Literature and culture next topics in Mennonite Studies panel series

Nov 15, 2010

Media contact: Anne Russell
Cell: 604-798-3709
Office: 604-795-2826

Three leading lights of Mennonite culture will be on hand at the University of the Fraser Valley on November 23 to discuss Mennonite Culture and Literature.

Renowned Mennonite Canadian authors Rudy Wiebe and Andreas Schroeder will be joined by Mennonite scholar Hildi Froese Tiessen, and members of the audience, in what promises to be a spirited discussion of the role that literature and other arts have played in influencing, nurturing, and preserving Mennonite culture.

In an acknowledgment of the influence of the Mennonite community on the region, UFV is in the process of launching an interdisciplinary Mennonite Studies certificate program, which is a component of a larger campaign for a Centre for Mennonite Studies. Designed to be taken in tandem with their major field of study, students taking the certificate will study the heritage of the Mennonite people, and learn more about the diversity of the Mennonite community, and the numerous regional endeavours initiated by its members.

As UFV develops its programming for Mennonite studies, it is seeking the insight of Mennonite scholars, writers, and academics, and engaging the local community through a series of public events, including the Tues, Nov 23 event, which will run from 5:30 to 7:30 pm in the Abbotsford campus lecture theatre (B101).

Approximately 25% of the population of Abbotsford is affiliated with the Mennonite community, and Mennonites are well represented in the public realm and in the arts.

Dr. Steven Schroeder, a UFV historian, is the coordinator of the new Mennonite Studies program at the university. He says that offering Mennonite Studies at UFV will give students the opportunity to look at the influence of the Mennonite people on Fraser Valley culture from many perspectives, adding that is a major honour for UFV to have such high-profile members of the Mennonite community visit UFV from across Canada for this panel event.

Rudy Wiebe is a Canadian author and member of the Order of Canada, and also a professor emeritus in the department of English at the University of Alberta.

Wiebe’s novels include Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), First and Vital Candle (1966), The Blue Mountains of China (1970), The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), The Scorched-wood People (1977), The Mad Trapper (1980), My Lovely Enemy (1983), A Discovery of Strangers (1994), and Sweeter Than All the World (2001). He has also published collections of short stories, essays, and children’s books. In 2006 he published a volume of memoirs about his childhood, entitled Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest.

Wiebe has won international acclaim for his writing about Mennonite history in Canada and for his work with Aboriginal stories. He won Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General’s award, for his historical novel, The Temptations of Big Bear, and he is well known for his collaboration with Yvonne Johnson on her story Stolen Life, the Journey of a Cree Woman.

Wiebe will also read the following day, Wed, Nov 24, at noon, in the Abbotsford campus bookstore at UFV. He will read from his new collected stories and discuss his process of collaboration with Yvonne Johnson while she was in prison.

Andreas Schroeder is a Canadian poet, novelist, humorist, and nonfiction writer who calls himself a “defunct Mennonite”. Schroeder, who received an honorary doctorate from UFV in 2002, teaches creative non-fiction in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program, where he holds the Rogers Communications Chair in Creative Nonfiction. Schroeder was shortlisted for a Governor-General’s Award (Nonfiction: Shaking It Rough) in 1977.

He has received several National Magazine Awards, and the Canadian Association of Journalists’ “Best Investigative Journalism” award in 1990.

Schroeder notes that despite the “defunct Mennonite” label, he values many of the cultural influences of his background.

“I called myself a that way back in the ’60s, and it seems to be a label that’s stuck, though at the time I meant it primarily to indicate I was no longer a member of the Mennonite faith community. I remain, however, a fairly contented ethnic Mennonite, involving a set of cultural influences I feel privileged to have been exposed to. Indeed, the Mennonite values of hard work and sensible thrift at the heart of Menno culture were the primary elements that made it possible for me to maintain a career as a freelance writer for the past 45 years, at a time when the success rate in that pursuit was, and remains, very low.”

Dr. Hildi Froese Tiessen, BA (Winnipeg), MA, PhD (Alberta) works on the literature and art of ethnic and religious minorities in Canada, particularly the Mennonites. She has published scholarly work in various books and journals, co-edited several collections of photographs and paintings by Mennonite artists, and edited numerous literary and critical volumes of work by and about writers of Mennonite heritage.

She contends that Mennonite literature plays a key role in shaping perceptions of Mennonites, both how they see themselves and how others see them.

“Though some might want to resist the idea, I would argue that it’s the literature produced by writers nurtured within the diversity of Mennonite communities across Canada (and the USA) that is most palpably shaping how many Mennonites are seeing themselves in our day – and, further, affecting how Mennonites are perceived by others,” notes Tiessen. “It’s Mennonite writers who shape what contemporary discourse would call the Mennonite imaginary. Mennonite literature sometimes narrates the community’s common past and sometimes celebrates and often challenges its present. In fact, Mennonite literature offers diverse members of the Mennonite community a kind of homeland – a location for exploring questions of identity and meaning for those who have remained inside the community, as well as for those who have found themselves on the margins, or completely outside, or somewhere in between.”

The public is welcome to attend this free event at UFV on Tues, Nov 23, in the Abbotsford campus lecture and to stay afterwards to meet the speakers and partake in refreshments. Pay parking is in effect.