Interview with Rhoda Janzen

Rhoda Janzen hit the motherlode with her second book, a memoir called The Mennonite in the Little Black Dress, a number one New York Times Best Seller in 2010. Her first book was the poetry collection Babel’s Stair, published in 2006. She holds a PhD from UCLA and teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She has just recently published a sequel memoir called Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems (Grand Central, 257 pages, $24.99), which will be reviewed in a future issue of Rhubarb. Janzen was interviewed by Victor Enns in January.

Rhubarb: Congratulations on the publication of your new memoir, following up the success of your first. Thanks for agreeing to an interview by Rhubarb magazine.

I notice from your email you have what I assume is a new married name, and the impulse of a writer and a Mennonite to play the name game is irresistible— and for both names. I grew up with one Rhoda in a Mennonite community and met no other Mennonite Rhoda in Manitoba. How did you come to be given that as a lovely, if uncommon, name?

Rhoda Janzen: It is a nice name, isn’t it? I’ve always liked it. My parents were all about Bible names. My namesake plays a tiny role in the story of the early church. She answers the door for Peter after he escapes from jail, but she’s so excited she leaves him standing on the steps. She’s perfect for me: bit of a dumb-ass, but cheery as a lark.

R: Your new book continues to carry Janzen as your surname. I understand the practical importance of maintaining a name that has been on the New York Times Best Seller list. Did you at any time think of using your married name? Is Janzen your maiden name, and what does it mean to you?

RJ: Ah, I love the name Janzen. It signals community, and I do cherish my heritage. I always assumed that, like most women in academia, I would keep my name if I married. But a spanking case of cancer adjusted my priorities. By the time my husband and I made it to the altar, I was more interested in a demonstration of unity than a subversion of patriarchy.

R: When I first showed an interest in a particular girl when I was fifteen, and not a Mennonite girl, my parents left a copy of a book on my night table called How Far Can I Go, with a caricature of a caveman dragging a woman toward his cave by her hair. Did your parents talk to you about sex, or how did you learn? What taboos did you grow up with as a child?

RJ: Aw, shucks. That’s kinda dear. I like the thought of How Far Can I Go suddenly materializing one night, like an angelic visitation. The night-table book in my family would have been Let’s Talk about Church! I grew up with taboos on sex, gender, drugs, drinking, movies, violence, language, dance, technology, and popular culture. On the other hand, I was richly exposed to affection, humour, faith, discipline, compassion, perseverance, and jam. Maybe I couldn’t follow the dirty jokes at school, but, by gum, I could fry up some succulent rollkuchen!

R: “Stille im Lande” (quiet in the land) was a phrase that was for a time repeated often as an argument and a strategy for Mennonite separateness and survival. Rhubarb will be looking more closely at this notion in our next issue, on Power and Politics. I would also hazard that men were more likely than women to raise their voices in their homes or congregations. Did you feel that speaking up was a taboo? And that you were raising your voice through your poems, and then your memoirs? Was/is this taboo more forcefully applied to women?

RJ: Speaking out, ad alta voce, was certainly taboo. When I was a young scholar, I was quick to attach the reality of Mennonite hushmouth to rigid gender paradigms. In retrospect, hushmouth effectively silenced boys as well as girls. Childhood was not the time to raise one’s voice. Childhood was the time to develop obedience to an earthly father, a visible analogue for a heavenly father.

I never wanted to speak out, though. Not even Gramsci would have agitated for change if he hadn’t believed that change was possible. And anyway, I didn’t want to change the Mennonites. (Hey! I’m so oppressed, I’m not even pissed off about it!) Maybe if the concept of Nietzschean transvaluation had been in my junior-mint vocabulary, I might have made some connections between powerlessness and creativity. But I wasn’t reading Nietzsche. I was hiding in my brothers’ closet, writing poems. Then and now I’ve been more interested in craft than polemic. I’m the writer who studies Flannery O’Connor for vocal control, not the writer who contests hegemony and limited vision. I suffer from limited vision myself, so I try to take the long view.

R: Was the exhortation to silence a taboo you grew up with, and was it used to avoid conflict when you grew up?

