For a long time, Mennonite literature has been characterized by an old view of that group’s move from farm to city, from using the German language to English, and from living in a simple rural past to modern life.
That, said Robert Zacharias, associate professor of English at York University in Toronto, is a too limited view of Mennonite writing.
"There is a new generation of writers, critics and scholars emerging who are thinking differently about Mennonite literature," he said, suggesting an expanded reading and wider lens is needed to view Mennonite literature.
"What happens to our understanding of Mennonite literature if we take a step back and rethink the assumptions and parameters that helped to establish it as a field of study?" he asked.
Zacharias will be speaking about the past and future of Mennonite literature on March 3 at Canadian Mennonite University.
The two presentations, which are part of the John and Margaret Friesen lecture series, will be offered in person at the university and online.
In the first lecture, Zacharias will focus on the emergence of Mennonite writing in English, beginning with well-known author and former Winnipegger Rudy Wiebe. In the second he will explore new Mennonite authors such as Casey Plett, who grew up in Manitoba and writes about the lives of trans people, and American Sofia Samatar, born to a Somali father and a Mennonite mother, who weaves theological and migration histories in writing about intergalactic Mennonites far in the future.
For Zacharias, who grew up in Winkler and studied at the University of Manitoba, there is an "embarrassment of riches" when it comes to Mennonite literature, starting with Wiebe and then through writers like Di Brandt, Patrick Friesen, Dora Dueck, Sarah Klassen, Armin Wiebe, David Bergen, Sandra Birdsell, Casey Plett, Andrew Unger and Katherena Vermette.
"Mennonite literature is having a moment now, and a new generation of critics and scholars is emerging who are thinking differently about it," he said. "It’s not just about being rural, separatist and quilts."
Mennonite literary studies in North America is also in a period of transition as people question what constitutes Mennonite literature in fiction and poetry — a move partly driven by the popularity of former Manitoban Miriam Toews.
For him, the two important questions are: "What does Mennonite literature look like today, and how can we read it most productively?"
Zacharias’ first lecture is 11 a.m. at the CMU chapel; the second one is 7 p.m. in Marpeck Commons. They are also available online by visiting www.media.cmu.ca/events/lectures#jmf
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.