Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: Literary Women—The Lines They Cross

Eileen R. Kinch

Literary Women: The Lines They Cross

Panel 1: Friday, June 23, 8:30 am to 10:00 am

Three presenters gave papers on the lives and/or writing of Mennonite writers.

“Queering Tradition in Jessica Penner’s Shaken in the Water

by Daniel Shank Cruz, Utica College

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

  • Shaken in the Water is a novel that claims space for queer Mennonite bodies and is set in the early 1900s, the earliest chronological queer relationship to appear in a novel written by a Mennonite.  Agnes, the main character, has a scar on her body that causes her pain.  Not wearing clothes is far more comfortable, and Agnes discovers that only one person can touch her scar in a way that feels good: Nora.
  • The novel feels anti-Mennonite, but hopeful in that Penner is clearly writing in a (Kansas) Mennonite tradition.  Other Kansas Mennonite writers include Gordon Friesen and his book, Flame Throwers, and Dallas Wiebe, best known for his book, Skyblue the Badass.  Shaken is not a rejection of Mennonite community, but rather a wish for more flexibility for community members.
  • Magical realism in the novel pushes for non-traditional ways of experiencing the divine, and helps serve to resist the mind-body split.

“Bad Mennonites, Usable Truths, and Other Misreadings: Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Grace Jantzen, Sofia Samatar, and Mennonite Stories,”

by Jeff Gundy, Bluffton University

  • According to Roxane Gay, a “bad feminist” is one who admits her failure to embody feminist ideals, but still tries to live into the feminist project.  A “bad Mennonite” is one who admits his/her failure to embody Mennonite ideals, but still tries to, anyway.  (A problem with this, though, is that it allows the most intractable Mennonite folks to define what it means to be a Mennonite.)  The discussion will be on writings by people who might be considered “bad Mennonites,” but whose writerly concerns are related or connected to Mennonite concerns in a more underground way.
  • Grace Jantzen, a Canadian feminist theologian, argues in Foundations of Violence that the fascination with death and violence produces a  mystical longing for the other worlds.  Sophia Samatar’s fantasy novels Stranger in Olondria and Winged Histories are grounded in this thinking.  Samatar creates worlds that interrogate masculinist worldviews and form narratives about life, love, and flourishing.
  • Julia Kasdorf also works against death and violence, but is doing so through documentary poetry, a forthcoming volume called Shale Play.  Like fantasy, the documentary style opens up the experiences of folks who are caught in things beyond their control.

“Writing a Mennonite Woman’s Life: Alta Elizabeth Schrock, 1911-2000,”

by Julia Kasdorf, Pennsylvania State University

  • Feminist scholars have encouraged life writing since the 1970s.  The way a writer sees her life influences her writing and how she sees the world around her.  In terms of plot, men have the hero quest and adventure, but women have the domestic plot.  They are denied anger and exercise of power.  Kasdorf considers the project of writing Alta E. Schrock’s life to be a form of biographical life writing, and writing about Schrock’s life opens the possibility for other scripts.
  • Schrock, who had Amish roots but grew up in a Conservative Amish Mennonite church setting, was an ecologist.  She led CPS men on nature walks, taught a “Botany for Rural Service” course at Goshen, and opened her home to students in effort to foster community and family.  She also served in refugee camps in Germany.  She was the first woman to get a PhD and remain in the church.  She was something like a cross between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Day in her interests, and later lived with and helped Appalachian mountain folks.
  • Schrock lived “outside the script,” and not everyone appreciated that, including some of her neighbors.  She was also a “bintu,” someone who left the community for education, but then returned to the community to enrich it.

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

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