



Saturday, October 3

9-10.30 am

SCHOLARS PANEL 3: Personal and Community Narrative in Mennonite/s Writing


Ann Hostetler, Goshen College, Goshen, IN, USA
“A Valediction Forbidding Excommunication: Ecopoetics and the Reclamation of Community in the Recent Work of Di Brandt”


Mary Ann Loewen, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON
“Compelling Contradictions within a Reconstructed Life: A Study of Personal Narrative Theory”


Doug Heidebrecht, Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, MB
“Katie Funk Wiebe Tells Her Story: A Personal and Communal Narrative History”


Coffee Break


SCHOLARS PANELS 4: Prairie Crossings and the Resonances of History


Tanis MacDonald, Wilfrid Laurier Univ., Waterloo, ON
“Hunger, History, and the ‘Shape of Awkward Questions’: Sarah Klassen’s Simone Weil


Connie Braun, Trinity Western University, Langley, BC
“Whispers of Truth: Sarah Klassen’s Poetics of Witness and Affirmation”


Magdalene Redekop, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
“St Mary at Main, the Forks, and other Prairie Crossings”




READINGS: Manitoba Writers (Maurice Mierau,  Al Reimer, John Weier and others)


Coffee Break





Sunday, October 4

culminating in FAREWELLS at The Forks

(see itinerary below)

Other Conference Details

of Literary Mennonite Southern Manitoba

(featuring visits to literary sites and author readings)

Tour Guides: Royden Loewen, John J. Friesen and others

Leave University of Winnipeg and travel north, past Artspace, downtown, which houses Turnstone Press and Prairie Fire magazine. (Turnstone Press supported the work of Patrick Friesen, Miriam Toews, David Bergen, Di Brandt, David Waltner-Toews, Sarah Klassen, Sandra Birdsell, Armin Wiebe, Lois Braun, Audrey Poetker, Victor Enns and others by publishing their first significant work.)


Conference participants who would like to reserve a spot on the “Literary Bus Tour” should indicate their interest/reserve a seat by sending a cheque for $50., made out to the Chair in Mennonite Studies, University of Winnipeg.

Please send the cheque to Royden Loewen, Chair in Mennonite Studies, 515 Portage Avenue, Winnipeg, MB R3B 2E9.

Spaces are limited, and will be offered on a first come, first served basis.


“This land that I love, this wide, wide prairie, this horizon, this sky, this great blue overhead, big enough to contain every dream, every longing.” – Di Brandt

“Lesser’s an ugly little place with a sickness at its core, it’s full of death and gossip and churches.” – David Bergen

”People come to East Village from all over the world for a first-hand look at simple living.” – Miriam Toews

“this isn’t home / it’s a city I’ve come to / without expectations / on my way home.” – Patrick Friesen

“Place is character. Place is something that shapes you and your understanding of yourself . . .” – Rudy Wiebe



“Winnipeg, a borderline case in fiction by Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, Miriam Toews, Armin Wiebe, and David Waltner-Toews”

Paul Tiessen, Wilfrid Laurier University

This paper, while alluding to various “Mennonite” writers’ treatments of “Winnipeg” and glancingly referring to “Winnipeg” in the lives of various “Mennonite” writers, will focus on the meanings and roles of Winnipeg in Rudy Wiebe’s First and Vital Candle (1962), Sandra Birdsell’s Children of the Day (2005), Armin Wiebe’s The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, David Waltner-Toews’s Fear of Landing (2007), and fiction by Miriam Toews. Although “Winnipeg” serves each writer in quite different ways, in each case it vividly expands upon and speaks to the subjectivities of their respective protagonists.

The paper acknowledges that “Winnipeg” carries distinctive and multiple, but often quite different, meanings for different Mennonites writers in Canada. It takes on a fluid range of significances for different writers, often within a single work. For some, given its prominent institutional significance among Mennonites, its notable historic identity, and the strong presence of Mennonites in its general population, Winnipeg represents the dynamic – and symbolic – centre of Canadian Mennonitism itself, whether as place of solace and strength, or of threat and false liberation. For others, to observe a seeming contradiction, it represents a secular option, a place of refuge (or, on the other hand, of danger) that stands apart from other centres of sectarian Mennonite ethos. In some works, to be sure, Winnipeg contains its own opposites – religious and secular, ethnic and mainstream, homeland and place of exile – or variations that lie somewhere between.

