Finding creative identities: Mennonite writers in Winnipeg.
In this paper, the authors focus on the changing creative identities of Mennonite writers in Winnipeg who move between two worlds in an electronic age, from oral to written encoding. This process began with three individual sojourners who found it difficult to gain a following in Winnipeg. Since the 1970s, two young Mennonite writers have become mentors who, with great difficulty, bridged the rural-urban gap. They were rooted in Winnipeg and became important leaders in the Mennonite literary world. Since then the creation of a publishing house, the Writers' Guild, and various social networks have encouraged two dozen Mennonite writers to flourish and compete with the best. In a search for Winnipeg Mennonite poets, novelists, and short story writers, the authors interviewed twenty-three Mennonite writers. Younger writers have become more rooted in the city, feel more at home there, and have developed agendas which go beyond immigrant adjustments and segregated, Mennonite identities.
Les mennonites de Winnipeg se trouvent entre deux mondes, passant du codage oral au codage ecrit a un age electronique. Dans la presente communication, les auteurs se concentrent sur les identites creatrices en evolution des ecrivains mennonites. Cela a debute avec trois frontaliers individuels qui ont trouve difficile d' obtenir des suiveurs dans la ville. Deux jeunes ecrivains mennonites sont devenus, depuis les annees 1970, des conseillers qui avec beaucoup d' agonie et d'efforts ont comble la lacune rurale-urbaine, etaient enracines a Winnipeg et sont devenus d'importants meneurs dans le monde de l'ecriture mennonite. Depuis la creation d'une maison d'edition, <<Writer's Guild>>, les systemes sociaux ont encourage deux douzaines d'ecrivains mennonites prosperer et concurrencer avec les meilleurs. A la recherche de poetes, de romanciers, d'auteurs de nouvelles mennonites Winnipeg, les auteurs ont eu des entrevues avec 23 ecrivains mennonites et ont communique leurs conclusions. Les ecrivains plus jeunes so nt devenus plus enracines dans la ville, ils se sentent plus a l'aise la, et se sont tournes vers des agendas au-dela de l'adaptation des immigrants et des identities des mennonites segregues.
In 1999, Manitoba Mennonites celebrated their arrival at the Forks in Winnipeg 125 years ago. The first Mennonite settlers docked at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in 1874, but stayed in Winnipeg only long enough to buy supplies, farm machinery, and animals before they all moved on to the junction of the Red and Rat Rivers. They established villages on the East Reserve near Steinbach. When, on August 1 1999, the ancestors of these immigrants again boarded a boat to re-enact the original arrival at the Forks, much had changed and these changes need to be documented.
Since then the Mennonites have migrated to Winnipeg, where 22,000 now reside. In this paper we focus on the changing creative identities of Mennonite writers. The search for identity began with individual urban sojourners such as Paul Hiebert, Arnold Dyck, and Rudy Wiebe, who found it difficult to gain a following for their writing endeavours in the city. Younger writers, such as Patrick Friesen and Di Brandt, became more deeply rooted in Winnipeg, and have mentored many others and helped create important social identities which bridge the experience of the Mennonite reserve and more complex urban demands. Younger writers today have become more rooted in the city, feel more at home and have developed agendas which go beyond immigrant adjustments and segmented Mennonite identities. In order to explore the changes in Mennonite urban creative writing identities in Winnipeg, we interviewed twenty-three poets, novelists, and short story writers.
Identity Trials of Creative Sojourners
Peter Pauls, in his Search for Identity, begins by saying "... to know oneself is a never-ending quest. (2) For the Mennonite poet, however, there is a certain sense of fulfillment when he achieves a state in which he is no longer divided against himself "... loyal to both the cultural groups and the whole human race." He suggests that the best Mennonite poetry proceeds from a cultural home identity to a larger human awareness, and that the original identity is seldom completely submerged or lost. "A poem which grows out of a poet's search for identity is often the expression of the integration or reconciliation of early, childhood feelings with more mature, adult responses ... to come to terms with ambivalent feelings about his own or his people's past." (3) Integration and reconciliation within the self may lead to acceptance of who you are and being comfortable with yourself. Pauls reviews works by Fritz Senn, who pines after how beautiful it was in Ukraine - a world lost forever, Patrick Friesen, who port rays the conflict of cultures, and Menno Wiebe, who warns against those who cannot adapt.
It was after World War II, in the 1940s, that Mennonite creative writing began with Paul Hiebert, Arnold Dyck, and Rudy Wiebe. But these writers did not lay deep roots in Winnipeg, and they did not gain a following there. These three demonstrate the problems that had to be overcome to create an atmosphere conducive to finding Mennonite creative identities.
Sojourner: Juggling Science and Humor
Paul Hiebert was a Mennonite sojourner of the first 1870s migration who found himself living between two worlds, the Mennonite reserve and the professional scientific community of the university, and deeply rooted in neither. Hiebert was born on the edge of Pilot Mound, Manitoba (not on the Mennonite reserve), and earned degrees at the Universities of Manitoba (B.A.), Toronto (M.A.) and McGill (Ph.D.) in chemistry. (4) From 1924-53 he taught chemistry at the University of Manitoba where he rose to become Associate Professor, even though he did not really have his heart in chemistry or scientific research. Few Mennonites had gone into higher education by the 1940s. Through higher education and a professional university occupation, Hiebert entered a non-Mennonite world.
In 1947, he published the first of six books, titled Sarah Binks, which was awarded the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. This established him as one of Canada's premier humourists. Sarah Binks was the daughter of a dirt farmer: "... she loved the soil and much of Jacob Binks' passion for another quarter section flowed in her veins." (5) While Hiebert makes no explicit reference to rural Mennonites, his humour quite clearly describes the Mennonite culture from which he came.
She assisted in the simple household chores of weeding the garden, gathering the eggs, and picking the potato bugs. During the summer months the little Sarah, her lunch pail under her arm, trudged the mile and a quarter to the one-roomed school. (6)
Sarah Binks is an autobiographical work, although set in Saskatchewan so as to disguise the Manitoba setting, laced with humorous poems that Hiebert had written over the years. It was a form of writing not likely to disturb or incense the traditional community. The voice is deadpan, but somebody seems to be kidding and we have to pay attention to know who is being kidded and about what. Charles Gordon, in his afterward, describes this ambiguity as "... the myth debunked, the hero cut down to size." (7) These subtle cultural idiosyncrasies show up in Hiebert's hilarious Low German poetry depicting the traditional Mennonite village milieu.
