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Irma Voth is my sixth book but it’s only the third time I’ve featured Mennonite settings and characters. I’m happy to answer questions about Mennonites, and in Italy I talked about their history, their practices, their beliefs – all the while thinking: what an odd position to be in! I’m not a historian or sociologist or theologian. I’m a fiction writer. And though I am a Mennonite – born and raised in a religious Mennonite town in Manitoba – I am not a good Mennonite, at least for a great number of people in the community, who continue to regard me as an irritant, a disturber, and most certainly the last person who should be telling their epic tale of persecution, exile, and hard-won religious independence.
I can’t count the number of times people have made a point of telling me – in writing or to my face – that I’ve besmirched the reputation of Mennonites. During a recent interview with a publication in Manitoba, I was asked how I feel about the fact that my novels reinforce negative stereotypes of Mennonites and fail to represent the educated, cultured, tolerant urban Mennonites who are very much open to the secular world.
It was one of those questions that is also an accusation, and it told me I should feel guilty, ashamed and repentant. But the truth is I have never set out to expose flaws in the Mennonite community.
However, it would be bad faith to say I can’t understand why certain Mennonites would object to my books. We don’t want people to think we’re unsophisticated inbreds who condemn gays and lesbians to hell. It’s a natural, defensive gesture to say, “Wait, we’re not all like that!” But such protests conveniently remove the onus of confronting difficult truths and lobbying for change.
We know that some Mennonites were involved with the Nazi party. Should we erase this from the history books? Should we say, “Yeah but forget about that, most Mennonites are pacifists and apolitical.” (Is this even true anymore?) And is it my responsibility to write a novel about an agnostic cocaine-addicted Mennonite working at a New York fashion magazine who abandons her polyglot Wall Street boyfriend in order to fulfil her childhood dream of joining Nasa and becoming an astronaut – simply to redress stereotypes of religiously retrograde Mennonite farmers?
I’ve come to realise that what these Mennonites, both conservative and secular, want from me is my piety. Not just loyalty to the community, but allegiance to whatever transcendent authority unifies the community. They’re fine with stories about Mennonites , but only as long as the stories reinforce certain pre-determined narratives.
Like the conservative, religious men of my community, conservative nationalists want each one of us to conform to the identity they’ve imagined for us; they want our stories to become part of a larger authorised story. Which brings me to the dubious idea of national literature. I say dubious not because I don’t believe in the existence of a “national literature” but because for me, a writer, it implies obligations and confinements. I would never want to deny my Mennonite background and culture; I’ll always feel like and be identified as a Mennonite, and therefore possess that little extra authority on our beliefs.
The problem is, the more defined these national narratives become, the less they have to do with the individual artist creating her art. The greater the number of stories that fall neatly into the category of “national literature”, the more they threaten a writer’s imaginative freedom.
Let’s get over it. Let’s embrace our insecurity, and continue to fall short of certainty. The concept of “national literature” promises certainties and definitions and boundaries, all the things that literature withholds. The imagination is inherently subversive and cannot be mandated. A writer can only serve her nation by serving her story.
Miriam Toews, The Guardian, UK, November 16th, 2012