Exploring the varying borderlines and frontiers and spaces that different writers find in Winnipeg, and investigating Winnipeg as a spatial and/or psychic environment that (along lines proposed by McLuhan) transforms those environments that their protagonists or other characters embody or carry with them from a prior existence, this paper sheds light on Mennonite/s writing about Winnipeg, a particular space and place (and, to be sure, a space attached to different periods of time).

Paul Tiessen teaches English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He is co-author of Woldemar Neufeld’s Canada: A Mennonite Artist in the Canadian Landscape 1928-1994 (Wilfrid Laurier UP, forthcoming 2009), co-editor for the press of Dallas Wiebe’s Monument: Poems on Aging and Dying (Sand Hills, 2008), and co-editor of L.M. Montgomery’s 1916-41 letters to Mennonite writer Ephraim Weber, After Green Gables (U of Toronto Press, 2006), all with Hildi Froese Tiessen. He is co-editor (with Anne Eby Millar) of ‘Of course I was only an onlooker for I can’t dance’: The 1911-1919 diary of Gordon Christian Eby, Mennonite farmer (MLR Editions Canada, 2007) and he is author of many articles on Mennonite writers and other artists. He is writing a book on modernism and the cinema of Malcolm Lowry.

“From Personal Anecdote to Literary Theory: An Outsider’s View of Canadian Mennonite Writing”

Martin Kuester, University of Marburg

In this paper, I will start out by having a personal look, from a non-Mennonite but German-speaking point of view – at writing by Mennonite authors from Canada, several of whom I first met when I was a graduate student at the University of Manitoba and many of whom I later came to teach and/or host at German universities or at public readings in Germany. A fascinating relationship has developed between these writers – who represent a group that emigrated from Europe to North America and who now are rediscovered by Europe and return there as authors, students or teachers – and their German readership consisting of both fellow Mennonites and scholars and students of postcolonial literature in English, but also of a general readership. The first and special fascination of Mennonite writers for a German audience may lie in their use of Low German or Plautdietsch in their writing, but this alone will probably not account for the success of books such as Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness in Germany.

I will then try to integrate my interpretation of Canadian Mennonite writing into a theoretical framework of postcolonial and multicultural writing. In order to do that, I will try to test the validity of recent literary theories of transdifference that were developed by mostly German scholars. According to Helmbrecht Breinig and Klaus Lösch, this forbidding term "denotes all that which resists the construction of meaning based on an exclusionary and conclusional binary model. (...) Thus the concept of transdifference interrogates the validity of binary constructions of difference without completely deconstructing them. This means that difference is simultaneously bracketed and yet retained as a point of difference."

Martin Kuester is professor of English literature at the University of Marburg in Germany and director of the Marburg Centre for Canadian Studies as well as vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies in German-speaking Countries. He holds an MA from the University of Trier, Germany, a PhD from the University of Manitoba and a postdoctoral degree from the University of Augsburg. He has published and/or edited ten books and many essays on Canadian and English literature, among them Framing Truths (U of Toronto P, 1992) and Milton’s Prudent Ambiguities (U of America P, 2009). His “Mennonite” publications include "Shibboleth or Trademark? Code Switching and Mixed Language in Contemporary Canadian Mennonite Writing," Ahornblätter 16 (2003): 47-59, and "'A Complicated Kindness': Der Beitrag mennonitischer Autor(inn)en zur kanadischen Literatur," forthcoming in Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 2009, as well as two more essays on Mennonite women’s writing.

