In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time at “Crossing the Line”

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Sofia Samatar answering questions at “Crossing the Line.”

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.” This was the message of the third plenary talk at Crossing the Line, “In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” delivered by award-winning novelist Sofia Samatar.

Samatar, who teaches literature at James Madison University, opened her presentation with a discussion of the poem “Annie,” published in 1912 by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire. The poem describes a chance encounter between the rakish poet and a Mennonite woman in a rose garden in eastern Texas.

“Her rose bushes and dress have no buttons,” Apollinaire writes. “And as my coat has lost two / She and I are almost of the same religion.”

Like many of us who have run across unexpected Mennonite references in literature, Samatar described the small “flash of joy” she felt upon reading Apollinaire’s poem, as well as the “sting” of wondering what, exactly, this woman in the rose garden represents. How does this short, possibly inaccurate representation reflect on Anabaptists as a whole?

Arcing through the twentieth century, Samatar took us on an insightful, often hilarious tour of Mennonites and Amish in popular media. We reflected on Witness (1985), in which Harrison Ford goes Amish to solve a crime, and learned about the thriving subgenre of Amish romance novels—so-called “bonnet rippers”—that apparently include Amish vampire romance.

Common to all these examples, according to Samatar, is the stereotyped figure of the sexualized Anabaptist woman. Chaste and coy beneath her bonnet and cape dress, this trope inherently invites uncovering by the male gaze. Think of Rachel in Witness, who memorably locks lips with Harrison Ford—or of Apollinaire’s “Annie,” based on a governess whom the poet wished to bed.

Or consider the first season of Breaking Amish, which features a young Mennonite woman named Sabrina. She is of Puerto Rican background and leaves her conservative adoptive family to find biological relatives in New York City. Long-lost sisters run a beauty parlor, it turns out, and Sabrina gets a makeover—traditional dress swapped for a t-shirt and tight shorts.

For Samatar, Sabrina’s transformation (from innocent Mennonite into sexy Latina) presupposes a narrative strategy incapable of acknowledging both aspects of the young woman’s identity. She cannot simultaneously be both Puerto Rican and Anabaptist. According to the logic of mass entertainment, she must choose.

Samatar rejects this dichotomy. Only when we welcome the messiness, the complexity of women’s lives, she suggests—when we cross lines of gender, race, religion, and language—will we be able to understand our cultural richness as well as, ultimately, ourselves.

Giving body to this idea, Samatar concluded her keynote with three readings. She chose autobiographical pieces by three Mennonite women: her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Through the multi-generational voices of Amy Kreider Glick, Lydia Glick, and Sofia Samatar, we heard unexpected, beautiful stories: of a girl growing up in rural Missouri; of a young woman traveling to Somalia and falling in love; of a brown student reading fantasy and navigating fashion at her boarding school.  

These are the stories we need. We can all look forward to Samatar’s forthcoming short story collection, Monster Portraits, as well as to her next project, an exploration of women’s experiences in a nineteenth-century Mennonite-Muslim settlement in Central Asia.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

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