The six books Hiebert published included none on chemistry but focused instead on humour, culture, and spirituality. He wrote not from the heart of the Mennonite village but from the margin, in Morris, on the edge of the Mennonite community. At the time, writing inside the reserve was hardly possible, and Mennonite identities and networks in Winnipeg were little developed: only three or four churches were located in the city.
Stranger: Lost in the City
But there were other sojourners paving the way for creative Mennonite writers in Winnipeg. In her article, "Mein Vater, ein Wanderer zwischen zwei welten," Arnold Dyck's daughter, Hedi Knoop, describes her father as a wanderer between two worlds. (8) He was actually a wanderer between many worlds. When he arrived as an immigrant in Steinbach, Manitoba in 1923, he felt like a stranger in a conservative village. The villagers understood chicken, hog, and grain farming. He was a more educated professional writer and artist, longing for his lost Ukrainian home village of Hochfeld where he grew up.
Dyck' s Mennonites, who were more prone to accommodate than these immigrant Steinbachers, had stayed fifty years longer in Ukraine where a great cultural flowering had taken place. Their agricultural practices, industrial development, and health, educational, and organizational skills had grown into large, sophisticated institutions. This growth also included an artistic flowering, so that young Mennonites began to go to Germany for higher training and exposure to the larger society. Arnold Dyck studied art in German institutions such as Munich in preparation for a teaching career in schools on the Mennonite settlements in Ukraine. (9) Instead he found himself living on a struggling pioneer reserve in Manitoba where agriculturalists eked out an existence.
Dyck's hope of being a professional artist was partly sabotaged by his poor knowledge of English, which he needed to compete in the larger community. The Steinbach community, however, could read the High and Low German languages that Dyck was skilled in, so he bought the Steinbach Post, a weekly newspaper, which he edited for ten years (1924-34). But these East Reserve Manitoba Mennonites, three generations removed from Ukraine and boxed into their reserve, were more interested in the local village than fancy writing. So Dyck began a series of "Koop enn Bua" art sketches and writings. Like Hiebert, Dyck would resort to humour as well.
Editing the second volume of Arnold Dyck's collected works, Al Reimer describes Koop enn Bua as "ludicrously mismatched and constantly at odds with each other. ..."
Where Bua is frank and open, Koop is secretive and mean-spirited; where Bun is optimistic and generous, Koop is pessimistic and stingy. Bua is a bit of a windbag and lacking in tact, but he is basically a decent, honourable man ... The world is his oyster and he devours new experiences with the gusto with which he devours "Repsbaa and Plumemoos"... Koop is afraid of new experiences, smugly avoids temptations while blindly following tradition, and is unable to learn anything from the outside world. ... (10)
Reimer portrays Dyck as a master of irony, "derche Bloom rade," speaking "through the flower," and communicating at several levels. Reimer thinks Dyck picked up his characters from a gaggle of men who met in the cafe next to his Steinbach Post newspaper offices and pontificated on the events of the day.
But editing a newspaper took much work and left little time for creative writing: he resigned and tried publishing. By 1944 he was planning the Echo-Verlag, a publishing company, with great enthusiasm. He tried to launch this new venture in Winnipeg. He saw that German writing would soon be lost and with it his Mennonite identity. The first hook, finally off the press after overcoming many obstacles, met with absolute silence from the community -- no response. Dyck came close to despair, but through his hard work between 1945 and 1970, the Echo-Verlag (Echo Publishing Company) published sixteen books. (11)
Most of Dyck's writings occurred in Steinbach before he moved to Winnipeg in 1953 at the age of sixty-five, where he then lived another sixteen years. (12) However, his autobiographical books, Aus Meinem Leben, several Koop enn Bua writings, including Koop enn Bua opp Reise (1954), Koop enn Bua enn Dietschlaund (1960), some short stories, and a play were published afterwards. Koop enn Bun journeys, written in German, reflected Dyck's expansion from the village to the larger world. While Winnipeg was a more open arena and less restrictive than the rural reserve, during his retirement years Dyck could no longer exploit the opportunities of a new urban arena with his limited English. This would have to await another generation.
A Marginal Skull in the Swamp
In 1960, when Paul Hiebert, who had left Winnipeg for Morris, Manitoba, was writing his second of six books, and when Arnold Dyck had been retired in Winnipeg for seven years, Rudy Wiebe, representing a new generation, came to study at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg. He was an English graduate with an M.A. from the University of Alberta. His thesis, Peace Shall Destroy Many, was later published as a book in 1962, during the time Wiebe was briefly editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald. (13) Wiebe's Peace was a much more fearless work by a brash, young, dedicated, Mennonite youth, who (like Frank Epp, then editor of the new Canadian Mennonite in Altona, Manitoba), was now in a position where a second Mennonite paper could challenge readers in the new Winnipeg urban world. Al Reimer writes of the new novel:
Peace was the right novel at the right time in that it raised crucial questions and long-suppressed issues of Mennonite life and faith and dared to address them honestly and with creative independence. It slaughtered the sacred cows of institutionalized Mennonitism on all sides by dramatizing ... isolationism and the patriarchal tyranny it bred, racial bigotry as the ugly product of Mennonite pride, passive nonresistence ... the German versus the English language crisis, sexual repression and subjugation of the woman, religious formalism and the lust for land. (14)
Reimer writes that "Wiebe had the audacity to show that these sacred cows had been imported from Russia!" (15)
He had set the agenda, an agenda of themes and issues he would continue to explore in subsequent novels and which he made respectable for younger Mennonite writers to develop as well ... Wiebe created a Mennonite literary world read enough and spacious enough to make it possible and indeed respectable for other Mennonites to "write Mennonite" even if they were themselves no longer practicing Mennonites. (16)
Two of Wiebe's twenty published books have since won prestigious Governor General awards. Many of his books have continued to explore the interaction between Mennonite individuals and the family, community, and society, illustrating the inherent pressures and the processes of change undergone in the struggle for an individual identity. Since leaving Winnipeg he has moved into many other non-Mennonite themes, exploring Postmodernism and Magical Realism.
