Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Constructing Narrative: An Introduction to Dallas Wiebe and Our Asian Journey

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Constructing Narrative: An Introduction to Dallas Wiebe and Our Asian Journey

Article excerpt

Abstract: When Dallas Wiebe's Our Asian Journey began to appear in excerpted form in 1989, a new and specifically Mennonite literary world which could offer that project a place had begun to take form in the United States. At the same time, Wiebe's stature as an established writer, his fairly traditional Mennonite background to the end of his undergraduate years at Bethel College in the early 1950s and his commitment to re-tell a historically established Mennonite story in his most impressive work to date make him an ideal figure to give that literary world a particular historic depth.

After acknowledging Wiebe's place as a Mennonite writer within a developing tradition, the essay turns in the second half to a consideration of some of Wiebe's thematic and stylistic interests in his earlier work, not explicitly Mennonite, and their manifestation in Our Asian Journey.

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In the more than forty years that he has published poetry and fiction, Dallas Wiebe, though born and raised in Kansas as a Mennonite, has not often been called a "Mennonite" writer. For a long time there was little on the surface of his work to identify it as Mennonite, and there were still only hints of any reading community that might want to explore it in such terms. By 1989, however, when he was looking for a publisher for his novel Our Asian Journey, there were people and institutions ready to begin constructing a kind of narrative that would lead to Wiebe's place as one of the "elder statesmen" at the large and impressive gathering of writers, readers and critics in 1997 at the Mennonite/s Writing in the U.S. conference hosted by Goshen College. It was Our Asian Journey-based mainly on documents of an 1880s episode involving groups of Mennonites moving eastward from south Russia to Turkestan to await there the return of the Lord-that helped to change things. This apocalyptic novel about people reading the Book of Revelation as literal narrative managed to catch the attention of Mennonite historians, who for generations have been important cultural gate-keepers and guides among Mennonites.

When he began writing Our Asian Journey in 1975, Wiebe could not envision a Mennonite audience for his work. He imagined for it a general literary audience like those he had been addressing with the help of small presses in the previous twenty years. This period began in 1956 and included his novel Skyblue the Badass (1969), a work characteristic of virtually all of his writing, filled as it is (to quote from the original dust jacket) with a "dazzling world of verbal pyrotechnics.... a world of allusion, insight, symbolism and cerebration." (1)

Historian James C. Juhnke provided Mennonite readers, and Wiebe, with the first public sign--the first "authorizing signal"--that Wiebe might have a place among them. Juhnke's announcement came when he published the final chapter (Chapter 7) of Our Asian Journey in a 1989 issue of Mennonite Life. (2) Juhnke was editor of this journal, which is based at Bethel College, where Wiebe had been an undergraduate in the late 1940s and early 1950s and where historians in those days had so pointedly turned their backs on the "Asian journey" episode of the 1880s that Wiebe's interest in it was immediately piqued. (3) Juhnke, who saw in Wiebe's novel a challenge to Christian readers, offered these words to pave the way for the new work:

   Dallas Wiebe, Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati,
   has written a novel about one of the most fascinating events of all
   Mennonite history-the trek of Russian Mennonites into Central Asia
   to meet the Lord.... We have all assumed that participants of this
   failed venture came out with embarrassment and disillusionment. How
   does this elderly Joseph Toevs [in whose voice the final chapter is
   narrated], apparent victim of Christ's failure to return on
   schedule, earn the right to sing a hymn of praise to God at the end
   of his life? … 
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