- After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America ed. by Robert Zacharias
A four-day symposium in Pennsylvania in 2013 discussing the role of identity in Mennonite writing was the stimulus for this collection of essays. As is noted by more than one of the contributors, a flowering of literary output by Mennonites in Canada in the 1980s, and somewhat later by Mennonites in the United States, gave rise to something that could be called "Mennonite" writing. Implied in the notion of a body of literary texts that is in some way Mennonite is a connection by the author or the work to ethnic or religious identity, or both. Mennonites are the descendants of the radical reformers of the sixteenth century who went further than their Lutheran and Reformed counterparts by denying infant baptism, the sacraments, and in the crucible of opposition and persecution sought to live separately from "the world." Two streams of these descendants, the Swiss and Dutch-North German, migrated to North America in waves beginning in the eighteenth century after sojourns in the German Palatinate, Prussia, and Russia. The collection of essays in this volume engages the question of what Mennonite writing might be when it is detached from its moorings in identity. Indeed, is "Mennonite writing" a term devoid of meaning when it is no longer anchored to being Mennonite in some way?
The essays in this collection are divided into two main sections; the first, entitled "Reframing Identity," explores the myriad ways that identity has become a shape-shifting mirage for Mennonites in North America. Identity has, however, been an important anchor and springboard for much of the writings of the last thirty-five years. As Julia Spicher Kasdorf [End Page 182] notes in her opening chapter, the "autoethnographic announcement" has been a feature of Mennonite writing however it enters the text and has served as the identity anchor for "sorting insiders from outsiders." Royden Loewen follows this opening with an overview of the changing North American Mennonite landscape that paints a picture of loss of coherence, fragmentation, and concludes that identity after what he calls a Mennonite fin de siècle will feature identities more plural and innovative than was the case in earlier periods. The remaining essays in this first section draw out further the complexities of gendered, hybrid, and transgressive identities and the tensions that permeate writings whose authors Robert Zacharias characterizes as both engaging the "conventions of Mennonite identity" while seeking to distance themselves from those conventions.
The second section of the collection probes ways of expanding the notion of identity. The six essays in this section search for new roots from which Mennonite writing might sprout. Di Brandt's remarkably optimistic essay calls for the abandonment of the Mennonite martyr narrative to embrace a generous inclusiveness. Daniel Shank Cruz's challenges literary critics to embrace queer and hybrid sexual identities, and other chapters call for more specific, less epic narratives. Magdalene Redekop adds the cautionary note that a Mennonite "aesthetic accent" exists and non-Mennonites will "resonate just as deeply" to a good poem that features such accents. Hildi Froese Tiessen ends this section and the volume by arguing that Mennonite writing should not "forget about identity entirely," but the privileged position that identity has occupied needs to be replaced by greater attention to the individual voice of the author rather than her membership in a collective identity.
Although the premise and its title, "After Identity," suggest the apogee of identity as a defining element of Mennonite writing, it has been a good run. It seems somewhat hard to imagine what "Mennonite" writing can be without some connection to an ethnic historical context. Certainly, the specific social milieu, religious strictures, and patriarchal and settler society premises that have given being Mennonite its meaning in North America have been rich sources for the literary project. The essays in this volume challenge the viability of the Mennonite ethnographic sources and the primacy of identity for the writers of tomorrow. Although the arguments offered are thought provoking, it remains unclear whether...