“Mennonite Readers, Reading and Libraries: Reconstructing the Book World of Russlaender Immigrants”

James Urry, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Mennonites have always been a literate people. In late Imperial Russia, mainly due to higher education, reading extended beyond the established religious books of the Mennonite tradition to include both sacred and secular material from beyond the Mennonite world. The refugee immigrants to Canada in the 1920s and 30s were eager to source reading material and some congregations, assisted by central Mennonite agencies, established libraries to meet this demand. But what books made up these collections? Were they all read? And what was the fate of these libraries?

James Urry is Reader in Anthropology at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He is the author of a number of books and papers on Mennonite life in Russia and Canada the latest of which is Mennonites, Politics and Peoplehood (Manitoba University Press, 2006). He is currently writing an account of a Mennonite rural community in southeastern Manitoba resettled by refugee immigrants from the Soviet Union in the 1920s after the majority of its earlier Mennonite population emigrated to Paraguay.


“Love’s Knowledge: Beyond Violence in Elias’s Waiting for Elvis and Bergen’s The Retreat

Edna Froese, University of Saskatchewan

My work in this paper will follow what has become a fairly consistent approach for me. Whenever I approach a novel, I am interested in what it can show me about life, in what it has to say in answer to the question “how should one live?” Like Martha Nussbaum, from whom I have taken both the title of this paper and the expression of that troubling ethical question, I grew up with books as my “best friends,” “reading with love, and thinking about many questions” (Love’s Knowledge 11). Moral issues are my usual starting point

In these two new Mennonite novels, the treatment of violence—and love (or sex)—is at the forefront, although Bergen and Elias raise different questions concerning the ways that love responds to violence. Elias’s work has always included strains of astonishing cruelty in appalling places, but also an offer of hope through love, however obliquely presented. The violence in Bergen’s work is more muted, often self-inflicted, even more often masked as helplessness in the face of the inevitable. The function of willed action, particularly the kind of loving, perceptive attention that Nussbaum describes, is going to be my focus.

My starting point will be the work of Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge and Alan Jacobs’ in A Theology of Reading: the Hermeneutics of Love. Jacobs emphasizes the necessity of surrendering oneself to the text, beginning as a willing and loving neighbor to the text, a useful initial position in relation to novels that horrify with their depictions of violent families and violent communities. Nussbaum is more concerned with what knowledge characters gain through their love to other characters. In the chapter probably of greatest importance to me – “’Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination” –, Nussbaum speaks of the necessity of “moral attention and insight,” not only in novelists but in readers, and the intricate relationship between perceptions and rules (148-149). It seems to me that the latter problem—the dialogue between perceptions and rules—is of particular interest to Mennonite readers. While Nussbaum’s discussion of theoretical connections between moral philosophy and literature is important, I will have time only to follow her example of careful reading of a few scenes to see how characters discover and offer love in violent situations.

Edna A. Froese is a sessional lecturer at St. Thomas More College, affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan. Her PhD was earned in Canadian literature with a special interest in Canadian Mennonite fiction. Most of her publications to date have focused on Mennonite writers (e.g. Rudy Wiebe, David Elias, David Bergen) but her broader interest concerns the intersection of fiction and theology. She has also given considerable teaching energy to grammar, hoping that thereby students may learn to write more simply and clearly.

“Rebirth through Derision: Satire and the Orthodox-Anabaptist Discourse of Martyrdom in Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness

Noon Park, Queen’s University

Amidst the heightened sectarian violence of 16th century Europe, Christians tried and executed for heresy numbered approximately 5000, of which roughly 2000-2500 were Anabaptists. Arnold Snyder argues that this traumatic history, memorialized in discourse, literature and oral traditions still central to Amish, Hutterite, Mennonite cultures, gave Anabaptism a forceful “martyrological sensibility” that requires all aspects of life to confirm, metaphorically or literally, to martyrdom’s sequence of faith-motivated suffering, bleeding and dying (159-161).

