Notes from Mennonite/s Writing

The Mennonite/s Writing conference was September 30 to October 2, 2022 at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. It was a meaningful space for me of cross-pollination, listening and learning. Here are a few highlights for folks who weren’t able to attend and might be interested. You can read the full schedule here.


On the afternoon of September 29 Julia Kasdorf and Steven Rubin led us in a four hour pre-conference workshop on documentary photography. They were inspired by the work of writers and photographers funded during the Works Progress Administration. As part of the workshop they had us interview and photograph people in and around downtown. The resulting slide deck with photos and quotes was on display during the conference as a way of introducing out of town conference participants to the community.

The opening plenary was with Julia Kasdorf, one of the most prominent promoters and creators of Mennonite literature in the US. She talked about Shale Play her latest book of poems (with photographs by Steven Rubin) that looks at the impact of fracking in her community in central Pennsylvania.


First thing on Friday morning I was part of a panel on technology and Mennonite writing organized by Hope Nisly. Melanie Springer Mock talked about the growing community of Mennonite content creators on TikTok. Adam Schrag looked at the Mennonite meme pool and the parallels with Martyrs Mirror and I talked about the parallels between the socially disruptive impact of pamphlets in the radical reformation and the use of social media by the Arab Spring and other mass movements using the internet to create space for dissent.

Mennonite writer Sofia Samatar spoke during the plenary on Friday morning. She read from her new book, The White Mosque, a memoir tracing the journey of an apocalyptic Mennonite community in Central Asia. I was excited to discover that she’s written a fantasy series that I hadn’t heard of before. In the Q&A I asked her about the subject of whiteness in her memoir (her father is Somalian and her mother is white Mennonite) and she described what it is like to always having to convince other Mennonite that she is Mennonite, but she also pointed out in a playful way that she values the random, a theme that would continue through the conference.


On Saturday morning, Ervin Beck surveyed the community of plain poetry among plain Anabaptists through careful study of their poetry publication which has been published regularly for over twenty years. Ervin encouraged those of us at the conference to take an approach of “benign neglect” this community. On the same panel, Christopher Dick summarized the Mennonite Socialist Vision of Jakob G. Ewert, who was confined to a bed for twenty-five years and Joel Horst Nofziger looked at how Mennonite understandings and tellings of our history influences power dynamics in our theology.

It was clear that while Literary Mennonite writers and critical review of Mennonite Literature have formed a key part of these gatherings (happening every few years for thirty-twoyears) there is also a growing space for other forms. One example was getting to hear my sister, Abigail Nafziger and her librarian colleague Matilda Yoder talk about their podcast “Just Plain Wrong” in a panel on humor. They described some of their work humorously reviewing Amish Romance as “reading these books so you don’t have to.” Also on their Saturday morning panel was Andrew Unger of “The Daily Bonnet” and Johnny Wideman of Theatre of the Beat. All the panelists kept us laughing and also thinking about the line between Popular and Literary work. In the Q&A time folklorists Magdalene Redekop reminded us of the tradition of the female Mennonite trickster. 

In the plenary on Saturday afternoon, Sheri Hostetler interviewed Rachel Yoder about her book (and upcoming movie) Nightbitch, about a mother who finds herself becoming a dog. Sheri told a story from Carl Jung’s The Red Book in which he talks about being haunted by Anabaptist ghosts. The ghosts are deeply frustrated because they died with the purest of belief but cannot find rest. Jung tells Ezechiel, the spokesperson for the group that he did not “live his animal” (see passage here). This theme of embodiment and learning to be outside of our heads was also a key theme in the week.

Later on Saturday afternoon there was a panel on Mennonite speculative fiction featuring Yoder, Samatar (see above) and Jessica Penner, author of Shaken in the Water, a magical realism novel that was also new to me. The panel talked about Mennonite and Anabaptist connections with wilderness.

On Saturday night we heard from Hildi Froese Tiessen, organizer of the first Mennonite/s Writing conference (in 1990) and she quoted Magdalene Redekop about how these Mennonite/s Writing gatherings are about play.

My friend John Kampen talked about he valued the space for play and speculation that he found at the conference in light of other spaces that can be more focused on correct ethics. That was a helpful framing for me to reflect on my own experience of Mennonite and social justice spaces, particularly around when a focus on the “right thing” can get in the way of being fully in our bodies.

Daniel Born was on a panel talking about Mennonite Noir as a genre and his novel Unpardonable Sins. This was a highlight for me because Dan co-authored the book with my friend and mentor Dale Suderman who died in January 2020.

I also got to listen to a lot of wonderful poetry from Jeff Gundy, Julia Baker, Jean Janzen, Julia Kasdorf and many others.


On the closing panel Sunday afternoon, there was a fruitful dialogue between Robert Zacharias and Laura Hostetler about how many people in the room have a foot in multiple worlds. Laura (a scholar of cartography and empire) reminded us that margins are not just about marginalization. It can be useful to have a foot in multiple worlds. The margins in ecology are a very fruitful space: beaches and areas between forests and grasslands are examples.

I’m grateful to have spent three days playing on the margins with this community of writers, readers and critics. It’s a fruitful space.

A big thanks to Ann Hostetler, Daniel Shank Cruz and the entire planning committee for pulling this event together.

