(Un)binding Identities

Reviewed by Martin Kuester

Mennonites and Ukrainians are minority groups that have left indelible traces in Canadian literature and culture in the second half of the twentieth century. Both groups arrived in Canada from Europe, although the Mennonites’ route was more indirect than that of the Ukrainians, and the histories of both clashed in what today is Ukraine. The volumes discussed here intersect as far as themes of cultural identity are concerned; in style, form, and approach, however, they could not be more different.

After Identity discusses questions of central importance for North American Mennonite writing in chapters from leading Canadian and American Mennonite scholars and writers. Based on a conference-like setting, its contributors explore the role of identity “in the critical conversation about Mennonite writing in North America.” Playing on the ambiguity of the title After Identity, editor Robert Zacharias asks: “Has the time come for Mennonite/s writing to move on, or will it always be (chasing) after identity”?

The volume consists of two parts, “Reframing Identity” and “Expanding Identity,” both titles playing with grammatical ambiguity once again. In the “Reframing” part, Julia Spicher Kasdorf first focuses on the autoethnographic strain in Mennonite writers from Joseph Yoder to Jessica Penner, locating them in the “contact zone” of contemporary multicultural societies. Historian Royden Loewen identifies a “Mennonite fin de siècle” feeling in contemporary Canadian writers who “seem less to reject Mennonite religion than to celebrate its historical intersection with the sensuous and earthy.” In “Mennonite Transgressive Literature,” Ervin Beck focuses on the disquieting effects that writers (ever since Rudy Wiebe) have had on traditionally conservative Mennonitism, and he establishes a “canon of transgressive Mennonite literary works” from Gordon Friesen via Wiebe and others to Rhoda Janzen. Paul Tiessen analyzes the influence that a non-Mennonite publishing house had on the scandal that Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many roused in Mennonite circles, while Ann Hostetler focuses on the “ethic of care” in the poetry of Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Di Brandt, building “on the peacemaking ethic of their cultural tradition.” In his own contribution, Robert Zacharias identifies a tendency in contemporary Mennonite writing towards

a variety of distancing gestures (irony, self-consciousness, and so on), strategically mobilizing notions of cultural authenticity and cohesive group identity in such a way that it is not directly readable as autoethnography.

One may wonder, though, if what he calls “The Mennonite Thing” may not also be a general Canadian “thing.”

While the essays cited so far seek to redefine Mennonite identity, the second part of the volume aims at “expanding” it. Di Brandt speaks out in favour of openness and hybridity, stating that “[i]t’s hard to give up a narrow minority martyr identity if it has been held onto for a very long time.” Daniel Shank Cruz focuses on another type of hybridity in relation to minorities such as LGBTQ writers within the Mennonite community. Jeff Gundy looks for a new personal “poetics of identity” that might be “constructed of many small pieces, not one grand narrative,” while Jesse Nathan sees writers’ reliance on traditional Mennonite structures of argument such as the catechism and traditional forms of poetry as a source of inspiration. Magdalene Redekop speaks out in favour of a more self-confident reliance on Mennonite identity in a fascinating reading of a poem by Patrick Friesen, in which she finds the affirmation of a “value that lies so deep in the heritage of our people, a value described as the ‘erotic life’ of a gift.” Hildi Froese Tiessen, in “After Identity: Liberating the Mennonite Literary Text,” finally votes for a new critical approach to Mennonite writing that breaks with traditional dichotomies and profits from the insights of other literatures and schools of criticism that “invite new—possibly disruptive—readings.” This important suggestion in the concluding essay of an excellent and inspiring collection, as well as Redekop’s earlier reference to outsiders who have made important comments on Mennonite writing, draws our attention to one of the possible weaknesses of this fine volume: I wish there had been more “outside,” non-Mennonite contributions to its high-level discussion of Mennonite writing.

The second essay collection under review, on Ukrainian Canadian writers “writing home,” edited by Lisa Grekul and Lindy Ledohowski, is equally suggestive, but here the approach is more creative and subjective than merely scholarly, as the volume presents the work of eight Ukrainian Canadian “poet pedagogues.” Contrary to the Mennonite collection, Unbound starts with an “outsider’s” foreword, in which Polish scholar Weronika Suchacka tells the story of her involvement with Ukrainian Canadian literature. In her introduction, Lindy Ledohowski writes that the collection “brings together a selection of voices that have been raised in the articulation of the many different faces of Ukrainian Canadian-ness since Elyniak and Pylypiw [the first immigrants from Ukraine] first came to Canada and decided to stay.” She insists that “‘Ukrainian-ness’ must be understood as synonymous with ‘Canadian-ness’” and that “‘Ethnic’ Is Canadian.” The contributions, by Janice Kulyk Keefer, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, Marusya Bociurkiw, Erín Moure, Daria Salamon, Myrna Kostash, and Lisa Grekul, are very personal approaches (by women only) to writing about being Ukrainian Canadian; about going “home” to Ukraine, which turns out to not be “home” in many cases; about writing “home” to Canada; and about Ukraine and finding one’s Ukrainian Canadian identity. There are personal essays interspersed with poetry, travels into family history and contemporary world politics, memoirs of writing careers that established or broke connections with the Ukrainian community, and many personal impressions of the recent political developments around the Euromaidan in Kyiv. Janice Kulyk Keefer, for example, describes her feeling, not unlike that of many others, of being “betwixt and between” her Canadian identity and Ukrainian family history, between her native English and an almost forgotten Ukrainian that had to be relearned. The rather short but stimulating volume is rounded off by a four-page bibliography of English-language Ukrainian Canadian literature.

This review “(Un)binding Identities” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 151-153.

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