Set in East Village, a Manitoban Mennonite town steeped in orthodox martyr-aesthetic, Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness is told through the first-person voice of the sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickels, which synchronously registers the pain of living within, and the pleasure of deriding an order in which “the only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime” (ACK 4). Surfacial readings place ACK within satire’s classic functions of ridicule, condemnation, and rejection. This understanding of the rhetorical mode, upheld by John Dryden, Northrop Frye, Robert Elliott and Ronald Paulson, place satiric texts in uncompromising moral opposition against their target (Griffin 1-3). However, established notions of satire fail to accommodate Paul Tiessen’s reading of ACK as an ambiguous performance, which “simultaneously condemns and redeems [orthodoxy]” and concludes with a conservative desire for “an ideal and elusive fantasy… a visit home” (146).

Borrowing from emergent satire theories of Dustin Griffin and Frank Vogel, I will argue that satire, rather than operating in essentialist rejection, may unfold dialectically, leading to selective endorsement and reinventions of its target. In Toews’ text, blood surfaces haphazardly in the slaughter of chickens, menstruation, Christ’s Passion and apostolic sacrifice, while water links the Christian baptism to two cases of suicide-by-drowning. These travesties of juxtaposition, while derogating the martyr-aesthetic, reconstruct a mythopoetic structure of blood, water and principled sacrifice, which also informs Nomi’s heterodox narrative of her parent’s martyrdom for familial love. Paradoxically, through the transformative power of satire, orthodox discourses of martyrdom come to empower and define emerging heterodoxies.

Noon Park completed his undergraduate and Master’s degrees at the University of Toronto, and is presently in his first year of English Ph.D. studies at Queen’s University. His established interests include satire theory, Christianities in literature, 20th century Canadian fiction, and the poetry and prose of the long 18th century. Mennonite literature and criticism, though entirely a new field for him,promise to give ample knowledge and critical insight for his projected thesis, which interrogates the impact of literary satire on Christian orthodoxies in modern Canadian fiction. Indeed, the ambivalent relationship between martyrdom and satire in Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness - the subject of the present paper - was the thematic and critical catalyst for his planned dissertation.

“Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness: Restorying the Russian Mennonite Diaspora”

Natasha Wiebe, University of Western Ontario

Miriam Toews’ acclaimed novel A Complicated Kindness revisits a storyline familiar to readers of Canadian Mennonite fiction -- that of “The Flight of Our People” or Mennonite escape to Canada during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Toews’ narrator, the tragicomic Nomi Nickel, adapts this story of Mennonite diaspora to explore two migrations that are more meaningful: her hometown’s belief that the good Mennonite will eventually “fly away” to heaven, and the flight of her family from the oppressive religious fundamentalism of their town. Nomi eventually declares a new, secular religion, one that replaces faith in heaven with hope of family reunion. Her restorying (Creswell, 2007) of the Mennonite diaspora supports some assumptions underlying interdisciplinary narrative inquiry: that the stories we tell about our lives are drawn from culturally-available models (Bruner, 2003, 2004), and that as our culture changes, so do the stories we tell.

Natasha G. Wiebe is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education at The University of Western Ontario, London. Her doctoral research investigates Mennonite storylines that are represented in, and challenged by, the writing of Di Brandt and Miriam Toews. Natasha’s publications include interviews with Brandt and Toews, a chapter on Brandt’s collected Mennonite writings in German Diasporic Experiences (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008), and an article in Forum: Qualitative Social Research (2008) about how she uses her own “mennocostal” poetry in her narrative research.


“A Valediction Forbidding Excommunication: Ecopoetics and the Reclamation of Community in the Recent Work of Di Brandt”