In Winnipeg, in 1987, twenty-five years after Peace Shall Destroy Many was published, Rudy Wiebe gave a talk titled "The Skull in the Swamp," a reference to a scene in the novel where his characters find a skull in the swamp while they are haying. In his talk he revealed just a little of the furore Peace had created. "As some of you know" he began, "publishing that first novel became for me both an exaltation and a trauma; it certainly decided the direction of the rest of life." (17) He says:
... I was living in Winnipeg and editing a church paper when Peace Shall Destroy Many was published in September, 1962. By March, 1963 I was no longer editor and by August we had left Canada. Oh, words have power, power beyond what I had imagined in three years of wrestling with them.
In that speech Wiebe, quoting at length from Peace, states, "... Peace, ... the first realistic novel written in English about the Mennonite experience, brought an inevitable explosion. I had been naive about that too." (19) Some liked it. Others thought it too negative, to which Wiebe responded with written correspondence. Some friends encouraged him but others wrote with "much double meaning." He was called everything under the sun. Wiebe ends his "Skull in the Swamp" talk: "A lot of people like Pete won't be able to see past their five missing chickens. But you, for the health of your soul, you better be." Many have done so since.
These three creative Mennonites sojourned in Winnipeg briefly, and it might be argued they never found an urban identity there. While Paul Hiebert taught chemistry at the University of Winnipeg for a long time, most of his creative writing occurred at "The Burrs," his rural retreat away from the city. Most of Arnold Dyck's creative work occurred in Steinbach, and when he came to live in Winnipeg after his retirement, he found it hard to create interest in Low and High German writing in the city. By 1960, a younger Rudy Wiebe, newly appointed to edit a Mennonite church paper in Winnipeg, found that his first Mennonite novel created a furore, cost him his job, and ended his Winnipeg experience. These three were sojourners in the city whose creative works were largely rejected by their own people. Finding urban identities for creative Mennonite writers would have to be postponed to later.
A Creative Winnipeg Flowering
While Dyck, Hiebert, and Wiebe sojourned in Winnipeg, unable to set deep roots, the younger descendants of 1870s Mennonites would soon establish themselves in the "Big City" and use it as a creative base of operation as the Mennonite population in the city grew. Some 1920s Mennonite immigrants had stayed in Winnipeg when they arrived. More had joined them in the 1940s after World War II, and still more came to stay in the 1950s from Europe and Latin America. Some Mennonite youth, having served in alternative service camps or joined the military, were exposed to more global identities and began to leave the rural reserves for jobs in the city.
Winnipeg: Mennonite Launching Pad
When the first 1874 Mennonites landed near Fort Garry, Winnipeg was a small town of only several thousand. As late as 1950, less than half a dozen Mennonite churches had been established there. By 1991, however, this city of 650,000 had fifty Mennonite churches serving a census population of 22,000 Mennonites, the largest concentration of urban Mennonites anywhere, ever. (20) National Bible Colleges were established in Winnipeg by the Mennonite Brethren in 1944, and in 1947 by the Conference of Mennonites, and Mennonite youth from across Canada funneled into these two schools. By 1992, there were 179 faculty and staff, and 1,595 students with Mennonite names attending the University of Manitoba alone, more than in any Mennonite college in North America. (21)
Between 1985-1990, five Mennonite university professors together published the Collected Works of Arnold Dyck in four volumes, totalling more than 2,000 printed pages. (22) The editors included University of Manitoba Professors Victor Doerksen in the German department and Elizabeth Peters in the Education faculty, as well as Harry Loewen, Professor in the Chair of Mennonite Studies, and Al Reimer and Peter Pauls, Professors of English at the University of Winnipeg. George Epp was President of Menno Simons College, a third Mennonite college on the campus of the University of Winnipeg. Now fifteen years after Dyck's death in 1970, Mennonite scholars, publishing through the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, promoted Dyck's writing. Identities of trained professional Mennonite writers were now grounded in the institutions of this metropolis.
Furthermore, the founding of two national Mennonite colleges in Winnipeg in the 1940s had legitimized going into urban higher education for many Mennonites. These were the first Mennonite colleges in a metropolis in North America; each affiliated with one of the two universities in the city. For fifty years these colleges trained eighty percent of the Canadian Mennonite leadership. A Mennonite flowering of creative writing was in the making.
Demographics of Winnipeg Mennonite Writers
The Mennonite population located in Winnipeg in the year 2000 is estimated at 25,000. We found twenty-three Mennonite poets, novelists, and short story writers in Winnipeg. The criteria used for selecting creative Mennonite writers were that the writer: 1) was born to Mennonite parents, 2) still identified him/herself as Mennonite, religiously and/or culturally, 3) had lived in Winnipeg at least ten years, and 4) had produced at least a book or some serious publications in journals during his/her stay in Winnipeg. We interviewed each using an interview schedule which contained forty-one questions. Table 1 (next page) lists the twenty-three writers, many of them nationally known.
Our sample includes ten poets, four novelists, and a variety of other writers. Five are under forty years of age, five are over sixty, and the other thirteen are between forty and sixty. Well over half (13) are of the 1870s migration to Canada, seven came during the 1920s migration, and three descendants are part of the World War II migrants. All are of Dutch-Russian origin. They represent eight different Mennonite denominations, and have resided in Winnipeg for thirteen to fifty years. These twenty-three writers, often impatient with their heritage, were quite willing to explore what we were trying to do, and consented to second and third interviews. Half were still living in Winnipeg. (23) Thirteen were male and ten female. Eighteen of the twenty-three were born in Manitoba. Two grew up on the farm, six in the village, twelve in town, and only three in the city. Almost all (18) went to public elementary and high schools, and all except three had been to university. They are an educated lot: five with Ph.D.s , five with M.A.s and nine who earned B.A. degrees, most from the University of Manitoba. Only four attended a Mennonite college -- none had been to Bible school or seminary.
