Robert Zacharias, ed., After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015). Paperback, 244 pages, $31.95.
After Identity is a collection of essays edited by Robert Zacharias, assistant professor of English at York University, Toronto. This collection was generated by a symposium held at Pennsylvania State University in May 2013. The impulse for that symposium came from the Mennonite/s Writing conference held at Eastern Mennonite University in the fall of 2012.
The conference and symposium explored “the role that identity was playing in the critical conversation about Mennonite writing in North America.” Put more precisely, the essays in After Identity “aim to interrogate what is at stake in—and potentially to initiate a move beyond—the field’s ongoing preoccupation with Mennonite identity itself.” Zacharias signals early in his introduction that this is no straightforward task; indeed, questions of identity “remain pressing but conflicted areas of critical concern.”
The book is divided into two parts, entitled “Reframing Identity” and “Expanding Identity.” The section titles themselves indicate that these tasks are ongoing, a theme that comes through very clearly and often, albeit in somewhat disparate ways, within the essays. The list of authors includes leading North American Mennonite writers within the field of literary criticism, nearly half of whom are also poets, as well as a social historian (Royden Loewen).
The most obvious strength of this collection of essays is that it exposes readers to a fairly sustained, characteristic, and interesting treatment of the North American literary world both in terms of the literature and the kinds of literary criticism being produced; this feature alone makes the book worth reading. Many of the specific issues addressed are worth attending to but cannot be given adequate attention within the constraints of this review. For example, topics such as gender (Ann Hostetler), the queering of Mennonite literature (Daniel Shank Cruz), the catechetical impulse of much Mennonite literature (Jesse Nathan), the significance of the autoethnographic announcement (Julia Spicher Kasdorf), and the relationship of Mennonite literature and modernity (Royden Loewen) are covered.
Ervin Beck’s look at Mennonite transgressive literature is refreshing precisely because of how seriously he takes what he calls “Mennonite folk literary criticism,” from those recreational readers of Mennonite literature whose opinions are often ignored or dismissed by critics as naïve, reactionary, or defensive. Beck insists that Mennonite literary culture ought to include and respect also these understandings of Mennonite texts.
Another strong contribution is the acknowledgement of and the call to embrace hybridity, a recognition that a “Mennonite writer—shaped by a vast horizon of literary and other events—is also always, already, a non-Mennonite writer.” Hybridity is explored on the level of particularity in Paul Tiessen’s fascinating account of the original dust jacket of Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, in which Tiessen convincingly shows that even this ur-text of Mennonite literature was already deeply shaped by non-Mennonite influences. Hybridity on a broader, even global scale is praised by Di Brandt in a wide-ranging, highly polemical, question-driven (rhetorical and otherwise) essay in which she calls Mennonites to embrace the kind of inclusiveness that “will help us to think more clearly, at this critical, liminal, and sacred time. . .”
I also want to interrogate this collection of essays in what I take to be the spirit of this project. First, the book surprisingly lacks adequately serious engagement with theological themes, authors, and topics. This is not to say that such themes are not mentioned, but that the ways in which they are brought into the discussion often do not extend much beyond generalities, side-swipes, too-vague notions about Jesus, or unsubstantiated claims about what is or is not said and done within church and theological circles.
Further, along with many of the authors in this book, I confess that I find myself reacting to the exploration of Mennonite identity (yet again) with some ambiguity, realizing that to protest all of this identity talk is to continue the very conversation about which I feel conflicted. I worry that self-consciousness concerning identity may collapse into a kind of communal solipsism or, at the very least, a turn to the inside (after all, one of the essays in the book focuses on issues of gender, voice, and care by engaging two interlocutors, both of whom also contribute essays here—and, I hasten to add, are fine contributions). As I read the book, I found myself wondering whether we may be close to succumbing to a certain kind of grasping quality within our exploration of identity, carrying in its train the danger of turning away from the literature itself, a concern nicely expressed by Magdalene Redekop, who offers us the consolation that “when all is said and done, we have the art left over.” It’s important to add here that Mennonite theology, which is my own field of teaching and research (for which literature provides an important stream of source material), also suffers from a preoccupation with identity that, if not disciplined, as it were, can easily result in the endless discussions of what makes for good Mennonite theology even while ignoring the work of theology itself.
The world of Mennonite writing in North America is a lively and fascinating one that pushes into new territory even while it seeks to attend to its own histories, traditions, and communities—this collection of essays is a reliable guide to understanding that state of affairs.
Paul Doerksen is an associate professor of theology and Anabaptist studies at Canadian Mennonite University, where he regularly offers courses in literature and theology.