Beyond the Binary: Re-Inscribing Cultural Identity in the Literature of Mennonites

By Tiessen, Hildi Froese | Mennonite Quarterly Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Binary: Re-Inscribing Cultural Identity in the Literature of Mennonites


Tiessen, Hildi Froese, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: Mennonites tend to perceive their cultural existence in binary terms: center/margin or insider/outsider. Although Mennonite creative writers have tended, also, to adopt these binary categories in their critical writing, some of them, in their creative work, have escaped the fixed, binary categories that seem to prevent Mennonites from articulating the complex nature of their cultural identity. Writers like Jeff Gundy and Julia Kasdorf, for example, have undertaken compelling explorations of what cultural theorists call an "in-between" world that binary understandings prevent us from naming or claiming. By exploring and re-mapping the diverse worlds that contemporary Mennonites occupy, creative writers like these have begun to inscribe the multiple and unfixed "locations of culture" that most contemporary North American Mennonites occupy, and so have begun to re-inscribe Mennonite cultural identity.

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In a compelling article published in 1997, (1) poet Julia Kasdorf quotes the closing lines of a prose poem by her Canadian Mennonite literary colleague Di Brandt: "I hate having to choose between my inherited identity & my life: traditional Mennonite versus contemporary Canadian woman writer, yet how can i be both & not fly apart?" (2) Commenting, some years earlier, in 1992, on the imminent publication of her own first book of poetry, Sleeping Preacher, Kasdorf observed that many of the poems in that collection had been "written from the perspective of an outsider--either a Mennonite outside American culture, or a critical sheep in the Mennonite fold. I've had it both ways," she said, "to be in the community and in the world--which, of course, means to have it neither way. Alienating as it sometimes feels, this non-home is my home." (3) Writers like Kasdorf and Brandt, and others who in recent decades have chosen to write both creatively and critically about Mennonite experience from a Mennonite perspective, have given a good deal of attention to the question of what it means to be "inside" or "outside" a community that once represented for them a fairly unqualified "home." (4) In the process, they have tended to foreground general questions of Mennonite cultural identity and to probe, more specifically, questions about how their writing might be regarded as a means of "locating" themselves (and, presumably, other contemporary North American Mennonites) relative to the two monoliths Brandt once referred to as "the Mennonite world" and "the worldly world out there." (5)

Of course, neither Mennonite writers nor Mennonites in general have a sole claim to the tensions involved in an individual's trying "to be true to two worlds" (to quote the University of Pittsburgh Press's release announcing Kasdorf's Sleeping Preacher) or to more general experiences of displacement or deterritorialization in the closing years of this century. "The migrant's sense of being rootless, of living between worlds, between a lost past and a non-integrated present," cultural studies critic Iain Chambers has observed, is, after all, "perhaps the most fitting metaphor of [our] (post)modern condition." (6) It is not surprising, then, that a good many contemporary theorists should attempt to come to terms with, and to theorize, what novelist Michael Ondaatje and others have referred to as "the migrant's double perspective." (7) As writers and critics have struggled to make sense of what it means to live between cultures, they often have revealed the human tendency to try to understand the complexly intertwined several contexts they occupy in simple, binary terms: center/margin, home/exile, community/ individual, insiders/outsiders, and so on.

Such a tendency to perceive one's contexts--or, one might say, the locations of one's personal or cultural existence--in binary terms has contributed to the emergence of a monolith Mennonites conventionally refer to as "the Mennonite community." In fact, such a monolith has been projected in numerous commentaries on Mennonite writing, at least since John Ruth's landmark lectures on "Mennonite Identity and Literary Art" in 1976. …

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