All were born into a Mennonite family. (24) Most (17) grew up in a Mennonite community; two thirds on the two Manitoba reserves. Only two did not. Two thirds were of the conservative 1870s migration. Two thirds learned Low German at home, half a mix of German and English -- few learned High German. Fifteen were baptized, fourteen now consider themselves Mennonite, six do not, and the rest are ex-Mennonites. Half (12) do not attend church, a third (7) do, and four said they were "spiritual."
Over half of the twenty-three interviewed in 1997 had attended and received a degree at the University of Manitoba. A large majority had non-Mennonite schooling, eighteen in elementary schools, seventeen in high schools, and nineteen in universities, although many elementary and high schools they attended included mostly Mennonite teachers and students in small town schools. Only four had been to a Mennonite high school, and four to a Mennonite elementary school. Twenty of the twenty-three grew up in a rural farm, village or town.
Ingroup Identities: Family, Friends, Community
In our attempt to gain a sense of the extent to which these twenty-three creative writers still valued the rural family and community from which they came, we found that half (11 of the 23) spoke fondly of family life which included many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles. (25) A third (7) mentioned the community as a cohesive force where everyone knew each other, where there was a sense of place and security. As many mentioned food (6) as an important part of the tastes, sights and sounds of familiarity. Five mentioned music as a valuable component of the good experiences of Mennonite community. Some recalled the village (3) and friendships (3) as good opportunities for interchange and networking.
When asked about "not so good experiences in these Mennonite communities," several mentioned that all of the good experiences mentioned had a negative side. Scores of negative expressions were used which were hard to classify into areas of agreement. (26) Terms such as "claustrophobia" (3), "repression" (2), "narrowness" (2), "strictness" (2), "lack of tolerance" (2), "rigidity" (2), and "conforming" (2) were expressed by at least two or more writers, generally implying a boxed-in experience (15). Harsh environment (9) was expressed in such forms as "violence" (2), "harshness" (2), "shunning" (1), "abuse" (1), "oppression" (1), "held down" (1), and "being unwanted" (1). The choice of language suggests that the rural Mennonite reserve, village, or town felt restrictive -- the respondents needed much more room to express creativity freely. This was especially the case with writers from 1870s immigration backgrounds -- less so of writers descended from 1920s and 1940-50s immigrants. These contemporary writers sa id that the price they had to pay for their Mennonite heritage in loss of identity and lack of freedom was too great. Their writing expresses these feeling as well.
Other language used to express Mennonite community positively by at least two writers was: "having cultural roots," "a sense of values," "hearing stories," "an environment of trust," "importance of relatives," "having fun," "a place for use of language," and "importance of literature." Other words used were "nurturing interaction," "experimentation," "sense of not being alone," "natural setting," "seriousness about life," "morality," "helping each other," "generosity," "warmth," "place for self definition," "love," "caring," "the sense of being in our land," and "the richness of Low German." (27) In contrast, at least one mentioned the downside of all this, citing "literalism," "piety," "hypocrisy," "idolatry," "protectiveness," "unhappiness," "miserliness," "never being Christian enough," "lack of color," "lack of will," "inhibitions," and "too many rules." Others mentioned "disapproval," "silence of cold men," "distant women," "nothing to do," "emptiness," "no hope," "no fun," "self righteousness," "social inexperience," "feelings of they-us," "women who just follow," and "lack of confidence." Others said Mennonites were too "insular," "parochial," "defensive," "closed," "self-effacing," and "arrogant," in an environment which was "stifling," "full of pressure," which produced much "guilt" in a "holier-than-thou atmosphere," and of "lack of room." This avalanche of expressive terms in the interviews is subtly expressed at various levels as search, longing, resentment, and anger. At any rate, paying such a high emotional price in the struggle for identity has blossomed into a flowering of creative writing which Mennonites in Winnipeg can now express and share.
Identification With Supporting Networks
The earliest Mennonite writers, such as Arnold Dyck and Elizabeth Peters, were active in the German Verein where they met to read their works in High German and Low German. They were committed to supporting and identifying with the German language. Indeed Dyck thought that Mennonites would go down with their language if they lost it. Language was his professional identity. English, in which he could not compete, offered no alternative identity. Elizabeth Peters became bilingual and worked in both the inside and outside worlds, teaching literature at the University of Manitoba.
Four of the contemporary Mennonite writers we interviewed (Patrick Friesen, Sandra Birdsell, Armin Wiebe, and Victor Jerrett Enns) had helped found and create a writers' organization in Winnipeg -- the Manitoba Writers' Guild. (28) Al Reimer, who was older, related to the Guild briefly. Half of the members of the Writers' Guild were Mennonites. Friesen, Birdsell, Wiebe, and Enns all thought the Mennonite factor was important: all worked hard in the organization. Three agreed that the Guild helped them strengthen ties with the University of Manitoba where writers in the English department, such as Robert Kroetsch, David Arnason, and Dennis Cooley, offered encouragement and assistance. Patrick Friesen served as the first president of the Guild.
Non-Mennonite writers in the English department of the University of Manitoba did influence many (especially Governor General Award winner Robert Kroetsch). Four of the twenty-three mentioned him as a mentor. Five cited him as one of their favourite writers. Kroetsch taught an advanced Creative Writing course which a number had attended. Dennis Cooley, David Arnason, and Carol Shields were the favourite writers of several others. Indeed, there were times when as many as four respondents worked together as students in university classes.
Founding publishing organizations and presses was another important form of organization and networking. (29) Earlier, we noted that Arnold Dyck was a leading force in establishing the Echo-Verlag Publishing Company, which published sixteen books, many while he was in Winnipeg. Turnstone Press was founded in Winnipeg in the l970s by university English professors and others who had also developed the Writers' Guild. More than twenty books by Winnipeg Mennonite writers were published by Turnstone Press. The press helped emerging writers to publish early in their careers. Many of these scores of works have won awards including the most prestigious Governor General's Award, and many have been on the McNally Robinson Booksellers bestsellers lists for weeks. Di Brandt won the McNally Robinson Award for Manitoba Book of the Year in 1990, and Sandra Birdsell won it in 1992. Prairie Fire, a Canadian Magazine of New Writing, has published most of these Mennonite writers and devoted a complete issue to Patrick Friesen i n 1992. Heaven, a cafe and bookstore owned and operated by Tim Brandt in Winnipeg, was a meeting place for many interested in writing and Brandt edited a newsletter for the hundreds of members/patrons.