RJ: Yes. My parents didn’t argue in front of us. Then again, they’ve always demonstrated a causal relationship between intention and happiness. Maybe they just purposed to live out a model of Christian marriage. They’re the real deal. There’s a downside to stifling life’s little undercurrents, though. I didn’t develop conflict-management skills until grad school.

R: With regard to our issue’s theme, Taboo/Sex: while Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is actually surprisingly mum about sexual intimacies, I note that you do offer—on Page 226—a free pair of your own panties to any Mennonite entrepreneur wishing to start an enterprise selling Menno panties on eBay. What would be the current status of that offer . . . ?

RJ: Aren’t all Mennonites mum about sexual intimacies?

R: I’d be curious to know how the Men- nonites in general, and your family in par- ticular, responded to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. While it’s mostly couched in cheekily satiric lan- guage and exposition, a few characters must have felt somewhat stung: your brother Aaron? your sister-in-law Staci? Yvonne?

RJ: Mennonite readers flooded me with stories about their own funny Mennonite childhoods. They sent me gifts. Flannelgraphs, corduroy Bibles, Ger- man sausage. Aprons and zwiebach, sermons and scolds. Some Mennonites felt that the humour was disrespectful. Sadly, some didn’t recognize that it was humour. Often non-literary Mennonites read the book as ethnography rather than memoir. That’s an understandable conflation if you don’t read much literature. A couple of Menno oldsters expressed hopeful interest in my mother. My editor advised me to ask two family members to read the manuscript before it went to press. I did, and took every suggestion I received. There were still some hurt feelings, though.

R: I find it fascinating that, after almost thirty years spent running determinedly away from the Mennonite fold, after only a six-month visit you seem to find yourself sliding slowly back into the groove. Where are you now in that process? Could you envi- sion rejoining a Menno congregation at some point in your life (albeit perhaps an urban one near a college or university)?

RJ: I went a different direction. My husband and I are active in a Pentecostal church. We can’t get to this church fast enough—Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesdays, churchchurchchurch! Nothing against the Mennonites, but the Pentecostals have sparkler pom-poms. Also they shout stuff out in the middle of the sermon. Call me crazy, but I’ve always wanted to do that.

R: You give the impression that everyone in your childhood/family communicated in English, but you seem reasonably conversant in both Low German and High German. Where did you pick those up? (I ask because I’ve had the impression that the American Mennos gave up the two Germans earlier than the Canadian Mennos.)

RJ: My parents are Canadian. They grew up speaking German. What a gift they gave us!

R: When you left the Mennonites three decades ago, what elements of Menno culture, faith, and tradi- tion did you maintain in your secular life, and what elements did you categorically dump? How were these tempered or reinvigorated with your return home and recovery from trauma of divorce, accident, and breast cancer? What about now in your new relationship with your husband and the Pentecostal church?

RJ: Today I trot after God like a brisk puppy. For more than twenty years, though, I lived a subset of secular life—urban chic, the art world, the life of the mind. In order to pursue my more worldly goals, my young scholarly self jettisoned some predict- able Mennonite baggage: hushmouth, sexual mores, church connectedness. I didn’t understand why anybody would deliberately seek to avoid exposure to the great ideas in philosophy, art, literature. And since one of the goals of critical inquiry is to uncover taboos, I went out of my way to examine everything the Mennonites had considered taboo.

Maybe not everything. No weed, drunkenness, or carousing with strangers. Actually, my little rebellion was on the tame side. But I may have looked vaguely slutty with my wine spritzer, there at the soiree, as I exchanged witticisms with a scholar who had written a dissertation on zombies, from a Foucauldian perspective.

I never jettisoned faith in God, faith in the Gospel, a sense of heritage, a commitment to peace and social justice, love of family, community, music, or the pleasures of the domestic sphere. However, I should mention that during these years my idea of God was sort of like a friendly department chair. “Thumbs up, keep up the research! Whatever you’re interested in!”

These days I am more a believer/tither than a mover/shaker.

R: My dad, a preacher, had a .22 single-shot rifle in the porch when we lived in the country, and my Mennonite parents actually bought me toy guns. We were GC though, and if you have any connections back to your Canadian past, your background, as I understand it, is MB. I digress. I was, however, a little taken aback by the reference to the very real pistol in Mitch’s pants, and especially now after the school shootings it seems dangerous. We could go into the attraction of “boys” etc., but I’m more interested in taboos around guns, and the possible difference be- tween Canadians and Americans, as well as Pentecos- tals and Mennonites. How do you feel about guns in your home?