I’ll close with this story: in her keynote Rachel Yoder shared about how her car broke down the night on her way from her home to the conference.  She described how demoralized she was stuck just inside the Indiana border, still an hour and a half short of Goshen. She was sitting there when a minivan with conference organizer Ann Hostetler (and others rolled up). The van door and someone said: hop in, we are going to get ice cream! This story embodied something special about this gathering for me.

You can see photos from the event here.

Rising through Mennonite shame, Reflections on Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries

Anna Wall

This post first appeared at Mennopolitan.

Life is like a Kjrinjel1: you never know how it’s going to twist.

A year ago, when I received an invitation from Abigail Carl-Klassen to participate in a panel at a conference at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I said “YES!” before I’d even finished reading the email. The panel would showcase creative work by and about women from Mennonite communities in Mexico, discussing transnational identities and issues.

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.

As the date of the conference drew closer, I became overwhelmed with fear and self-doubt. I thought, “Who am I kidding?  I can’t do this!” So I did what I always do when that happens: drop everything and read a book, because now, I can. Luckily, my friend and co-worker Sidney Bater has a library full of books that are written just for me. I picked up one of the books whose title spoke to me: Rising Strong by Brené Brown. After reading this book, I thought, “So what if I screw this up and fall flat on my face? I will rise strong and do it again.”

That was easier said than done. But I was able to stay focused enough to go through with it. It began with a ten-hour drive to Virginia from Ontario in a black minivan with four amazing women. We came from different backgrounds, yet we all had so much in common.

Upon arriving at EMU campus, I was thrilled to learn that I was sharing a room with Laura Morlock, one of the women that I had just gotten to know during the ten-hour trip. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason for her company was to keep me from letting self-doubt crush me.

What an overwhelmingly humbling experience it was as I remembered George’s words: “Life doesn’t happen in the same order for everyone, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

I thought, “Finally! Not only do I get to sleep in a dorm at a university, but at a Mennonite university.”I giggled a little on the inside, because the butterflies in my stomach were going insane with excitement.

The next day, after walking around on campus in disbelief, and taking it all in, I met with Abigail Carl-Klassen and Veronica Enns, who were part of the panel. I immediately connected with both of them. The experience was deeply moving.

That evening, I sat beside my new friends Abby and Vero in the theater listening to women speak. I mostly spent the whole time fighting back the tears, because every word that was spoken touched me so deeply.

After successfully holding back my tears, I made my way to the art gallery. As I stood in front of an art piece, staring at it and trying to feel what it was telling me, a man joined me there. I glanced at him nervously, and it was none other than Canadian History Professor Royden Loewen. I recognized him because I had met him at a lecture and book signing I had attended at Conrad Grebel University a while before with my friend Shirley Redekop. As Shirley flipped through Royden’s book, Villages Among Nations, she pointed out a picture of a Rev. Johann P. Wall, and asked if I could be related to him. And that’s when I discovered that not only was Rev. Johann P. Wall my great-grandfather, but he was one of the leaders who took part in the decision to migrate to Mexico from Saskatchewan Canada in the 1920s.  

I moved on to the coffee lineup, and there I spotted another familiar face. It was the one-and-only author, Saloma Miller Furlong. I had read her memoir, Bonnet Strings, a couple of months before, and had afterwards sought out information about her online.

After reading about Saloma, I dreamed of meeting her someday. I told myself that if I ever got to meet her, I would hug her, and she would know why, before we even exchanged any words. But when I stood in front of her, I froze, and shook her hand instead. I told her many things that I hadn’t planned to say. But at the end of my ramble, she hugged me and said, “Find me tomorrow. I want to talk to you some more.”

It was hard to settle down and go to sleep after all that.

After Abigail Carl-Klassen had presented, I nervously walked up to the front to share my story. I began with the pivotal decision to cross cultural boundaries and two borders–leaving my colony in Mexico and coming to Canada. I shared that I was illiterate and didn’t speak English, and how I faced many barriers as I began my journey of finding my place in a whole new world, one that I had never been part of.

I spoke about how I began attending an adult learning center, at which point I had only even written my name a handful of times, and how simply holding a pen in my hand was awkward. I shared how ashamed I was of my literary incompetence and how embarrassing it was, as I was nineteen years old and felt like I was starting kindergarten. I said that ever since then, reading and writing have been my obsession, one of the main reasons I started blogging.  At the beginning of my presentation, I stumbled over my words and said sort of what I had written, but in mixed-up order. I reminded myself of what I had read in the book, Rising Strong, that it was alright; I should leave my mistakes behind and just continue.

When I read a post from my blog titled Fashion Faux Pas, and people began laughing with me as I read, I knew that I was back on track. That moment was the first time I felt I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. That included speaking in front of an audience about ridiculously embarrassing experiences that at one point I wouldn’t have wanted to remember, let alone tell strangers about.

It was surreal—not only being there, but being in the presence of scholars I had only read about, and discussing an art piece in Plautdietsch with a Canadian history professor. Then there was sharing with Saloma Miller Furlong my dream of publishing a memoir, and comparing our similar experiences and our struggles over how to clothe our bodies after shunning our Mennonite dresses.

I left the conference with an abundance of knowledge, hope, and new relationships. The experience has inspired me to no end. Thank you to Abigail Carl-Klassen for opening the door, and to EMU for inviting me in.

Thank you.

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

  1. From, Plautdietsch; m. (pl: s) a pretzel, twisted buns, a soft pretzel