Ann Hostetler, Goshen College, Indiana USA

This presentation will examine the bold ecological claims of Di Brandt’s latest book of poetry, Now You Care (2003), and her recent essay collection, So This is the World and Here I am in It (2007). In these works, I will argue, Brandt invokes the peasant roots of Mennonite rural lifestyle and a theology of peacemaking to reclaim her heritage and to articulate a new-found place within it. At the same time, Brandt uses the language of ecopoetics to preach a revival sermon about the ethics of land use to a community whose relationship to the land has become tainted by the sin of chemical farming, echoing its treatment of dissidents. "You can't go home again," wrote Thomas Wolfe, but in fact the mature work of Di Brandt offers a way home to the Mennonite prairie community she left—and which later shunned her--through the framework and language of ecopoetics. This literary homecoming in her work was enriched by a semester in Berlin, Germany and a foray into German translation that Brandt undertook between the writing of these two books. Thus a return to the city, and the land of the “mother language,” fueled her re-envisioning of the prairies, and led to her re-location in the Manitoba prairies new the transplanted German-speaking Mennonite community of her origin. Although Brandt's early work participated in the narrative of rupture from an oppressive patriarchal language in order to claim an individual feminist voice, I will show how her later work effects a reconciliation with community through an ethic of care for the land in a vision that purifies it both from oppressive patriarchy and theological chauvinism.

Ann Hostetler is Professor of English at Goshen College. She is the author of Empty Room with Light, a poetry collection that was a finalist for the Arlin G. Meyer Award in 2005. She is also editor of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry. Her scholarly essays and reviews have appeared in PMLA, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, The African American National Biography, The Mennonite Quarterly Review, The Journal of Mennonite Studies, and Conrad Grebel Review. Her interview with Toni Morrison, “The Art of Teaching,” was published in Toni Morrison: Conversations. Currently Dr. Hostetler is the web editor for the Center for Mennonite Writing on the web at She was on the planning committee for the 2002 and 2006 Mennonite/s Writing conferences. During the 2009-2010 year she will be a visiting professor at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

“Compelling Contradictions within a Reconstructed Life: A Study of Personal Narrative Theory.”

Mary Ann Loewen, University of Guelph

I propose to deliver a paper on the genre of personal narrative set within the Mennonite experience in southeastern Manitoba, supported by the intertwining scholarship of personal narrative and feminism criticism. The paper is based on my MA thesis, and looks at the life of my mother, Katherine Loewen, who graduated with a Bachelor of Theology degree in 1949 and then married an ambitious, energetic man, with whom she had six children. The paper will examine her life in the 1960s and 70s, and discuss how patriarchal values within society, and the church community in particular, contributed to her sense of isolation and frustration. In addition to an examination of her life based on interviews I conducted with her, it will also include a brief look at several of the articles that she wrote and had published in her church conference’s periodical, the Gospel Tidings. Critics whose works are particularly useful in this study include Candace Spigelman, Jane Hindman, Marlene Kadar, and Richard Miller; Miller, for one, insists that “all intellectual projects are always, inevitably, also autobiographies” (Writing at the End of the World 50). Feminist scholars whose works interpret societal attitudes towards women within the time frame of this study and inform it include Betty Friedan, Carolyn Heilbrun and Adrienne Rich. I tee off from Heilbrun’s insightful observation regarding the 1970s that to get anywhere, “if not prepared to be sustaining, women must be manipulative” (Reinventing Womanhood 173). This study examines what happens to women who refuse to fit either of these categories.

Mary Ann Loewen studied at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, then graduated with a diploma in nursing in 1978 from the Grace General Hospital and worked as a registered nurse for several years in both Manitoba and British Columbia. She then obtained an ARCT and taught piano and theory for many years. She recently graduated with an Honours’ degree in English from the University of Winnipeg and is currently finishing up a Masters’ degree from the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, with Smaro Kamboureli as her thesis advisor. She is married and has three grown children. When she is not reading or running, she loves to spend time in her kitchen. She lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, dealing with an “empty nest syndrome.”

“Katie Funk Wiebe Tells Her Story: A Personal and Communal Narrative History”

Doug Heidebrecht, Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg

At the 1998 Institute for Mennonite Studies conference in Winnipeg, “EnGendering the Past: Women and Men in Mennonite History,” Katie Funk Wiebe proposed that Mennonites “need a new way of writing history. We need to ask new questions and find a new way of writing history so that public and private areas of life together form the basis of our story.”1 In her most recent autobiographical narrative, You Never Gave Me a Name: One Mennonite Woman’s Story (2009), Katie shares her journey from young adulthood to an octogenarian, from naivety to maturity. It is a fascinating story in which she reviews her life experiences among the Mennonite Brethren with the hope of discovering significant patterns. Yet her story is about more than a personal journey. In it Katie has taken up her own call to tell history in a way that contextualizes the individual story within a communal history and makes sense of a community’s past through the eyes of one person.