Emerging Mennonite Mentors
To explore more deeply the shared influence of the twenty-three Winnipeg creative Mennonite writers, we interviewed Patrick Friesen and Di Brandt, whom those we interviewed said they identified with most. Half a dozen said Friesen had been their mentor, and as many also said they had read Friesen the most. A half dozen listed Brandt as their mentor and the one they had read the most. Friesen and Brandt are also among those who have published most: Friesen has published nine books and Brandt, six. They were the most prolific of the group and, given their obvious influence with our sample group, we interviewed both Friesen and Brandt a second time.
Unbotton the Buttons: Escape From Reserves
Patrick Friesen grew up in Steinbach, the heart of the East Reserve, where he lived for nineteen years. (30) He was only seven years old when Arnold Dyck left Steinbach for Winnipeg, so he remembers little about these 1920s "Russlaenda," who had entered their reserve. Friesen would be a modern writer with new dreams and aspirations. very much of Canadian birth and writing in English. He spent his elementary and high school education in Steinbach public schools, where most students and teachers were also Mennonite. His mother was of conservative Chortitzer background and joined his father's "Kleinegemeinde" church when they married; both were of 1870s conservative Mennonite stock. The family spoke Low German at home, some High German, and increasingly more English as they grew up. There was "wonderful care/nurturing of children, a sense of family, seriousness of life (dry humour) and a strong sense of individual cultural narrowness (fear), and a touch of the self-righteousness of ethnic identity, rigidity/infl exibility in encountering the 'world'." He was not baptized and does not consider himself a Mennonite Believer, yet feels "thoroughly imbued (psychologically, spiritually, culturally) with some very specific "Mennonitism" of the 1940s and 1950s. He does not attend church - he finds them irrelevant.
Friesen began writing short stories by age seven or eight and poetry by age twelve or thirteen. Now in his fifties, he has been writing steadily since age eighteen or nineteen. (31) His parents did not oppose such writing, teachers at school were neutral, and "the church probably thought it a use less activity." Older Mennonite intellectuals such as Roy Vogt and Al Reimer, who also grew up in Steinbach, were teaching at the Manitoba and Winnipeg universities, and they supported and encouraged him. Although Friesen does not sense that he had any Mennonite mentors, six of the twenty-three Mennonite creative writers we interviewed in Winnipeg mention him as a mentor, and eight list him as one of their favourite Mennonite writers.
Patrick Friesen has published nine books of poetry, plus many translations, stage/radio plays, and films/videos. (32) His work has won the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award (1994) and the Milton Acorn Memorial People's Poetry Award and Medallion (1996). He has taught creative writing and poetry, mentored six apprentices of the Manitoba Writers' Guild, and was first president of the Manitoba Writers' Guild. After living in Winnipeg for thirty years, he now teaches at Kwantlen University College in Vancouver.
In a 1993 interview with Patrick Friesen, Robert Enright tells of how Dorothy Livesay, when she was writer in residence at the University of Manitoba, found some of Patrick's poems in the monthly Mennonite Mirror and wanted Enright to read them. Friesen remembers that Livesay invited him into her office, and she "proceeded to give me approximately a half hour lesson in editing my work." (33) She also introduced Friesen to University of Manitoba writers David Arnason and Dennis Cooley. This was the beginning of larger creative identities which influenced him. Friesen continues:
The reason it took so long to find my voice was because I was on two tracks at the same time. One was the literary track and the other was daily life in relation to my background. And over a decade or so I discovered that I couldn't reject the background which I was shying away from.
I didn't just want to fight it, because there was something there to be saved. But what? How do you stay who you feel, deep down, you are? That was the battle out of my hometown and it didn't get less intense when I got away. (34)
In Friesen's first radio interview with Robert Enright, where Dennis Cooley and Robert Kroetsch were also present, Patrick Friesen wanted to talk about buttons:
... I do know that I had a long period of revulsion towards buttons. It was probably just another sign of rebellion against the old Mennonites who only wore buttons and wouldn't wear zippers. ... And buttons and unbuttoning have to do with gateways and again with borders ... there was only one particular button I would wear -- a shirt button. (35)
My mother had a very strong family of sisters--the men were weak but the sisters were very strong. I've had this argument with Di Brandt over the years, when she talks about how totally patriarchal Mennonite society is and how its women are silenced. In my family that was total bullshit. The men were shut up ... that's the role they fit. They were quiet and were still allowed to pretend that they made the decisions, but in fact the women made them, or at least an equal number. (39)
Later in the interview Friesen says, "I had an abhorrence at being perceived as a part of any group ... I didn't--and still don't--like to be locked into a group." Friesen, along with John Beaver, Dennis Cooley, David Arnason, and Robert Enright of St. Johns College started Turnstone Press. Interestingly, Patrick Friesen's, The Lands I Am, was the second book they published. In his first book, Friesen wrestled with his identity and with ingroup community constraints which blocked individual development of identity. Enright, in his interview, says to Friesen:
It's the land of thistle, stone, and snakeroot, isn't it? In some ways the poetry was seizing on those aspects of the landscape which were about constriction and a lack of openness. ... It's amazing that you were so shaped by the world you came out of. Six books of poetry and two plays later, the damn stuff is still there in your consciousness, front row and centre. (36)
Friesen had heard Steinbach's earliest writer, Arnold Dyck, and his presentation of Koop enn Bua on radio, and he read his book, Lost in the Steppe, but it meant little to him because Dyck had Russian stories to tell which were strange to Friesen. (37) Patrick heard about Rudy Wiebe's writing, but he was a novelist, not a poet, and a 1920s Mennonite. He read Wiebe's work later. Friesen heard about Paul Hiebert, whom his grandfather had read, and got a copy of Sarah Binks but had not read it. Friesen was encouraged by Mennonite university professors Al Reimer and Jack Thiessen, who also came from Steinbach, and got feedback from Roy and Ruth Vogt on The Shunning. But he always felt it was not "cool" to be Mennonite. He continued: "My church was ugly and thuggish ... institutions, like churches, became rigid and this is anti-creativity. ..." (38)
Family was a very strong influence on Friesen:
While his mother was an important influence, his father in his own quiet way tended to set boundaries, withholding permission to use the car, for example. While his mother talked a lot, he admits to having difficulty communicating with his father, whose genuine wit, rather than humour, he admired.
