Writing conference goes west for a changed landscape

Apr 13, 2015 by

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FRESNO, Calif. — A major aspect of the latest Mennonite/s Writing conference, which took place March 12-15 on the campus of Fresno Pacific University, was changed landscapes, both literal and metaphorical.

Mennonite/s Writing VII was the first to be held on the West Coast and occurred in the event’s 25th anniversary year.

The conference highlighted Fresno as a literary center, opening with Fresno’s poet laureate, James Tyner, who read his poem “Fresno,” and a longer reading by poet Peter Everwine, who taught English and creative writing at Fresno State University from 1962 to 1992.

The Fresno writer perhaps best known to Mennonites is a former student of Everwine, poet Jean Janzen, a lifelong Mennonite born and raised in the Mennonite Brethren denomination.

Janzen and another of the “elders” of Mennonite writing, Rudy Wiebe of Edmonton, Alta., were featured during the conference, each reading from new work.

Janzen’s seventh volume of poetry, What the Body Knows, will be published this summer. Wiebe’s Come Back, published last October, is his first novel in more than a decade.

Mas Masumoto, the keynote presenter in addition to Everwine, did much to expand the conference theme, “Movement, Transformation, Place.”

A third-generation Japanese-American farmer in California’s Central Valley, Masumoto is the author of seven books and a columnist for The Fresno Bee.

“You know where you are when you know where you’ve been,” Masumoto said. “Places in our family past are grounded in physical places left behind, not always obvious to the outsider.”

These places are revealed, he said, “only when you dig deeper — and that’s the job of a writer.”

Transforming times

The “movement” and perhaps the “transformation” facets of the conference theme manifested in at least two major ways.

One was the attention paid to the place of LGBTQ writers and writing. One concurrent session was devoted to LGBTQ fiction, while self-identified queer writers contributed to other sessions.

Daniel Shank Cruz, a literary critic and English instructor at Utica (N.Y.) College, noted the challenge of “how to integrate Mennonite roots into and with a queer life. The Mennonite self never really goes away, no matter how much you try to flee it.”

He described his life as “[like] mediating between two angry family members — my Mennonite ancestors and my activist queer friends urging me to move forward and leave the old behind. But ‘Mennonite thinking’ is home to me, and I can’t escape it, no matter how hard I try.”

Casey Plett of Winnipeg, Man., read from her collection of short fiction, A Safe Girl to Love.

“I see many parallels between Mennonite literature and queer literature,” she said, “such as the ‘apostate Mennonite character’ and the ‘transplanted queer character,’ who have many similarities.”

Jan Guenther Braun, originally from Osler, Sask., published a novel, Somewhere Else, in 2008.

“Tolstoy said that history is like a herd of cattle, [who] get spooked and you don’t know what spooked them or which cow started it, but suddenly they take off down the field,” she said. “This [LGBTQ fiction] panel might be that herd making or starting history.”

Wobbling foundations

Movement and transformation were also at the heart of Rob Zacharias’ “State-of-the-Art Address” during the conference.

Zacharias teaches at the University of Waterloo and is a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto. He edited After Identity, a collection of essays written since the 2012 Mennonite/s Writing VI, coming this year.

“In the 25 years since the first Mennonite/s Writing, our foundations are wobbling,” Zacharias said. “There is a meta-critical moment where Mennonite writing is undergoing critical reconsideration. Today in Mennonite literature, the past is up for grabs — and by the past, of course, I mean the future.

“The focus is not on the literature itself but on the ways we talk about the literature. We are looking for other myths of origin and reconsidering the foundational narratives, which reflects the broader context of literary studies and literary criticism.”

He said Mennonite writing has been institutionalized enough and coalesced enough to withstand such criticism.

“How will the broadening of the field reshape our past?” he asked. It can “help us become more like ourselves.”

Mennonite/s Writing VII drew 215 people from across the U.S. and Canada. Sponsors were the Marpeck Fund, California Mennonite Historical Society, Jean and Louis Janzen Visiting Writers Series, FPU, FPU Council of Senior Professionals and Hesston (Kan.) College.


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