I propose to examine You Never Gave Me a Name as an example of Katie’s narrative approach to history, which engages both the public and private spheres of life. I will demonstrate how individual story and communal history in an integrated narrative interact to provide a complex multi-layered interpretation of the past. How does Katie’s autobiography enhance our understanding of the Mennonite Brethren? How does Katie’s depiction of her Mennonite Brethren context shape her own self-understanding? What are the strengths and weaknesses of her approach to writing history? A comparison with two other Mennonite Brethren autobiographies by J.B. Toews and David Ewert will highlight the unique perspective Katie brings to her account.

Doug Heidebrecht is Director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg. Previously, he taught at Bethany College in Saskatchewan for 16 years. Doug is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wales, where he is examining the process of community hermeneutics Mennonite Brethren have engaged in during the last half of the twentieth century regarding the role of women in church leadership. Doug is also currently editing a book assessing Katie Funk Wiebe’s contribution as a writer.


“Hunger, History, and the ‘Shape of Awkward Questions’: Sarah Klassen’s Simone Weil

Tanis MacDonald, Wilfrid Laurier University

Working in the Canadian tradition of the reconfigured poetic biography, Sarah Klassen’s Simone Weil: Songs of Hunger and Love (1995) offers a ruthlessly intimate view of the philosopher and mystic Weil, she whom Albert Camus called “the only great soul of our time.” Weil’s ascetic life and death from tuberculosis complicated by the effects of voluntary self-starvation in 1943 have made her a historically complex figure, a powder-keg of spiritual and intellectual contradictions. Anne Carson emphasizes that Weil’s moral extremism disconcerts and destabilizes contemporary conceptions of spirituality: “saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history” (180). Like Gwendolyn MacEwen’s similarly audacious literary ventriloquism in The T.E. Lawrence Poems, Klassen’s “songs” are sung in Weil’s voice, both demanding and capacious in its humility, particularly when articulating Weil’s refusal of food as a refusal of worldly consolation (56).

Through Weil’s contention that “Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything” (87), I propose to read Klassen’s Simone Weil (both book and historical personage) as a Mennonite text. Di Brandt has recently drawn attention to “Canadian Mennonite (alter) identifications,” including the possibility of shared histories and cultural persecution between Jews of Europe, women-centred cultures and Mennonites (105-132). Is Weil, a female Jew in occupied France who had a vision of Christ but refused baptism in the Catholic Church for its hierarchal theological system, such an “Mennonite (alter)identification”? Klassen describes Weil’s intention to “carve/ the shape of awkward questions / indelibly on white margins” (24); perhaps no questions are so awkward as those that place Weil’s “decreative” self-starvation against examples of starvation in Mennonite history, including Mennonite men’s participation in the famous Civilian Public Service project that became known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Reading Simone Weil as a Mennonite “text” means positioning Klassen and all readers of her text as interlocutors of strange, even ecstatic, speech that “never stop[s].” In 2002, Douglas Reimer noted that Klassen’s fierce sense of transcendence fuels her poetry (171). Klassen’s insistent questions about Weil’s spirituality, when read through the tensions of Mennonite identification, suggest a corresponding fierceness with the resonances of history.

Tanis MacDonald teaches Canadian literature in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Her research interests include feminist poetry and poetics, pathography, and historiographic metanarrative. She has published scholarly articles on the work of Anne Carson, SKY Lee, Jay Macpherson, Dennis Lee, Kristjana Gunnars, Lorna Crozier, P.K. Page and Gregory Scofield, and is the editor of Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006). She is currently working on a full-length study of the feminist elegy in Canadian writing. Dr. MacDonald is also a widely-published poet and literary essayist, as well as the winner of the 2003 Bliss Carman Poetry Prize. Her third book of poetry, Rue the Day, was published by Turnstone Press in 2008.