Enright asks: "Where does the rage come from? "The Raft" has an incredible amount of anger... Was your upbringing so ferocious that the characters in your plays -- the grandfathers and fathers -- are people whom you've actually encountered?" Friesen replies: "... I got a lot of strappings." He sensed "... a very deep sense of violence being done to my spirit by people who didn't know they were doing violence." (40) And during this process he developed a "sense of having to get out" at a very early age.
I remember at seven or eight thinking, "I'll probably be about eighteen before I get out of here, so that gives me another decade." So I figured out what tactics and weapons could help me survive. And as an intelligent person I tended to find weapons that people gave me, rather than inventing new ones. If I'm fighting religion, what better weapon than to use religion? So I used blasphemy. That scares the hell out of them. Then they really leave you alone. Suddenly it's like you're a leper. And it was a great relief to be left alone. ..." (41)
Friesen developed a strategy where you "take this verse that they really love and turn it on its head,: use their own words against them."
Friesen recognized that he "... had to save that centre" of his inner being, especially at the revival meetings in the community which he was forced to attend, and where pressures to convert were enormous.
I never doubted I'd get out of there alive. It was just a question of how. ... For me it was war ... My parents were very good people who were in a particular theology ... And I have tremendous regret about hurting them many, many times. But that's the choice: Do you stay alive or do you hurt people? ... I reached the point where I said, "I love no one, I don't hate, I don't love, I am separate. (42)
Friesen admits that where he grew up Mennonites were not supposed to be angry. He says, "I personally quit singing when I was in grade six or seven because singing was connected with belonging to that community ... I denied the thing I love most. ..." And he also says he refused to speak German. Later he recognized that much of this self denial was actually damaging to his identity. He had a deep, deep distrust of other humans, fearing that he would be put down:
... I would be figuratively slapped if I exceeded my bounds. And because I didn't even know when I was crossing one. But the Menno thing is dead, and it isn't. What there is is a human spirit, 'unaccommodated man,' wearing Menno clothes, tearing them off, at least some of them. And what you have is no longer what there was, except for the spirit. It's always there, naked. (43)
Bars in Village Family Cages
Di Brandt, a second mentor, grew up in Reinland, one of sixty villages established earlier on the West Reserve in the 1870s, and one of only some twenty that still exist. Like Patrick Friesen, she attended public elementary school and two years of public high school in Winkler, where almost all teachers and students were Mennonite. Unlike Friesen, she attended her last two years of high school at the Mennonite Collegiate Institute (MCI) in Gretna, and completed three years at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC) in Winnipeg. Thus, she had five years of Mennonite schooling. She was also more educated than Friesen, taking her B.A. at the University of Manitoba, her M.A. at the University of Toronto, and a Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba. (44) Her parents were both from the Rudnerweide church, now called the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church (EMMC), which had broken away from the Old Colony. They spoke Low German at home and had lots of relatives. She was baptized as a member and attended a church in W innipeg but now considers herself an ex-Mennonite. She says she had to leave the church in order to become a writer. For twenty-six years she lived in Winnipeg where she was a part-time instructor at the university and now is Associate Professor of English at the University of Windsor.
Brandt wrote her first poem in grade one. Writing was encouraged up to a point at home but her family generally discouraged her because they were afraid of new things. Some encouragement for her writing came from Waldemar Janzen at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC). She was commissioned to write an opera, "The Bridge," at CMBC, where she was also editor of a student newspaper. (45) She also wrote for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Paul Hiebert was an early mentor and invited Brandt to his house.
Di Brandt writes that students read Hiebert's Sarah Binks in high school in Reinland and that she had tea with Hiebert in his home when she was seventeen. She writes, "Uncle Paul ... took me under his wing," when she went off to college in Winnipeg, and "... sent me lively, interesting letters at the college ..." for several years. (46) When Brandt was editor of a student newspaper at CMBC Hiebert submitted a piece at her request, and Hiebert would stop by at the college and take her out to lunch. "He was a kind of person I'd hungered for all my life - witty, engaged, curious, kind, gentle, gracious, generous, philosophical." "He needed an audience, I think, but I also saw that I could use some mentoring." (47) Hiebert singled her out for apprenticeship, and Brandt writes, "I began to think, for the first time, that I might be a writer someday."
He showed me how an engaged literary mind works, how you can range freely, whimsically, from one thing to another, spinning out tales, and yet be grounded in a coherent, profound vision. ... What a different universe he inhabited from that of my parents. (48)
Di Brandt's grandfather was one of the founders of the new Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church.
So I grew up with the image of the preacher and he was even a rebel in the Sommerfelder church and, together with his friends, he created a new church. I had a sense of standing up against him as a writer. So I have taken the liberty of seeing him as anti-muse, but also muse, a model. (49)
The energy and leadership qualities of her grandfather seemed to translate into writing energies for herself - she saw him as both a source of inspiration and a patriarchal threat.
She was enthusiastic about the extended family she grew up in and the family gatherings: "lots of cousins, lots of uncles and aunts, lots of babies to play with, great food, singing, great respect for language." (50) She loved growing up in the social unit the village provided. It was small enough that you could understand it which has something egalitarian about it. But:
The worst thing is the domestic violence towards children - child rearing practices - and the misogyny which was very overt and was quite different than the misogyny of the main-stream culture. Because women I grew up with had more power than 1950s housewives in the urban areas, but they were extremely held down. Religious practice, the consciousness of it, consisting of the threat of shunning or public humiliation. (51)
When she was giving readings, she says, Mennonite women would come up to her and "... they would whisper with their hand over their mouth, 'thank you so much for saying this, you're saying it for me too'." Her family discouraged her, and she says her mother was treated badly in the community because of her writing.
