After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America.
In North America, especially in intellectual and artistic circles, the drive toward the "post" and the "after" remains intense. Scholarly movements ranging from post-modernism, post-colonialism, and post-humanism to post-identity politics signal repeated commitments to dismantling sites of aesthetic and power hierarchies--or outright exclusions. The twelve essayists in Robert Zacharias's After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (to which Zacharias also contributes an introduction and chapter) share in the larger cultural desires to surpass taxonomic or binary thinking, and their collective contributions inquire carefully and seriously into the meaning and the value of the categories of identity such as "Mennonite" and "Mennonite writing." Zacharias frames this dilemma in his introduction: "has the time come for Mennonite/s writing to move on,... will it be always be (chasing) after identity" or is it a question of "thinking differently about identity" (12)?
Given such ambivalence, it comes as no surprise that the collection excels in highlighting what Rosi Braidotti calls the "multiple ecologies of belonging" that inform writing Mennonites as well as their aesthetic practices (218). In related projects, Julia Kasdorf and Zacharias respectively explore the playful, textured literature that derives precisely from an interrogation of Amish or Mennonite stereotypes--notably the representations of them as segregated peoples, readily identifiable by handmade quilts, hearty food, and quaint lives. The very familiarity of these stereotypes allows for an exuberant aesthetic experiment that at once draws on and upends the notion of an authentic, singular ethnic identity. Other contributors, including Paul Tiessen, Magdalene Redekop, and Ann Hostetler, mine other forms of aesthetic diversity in which the "Mennonite writer" gains voice through interactions with non-Mennonite influences. Whereas Tiessen brings to light forgotten archives in order to reveal the reception of Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many--the foundational Canadian Mennonite novel--as significantly shaped by the cover art solicited by McClelland & Stewart, Redekop listens for the Mennonite and wide-ranging non-Mennonite accents in a Patrick Friesen poem; and Hostetler examines Kasdorf's and Brandt's adaptations of the Mennonite tradition of peacemaking into eco-feminist practices of care.
Such emphases on preservation through transformation also emerge in Daniel Shank Cruz's call for a rapprochement between two countercultures--radical Anabaptism with its resistance to the dominant socio-religious structures and queer community, which makes room for contention--and in Jesse Nathan's "Question, Answer." In close readings of a number of poems by North American (white) Mennonites--who, Nathan reminds readers, now constitute fewer than a third of the global Mennonites--he compelling argues for the value of a "stubbornly earnest, irreverent, faithfully questioning spirit" that traces back to Anabaptist non-conformism and continues to vitalize the literature of this minority remnant (181). He counts himself as a privileged Mennonite--an educated, artistic, white descendant of European Anabaptists--who claims as his inheritance the Anabaptist task of wrestling with metaphysical questions (while refusing easy answers) as a primary means of sustaining the life of the soul.
After Identity is emphatically a book of questions, illustrated best in Di Brandt's "In Praise of Hybridity," which turns on accumulating queries: Who were we? What are we? Where are we? and Why don't we? In this spirit of dwelling with questions, I want to pose a few of my own about After Identity, as well as about "post" or "after" projects more generally. To begin with a concern that may say more about me than about the volume: if a primary aim of recent North American Mennonite writing is to embrace plurality, how do we (the educated, writing Mennonites of which I am one) open ourselves to peoples who have been excluded from some Mennonite communities (those who are not pacifist, Christian, or straight, for example) without either oversimplifying the community members themselves or setting ourselves up as free of the cumbersome aspects of Mennonite inheritances? To acknowledge historical hurts in order to offer hospitality to people of all faiths, genders, and ethnicities constitutes a loving, needful practice. Still, I worry that an "after" Mennonite identity could get formulated in terms of an opposition to and supersession of another caricature: the morally and sexually repressive, ban-prone, patriarchal, queer-bashing, purity-obsessed, and other-faith-phobic Bible literalists.
Yes, all of these problems obtain in Mennonite communities. My concern is that we want to believe that we can leave behind a desire to exclude, while in the very act of setting clear boundaries. Whether in "progressive" ethnic-religious communities or in the English-cultural studies realm I inhabit, the very drive toward openness may result in an inadvertent return to binaries, moral and communal, regarding the contents of an ethical practice and the parameters of belonging. We need to guard against the temptation to set ourselves apart from those whose loves seem somehow less expansive than our own and to inquire into their "multiple ecologies of belonging." Ethical living or writing entails making room for the previously excluded as well as for a compassionate--and subtle--perception of those who came before us. The past cannot be left behind as readily as the multiple countries Mennonites have exited. Or, more accurately, the past can only be left like a country, insofar as leave-taking tends to resist temporal closure, exerting an immense affective, psychosomatic, and heritable reach. What do we carry within ourselves, willingly or not?
One Anabaptist legacy on which I would welcome further discussion is that of theological inheritance and adoption. Nathan, Hostetler, and Jeff Gundy touch on the theological, but there is still room for essays that engage extensively with those who consider themselves spiritual Mennonites, whether in North America or beyond. What might the churches offer to those who remain members or to those in the LGBTQ2 community who desire full membership? Moreover, if most of the two million people (plus) who identify as Mennonite are no longer consanguine heirs of the Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists, what does or might "after identity" mean in a global and theological context? The recent Mennonites--in Asia, Latin America, and, predominantly, Africa--are counted in terms of conversion and church membership, thus it remains important to consider both the appeal of Anabaptist theology and the transformations of church practice in new cultural contexts. What is it in Anabaptism, which has traveled much of the world, that remains lively, growing, and changing?
Zacharias and his collaborators have produced a very fine set of essays that highlight the richness of recent literary and critical studies in North America. Equally important, these writers look to engagements that are yet to come.
Grace Kehler McMaster University
Donald Eberle, 755 West Washington St., Napoleon, Ohio 43545. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. Charles D. Jantzi, Dept. of Psychology, Messiah College, One College Avenue, Suite 3052, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055. E-mail: email@example.com
Prof. Jennifer Otto, Max-Weber-Kolleg fur kultur- und sozial-wissenschaftliche Studien, Universitat Erfurt, Postfach 900221, 99105 Erfurt, Germany. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. John D. Roth, Dept. of History, Goshen College, 1700 S. Main St., Goshen, IN, 46526. E-mail: email@example.com
Prof. Daniel Shank Cruz, Department of English, Utica College, 1600 Burrstone Road, Utica, NY 13502. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org