“Whispers of Truth: Sarah Klassen’s Poetics of Witness and Affirmation “

Connie Braun, Trinity Western University

Nationally acclaimed Canadian poet and Mennonite author Sarah Klassen has garnered numerous prestigious awards and recognition for her poetry collections and fiction, including the National Magazine Award (Gold) for poetry, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Margaret Lawrence award for Fiction. Sarah Klassen was born to Mennonite parents who emigrated from post-revolutionary Russia to Winnipeg where she currently resides, in the place that has provided a rich landscape for her reflections of the human journey and its transience. This paper will situate Klassen’s poetics, theoretically, thematically and metaphorically against the back drop of the poet Czeslaw Milosz and literary critic George Steiner, and alongside the work of philosopher and literary theorist Paul Ricoeur and Max Picard who held to a poetics of witness and to a view of poetry as an affirmation of being. Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet in exile in America, regarded poetry as a witness of our lives against injustice. As a young poet, Milosz was familiar with the brutality of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes and the “disasters “of the last century. Throughout his life he fervently argued that poetry is a reliable witness; truth resides in the “soft spoken” poems of their depiction of trauma and transcendence. George Steiner held that a poet “reaches past death” towards transcendence.*In poems from her collections Journey to Yalta, Violence and Mercy, Border Watch and A Curious Beatitude, Klassen traces her personal and ancestral migration from the Russian-then-Soviet steppes to the Canadian prairies, a geography that houses the memory of her own family history and heritage, and in their recapture of the experience of war, exile, famine and injustice, her the poems offer such “soft spoken” whispers of truth, engendering a life-affirming poetics gesturing towards transcendence.

Connie Braun is an MAIH Candidate for graduation (Fall 09) at Trinity Western University, Langley BC, where her work focuses on narrative and, in particular, the voice of the marginalized in immigrant writing. She has presented papers at the last Mennonite Writer/s Conference (Bluffton OH) and at the Christianity and Literature Conference (Western Region) and her papers have been accepted for publication by Illumine (U of Victoria) and the Centre for Mennonite Writing (Goshen). In addition to her studies, she is a published practicing writer and her most recent publication is the memoir, The Steppes are the Colour of Sepia (Ronsdale Press 08). Connie has participated in Humber School for Writers (Non-fiction with John Bentley Mays 05), the first session of the CMU School for Writers (Poetry with Sarah Klassen 07), and ventured to Minnesota for a writing retreat hosted by Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Anne Hostetler (summer 08).

“St Mary at Main, the Forks, and other Prairie Crossings”

Magdalene Redekop, University of Toronto

It is commonplace to note that prairie artists tend to foreground a contrast between the vertical and the horizontal. The result, at the most basic geometric level, is a cross. It is important to remember, however, that the Latin cross did not become the recognized symbol for Christianity until at least a century after the birth of Christ. The hermeneutical activity generated by the image goes further back in time to the story of Hermes, trickster god of the crossroads. This paper will focus on the crossings that are a recurring trope in the work of artists coming out of a Mennonite prairie community. Many examples could be offered and some of these will be noted. I will focus, however, on selected poems from Patrick Friesen’s St Mary at Main and on selected paintings by Wanda Koop. Although Friesen is a verbal artist and Koop is a visual artist, the questions that are raised by a comparison are interdisciplinary and they lead into the heart of what is sometimes called the crisis of representation. Words and images come up against a limit that opens up into an experience of awe that is associated, by many "Mennonite" artists, with music.

Magdalene Redekop has taught at the University of Toronto since 1972, specializing in Canadian literature, and has published numerous articles and reviews on Mennonite topics, beginning with an article on The Blue Mountains of China (1981). A recent article, “The Mother Tongue in Cyberspace,” was published on line at She is working on a book entitled The Crisis of Representation: Essays on Mennonites and Art.

1 Katie Funk Wiebe, “Me Tarzan, Son of Menno — You Jane, Mennonite Mama.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 17 (1999): 15.