With her artist husband, Les Brandt, Di Brandt organized an arts event at her Charleswood Mennonite Church in the mid-eighties, where she first met Friesen, who was poetry editor of Border Crossings and who later published some of her poems. In several interviews, she recalls that she gave Patrick Friesen some of her poems to read and he gave her detailed critiques and a critical reading which tuned up her poetics. (52) He also invited her to a reading series that he organized at Mary Scorer Books where Brandt met other writers from across Canada. She considered Friesen a mentor who introduced her to writers and gave her advice, which in turn gave her confidence. In "A Letter to Patrick" she writes:
When we first met, Pat, do you remember, ten years ago, i was reading postmodernist language theory & struggling to understand it, struggling, also to find myself in relation to it, & feeling lost, like there was something missing in it, a hole at the center, something momentous not being said, & there you were, with your passionate arguments against postmodernism, against "theory" ready to take on the whole world with your vision of language as deeply rooted in the body, in feeling." (53)
Brandt writes that she remembers many heated debates on postmodernism in Friesen's kitchen, where many writers gathered winter evenings. "It's where I learned to talk with other writers, how to be with writers: & especially, how to hold all the contradictory realities of life together in one place, at one time." These gatherings, she says, brought many things together which "touched off an imaginative explosion in me, a letting loose of the writer in me." (54) It also expanded her writing, personal identity, and social networks.
In her letter to Friesen, Brandt says she learned
how to engage with cultural & family memories by making space in the poems for anger & desire to speak to each other, dynamically, how to draw on the speech patterns of the Bible & old hymns & rock music for inspiration & rhetorical power without falling into dogma ... how to locate yourself on the edge of a community, dangerously, precariously, the cutting edge, without falling in or out, how to live, passionately, in & for language. ... when you wrote The Shunning ... a whole generation of would-be Mennonite artists came out of the woodwork to articulate their rebel vision, against several centuries of enforced silence, with Flicker and Hawk you ventured into another dangerous area, how to articulate a man's grief around the break-up of a marriage, how to articulate loss of faith. ... (55)
Brandt's letter also recalls long summer days at Patricia Beach with families and friends, roaming about, cooking, watching, chatting, swimming. The short letter to Patrick is full of her search for identity, deep feelings, serious sharing which only gemeinschaft groups can bring.
When we asked, "Is it possible to be a creative writer and a member of the Mennonite church?," she did not think it was possible for her, though it was for some.
For me it is not because there is the sense of constantly being censored. There just wasn't room to write what I wanted. Then there was the tenor of being shunned or publicly humiliated for saying something, not conforming. There were very repressive codes in my upbringing, most of them so deep you couldn't even know them consciously until you confront them. (56)
Brandt thinks the coming of television in 1969 in her village ended isolation and introduced greater freedom which celebrated youth. In Manitoba the Canadian move to multiculturalism was also an important factor which gave minorities official sanction to display their identities legitimately. In Manitoba the Writers Guild and Turnstone Press helped the multicultural cause and the development of alternative writing identities.
Robert Kroetsch introduced her to postmodernism at the University of Manitoba, so that she learned to "have one foot in the 16th century and one in now." Brandt says: Encountering postmodernism as theory was exciting because it opened everything up-language--and it deconstructed everything. Before, I had a sense of being "other" in relation to the mainstream and my subject was marginal. Now postmodernism meant you could have a marginal position and contradictions were great and you could be fragmented ... Deconstructionism was a method of blowing it apart and stealing parts and twisting them and turning them upside down. It was fantastic. (57)
Paul Hiebert was the first real writer she met, and Patrick Friesen was the second. Later she took classes with Kroetsch and was introduced to other writers at the university.
Di Brandt is one of the most angry Mennonite writers, especially in her earlier writings, well described by Al Reimer:
The writer in whose work the anger bred of repression and subordination and male tyranny is at its most intense, at its most dramatic and daring creatively, is the Manitoba poet Di Brandt ... with questions i asked my mother, which was subsequently short-listed for Canada's most prestigious ... Governor General's Award for Poetry and which won several other prizes. By her own admission, Brandt's motive for beginning to write poems was her life-long quarrel with her rigidly patriarchal father, a quarrel still unfinished. ... (58)
The poem, "missionary position (1)" is one of the most powerful and daring in the collection, and was meant to wrench the reader violently:
let me tell you what it's like having a God for a father and jesus for a lover on this old mother earth ... i can tell you right off the old man in his room demands bloody hard work he with his rod and his hard crooked staff ... (59)
This and the book of poetry, Agnes in the Sky, which followed, tell of the bitterness Brandt had suffered in finding an identity, which by now meant coming to some "moving expression of release from a father's--and a tradition's--violence."
Our survey of Mennonite creative writers revealed that six considered Di Brandt one of their mentors, and seven listed her as one of their favorite Mennonite writers. Both Friesen and Brandt lived and worked in Winnipeg for several decades, so they became an integrated part of the metropolis. They became valued members of creative writers' networks, but not a part of Mennonite religious life. They became successful, well-published writers, which in turn presented opportunities elsewhere. Patrick Friesen now works in Vancouver and Di Brandt at the University of Windsor. Both, however, come to Winnipeg frequently. Brandt spends summers writing at the St. Norbert Arts Centre. Winnipeg still seems to be a magnet they cannot escape.
Mennonites in Winnipeg are between worlds, moving from oral to written encoding in an electronic age, as Di Brandt has so succinctly put it. In the process new identities emerge. This has spawned children with great courage, to risk inscribing the gulf between land and city. These young generations are just willing to work hard, and they sacrifice much in their search for new, meaningful, urban identities. The three Mennonite sojourners who came to the city before the 1970s were not able to create a following nor find networks which sustained their writing. Since the 1970s two young Mennonite writers stand out as mentors who bridged the rural-urban gap, were rooted in Winnipeg, and became important leaders in Mennonite creative writing. Since then a publishing house, the Writers' Guild, and social networks have enabled two dozen Mennonite writers to flourish and compete with the best.
(1.) Leo Driedger is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Diane Driedger is a Winnipeg poet and historian. Her most recent book, a poetry collection, The Mennonite Madonna, was published by Gynergy Books in 1999.
(2.) Peter Pauls, "The Search for Identity: Recurring Theme in Mennonite Poetry," Harry Loewen (Ed.), Mennonite Images: Historical, Cultural, and Literary Essays Dealing with Mennonite Issues (Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1980), 247-256.
(3.) Ibid., 238.
(4.) Paul Hiebert, Sarah Binks (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1947), 1.
(5.) Ibid., 10.
