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.