RJ: My husband will chuckle when I tell him he’s been classed as a “bad boy.” His pistol is as safe as any police officer’s—safer, probably, because on top of permits and certification, he has many years of self-defence training and martial arts. We share our remote wooded acres with coyotes and deer. My husband, a seasoned hunter, provides the meat in our freezer. Thus a gun in our home makes sense.

The difference you mentioned between Canadians and Americans is not just possible. It’s measurable. According to the 2012 Global Peace Index, Canada ranks number four of 158 nations. The United States is number eighty-nine. America has some crazy- weird violent ideation, no doubt about it. I don’t know what Canadian TV is like, but we gave ours the heave-ho.

Our Pentecostal pastor deploys military metaphors that would give any Menno the fidgets. I’ve heard more in the last five years about King David’s Mighty Men of Valour than I heard in a lifetime of Menno sermons. And that dude Shamgar? With the ox goad? Who knew he was even in the Bible?

R: One of the first talks about poetry I gave at a poetry conference raised questions about ethics, and personal privacy when you are writing (however much we know, have been taught, understand, I is never I . . .) about friends, lovers, and family. Why did you choose the memoir as the form for your stories? Why not fiction or poetry?

RJ: My agent suggested the memoir genre.

Memoir is especially tasty to Americans. Our passion for it devolves from a cultural emphasis on self-reinvention. (Gatsby! Gaga! Vampires!) People think America is all about the cash, citing get-rich- quick schemes, the lottery, the self-made millionaire. But those things aren’t about cash. They’re about class mobility, the delicious freedom to invent a whole new you. You can trace the trope genealogically through America’s canonical literature, all the way back from seventeenth-century captivity narratives, then down through Hawthorne, Howells, Chestnutt, Wharton, Cather, Morrison, and so on. America’s enthusiasm for self-reinvention explains the proliferation of our self-help and memoir genres, even our bad TV shows about the biggest losers.

So, to sum up: memoir isn’t the story of our life. It’s the story of our change. We have a conversion, an epiphany, a moment of confrontation with some jaw-dropping reality. And then we are never the same. Christianity and memoir! Made for each other!

R: Mennonites, however humble, love success. How many more Mennonite friends and relatives do you have now after the literary and commercial success you’ve had? There are some Mennonites who prize financial success above all (despite the whole eye-of-the-needle jazz) and those who value educational achievement. You seem to have scored on both fronts.

RJ: Oh man. Well, Mennonites aren’t the only ones on the reach. I get so much mail I have to have help screening it. It’s great when ambitious writers have the chops to contact complete strangers, but let me just say categorically, no, I will not edit your memoir. And my mom is not available for a dream date. Although it’s true she’d probably give you a bowl of borscht.

R: What Mennonite writers do you read, if any? As a preacher’s kid I gave some time to Marilynne Robinson’s books, but I really wonder whether the great questions of faith are still relevant in contempo- rary literature. Any recommendations?

RJ: I read mainly in theology, philosophy, and cultural history, but I do try to stay current with some Mennonite writers. A few are Jean Janzen, Rudy Wiebe, Julia Kasdorf, Miriam Toews, Todd Davis, Di Brandt, Ann Hostetler, and Sarah Klassen.

Sure, I have recommendations for those who wonder if the great questions of faith are still relevant in contemporary literature. For memoir, try Donna Johnson’s powerful Holy Ghost Girl or Mark Richard’s provocative House of Prayer No. 2. For fiction, try Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, or Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers. Those are all current titles that deal with faith explicitly and centrally. And so many more tackle the great ques- tions of faith with metaphor—Lauren Groff ’s haunting Arcadia, for example, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

R: So what now? Will you keep writing memoirs? Or are you working on a novel, or poetry? Your first publication was Babel’s Stair (2006), a collection of poems, but that now seems long ago and far away.

RJ: I’m working on a novel and a grammar text- book. Now that I’ve quit running from Nineveh, so to speak, I’m open to the concept of divine calling. Gotta say: still a little anxious that the Almighty will send me out to evangelize the Chaco.

R: Thanks.