(6.) Ibid., 23.
(7.) Charles Gordon, "Afterward," in Sarah Binks, 171.
(8.) Hedi Knoop, "Mein Vater, EinWanderer Zwischen Zwei Welten," George K. Epp and Elizabeth Peters (Eds.), Collected Works of Arnold Dyck, Volume 4 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1990), 479-499.
(9.) Victor Doerksen and Harry Loewen (Eds.), Collected Works of Arnold Dyck, Volume 1 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1985), 463-513.
(10.) Al Reimer (Ed.), Collected Works of Arnold Dyck, Volume 2 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1990), 3-13.
(11.) George K. Epp and Elizabeth Peters, Collected Works of Arnold Dyck, Volume 3 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1990), 342.
(12.) Victor Doerksen and Harry Loewen (Eds.), Collected Works of Arnold Dyck, Volume 1 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1985), 463-513.
(13.) Al Reimer, "Mennonite Literary Voices: Past and Present" (North Newton, Kansas: Bethel College, 1993), 23-25.
(14.) Al Reimer, 24.
(15.) Ibid. 24.
(16.) Ibid, 25.
(17.) Rudy Wiebe, "The Skull in the Swamp," Journal of Mennonite Studies 5:8-20, 1987.
(19.) Ibid, 8-20.
(20.) Leo Driedger, Mennonites in Winnipeg, (Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1990), vii-xii.
(21.) Leo Driedger, "Mennonite College/Seminary Enrollments: Comparative Trends and Adjustments," Journal of Mennonite Studies 15:56-79.
(22.) Victor G. Doerksen, George K. Epp, Harry Loewen, Elizabeth Peters, and Al Reimer (Eds.), Collected Works of Arnold Dyck, Volumes 1-4 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1985-90).
(23.) In 1997 Diane Driedger and Leo Driedger interviewed twenty-three Mennonite creative writers who had spent considerable time in Winnipeg and who had published some of their works in Winnipeg. Fifty-three questions were asked each respondent in order to get substantial answers to their background, writings, and attitudes. Resumes were also collected from all twenty-three.
(24.) Ibid., 1997 surveys.
(25.) Ibid., 1997 surveys.
(26.) Ibid., 1997 surveys.
(27.) Ibid., 1997 surveys.
(28.) Ibid., 1997 surveys.
(29.) Ibid., 1997 surveys.
(30.) Patrick Friesen, Survey, 1997.
(33.) Patrick Friesen and Robert Enright, "Parallel Language: A Conversation Between Patrick Friesen and Robert Enright." Prairie Fire 13:11-29, 1992.
(34.) Ibid., 14, 15.
(35.) Ibid., 15.
(36.) Ibid., 20.
(37.) Patrick Friesen, Interview by Diane Driedger, June 30, 1998.
(38.) Ibid., 1998.
(39.) Enright Interview, 1998, 22.
(40.) Ibid., 24.
(41.) Ibid., 25.
(42.) Ibid., 27.
(43.) Ibid., 29.
(44.) Di Brandt, Survey questionnaire, 1997.
(46.) Di Brandt, "Remembering Paul Hiebert," Rhubarb 1:43-44, 1999, 44.
(47.) Ibid., 44.
(48.) Di Brandt, Survey questionnaire, 1997.
(51.) Diane Driedger, interview with Di Brandt at the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre, Winnipeg, August 10, 1998.
(52.) Di Brandt, "A Letter to Patrick," Prairie Fire 13:64-67, 1992.
(53.) Ibid., 65.
(54.) Ibid., 65.
(55.) Di Brandt, Survey questionnaire, 1997.
(57.) Al Reimer, op.cit., 42-43.
(58.) Ibid., 43.
(59.) Ibid., 44.
Table 1 Mennonite Creative Writers Interviewed in Winnipeg, 1997 Type Age Immigrant Name of writer (Years) Period David Bergen Short Story/Novel 40s 1870s 1920s Sandra Birdsell Writer 50s 1920s Di Brandt Poet 40s 1870s Wayne DeFehr Writer 30s 1920s Diane Driedger Writer/Poet 30s 1870s 1920s Arnold Dyck Writer 60+ 1920s (E. Peters) (deceased) David Elias Short Stories 40s 1870s Victor Jerrett Enns Poet 40s 1920s 1870s Patrick Friesen Poet 50s 1870s Paul Hiebert Writer/Novelist 60+ 1870s (T. Schaefer) (deceased) Sarah Klassen Poet 60s 1920s Susan Letkemann Poet 40s 1870s Harry Loewen Literary Historian 60s 1920s Elizabeth Peters Translator 80s 1920s Al Reimer Editor/Novelist 60s 1870s Byron Rempel Writer 30s 1870s Douglas Reimer Poet/Novelist 50s 1870s Priscilla Reimer Poetry/Prose 40s 1870s Vern Thiessen Playwright 30s 1940s Miriam Toews Novelist 30s 1870s John Weier Poet 40s 1920s Armin Wiebe Novelist 40s 1870s Mennonite Years in Name Denomination Winnipeg David Bergen MB 16 EMB Sandra Birdsell MB 29 Catholic Di Brandt EMMC 26 Wayne DeFehr MB 13 Diane Driedger GC 35 Arnold Dyck GC 16 (E. Peters) David Elias None 30 Victor Jerrett Enns GC 20 Sommerfelder Patrick Friesen EMC 31 Chortitzer Paul Hiebert GC 20 (T. Schaefer) Sarah Klassen MB 50 Susan Letkemann GC 20 Harry Loewen MB 18 Elizabeth Peters GC 45 Al Reimer EMC 44 Byron Rempel EMB - Douglas Reimer GC/EMMC 15 Priscilla Reimer EMC 14 Vern Thiessen GC 24 Miriam Toews EMC 15 John Weier GC 30 Armin Wiebe Sommerfelder 20 Bergthaler Key: Bergthaler: Bergthaler Mennonite Church; Chortizer: Chortitzer Mennonite Church; EMB: Evangelical Mennonite Brethren; EMC: Evangelical Mennonite Church; EMMC: Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church; GC: General Conference Mennonite; MB: Mennonite Brethren Church; Sommerfelder: Sommerfelder Mennonite Church.