Plowing the Field: Review of Robert Zacharias, Reading Mennonite Writing: A Study in Minor Transnationalism
Daniel Shank Cruz
Reading Mennonite Writing: A Study in Minor Transnationalism. Robert Zacharias. Penn State University Press, April 2022.
Reading Mennonite Writing: A Study in Minor Transnationalism is Robert Zacharias’s third book on Mennonite literature, after Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature (2013) and After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America, which he edited in 2015. Like After Identity, Reading Mennonite Writing is interested in pushing the field in new directions. Unlike some recent scholarship (most notably Magdalene Redekop’s 2020 book Making Believe) that questions whether Mennonite literary discourse is sustainable, Reading Mennonite Writing posits that there is a future for the field and investigates how we can “most productively” discuss it. It does so by working to tell a different version of Mennonite literature’s history via “a case-study in the broader field of transnational literature.” It does not further theorize transnational literature, but shows why Mennonite literature fits within this field, and thus why Mennonite literature remains relevant to the broader field of literary studies. To enable this reading, the book rejects the traditional definition of Mennonite literature as writing by theological or ethnic Mennonite authors whether it is about Mennonite subject matter or not, and instead defines it as texts (including films and television shows) about Mennonites, and therefore as “a mode of reading rather than of writing.”
This is a shocking, thought-provoking recalibration that Mennonite literary scholars will have to contend with for years to come. I am still wrestling with the implications of it: I worry that it opens the field up to lots of non-Mennonites deploying “the Mennonite Thing” (more on which in a moment) in wildly inaccurate ways, but I deeply value its embrace of an ethic of inclusivity. However readers might feel about Zacharias’s definition, it makes Reading Mennonite Writing necessary reading for anyone interested in the field.
Using this new outlook, Zacharias breaks his study into five chapters aside from the Introduction and Epilogue that perform what he calls “a series of methodological experiments” to show how “minor” literatures (minor in the sense of small, not unimportant) offer new perspectives on how literature circulates for the field of transnational literature to consider. Chapter One examines Mennonite literature more widely by offering a “distant reading” of the field, inspired by Franco Moretti’s work on quantitative approaches to literary history. Using books published in 1986 as an example, it quantifies books by genre, publisher, gender, and country, rather than subject matter. This reading questions “the field’s methodological investment in close reading,” which emphasizes the importance of some individual texts over others rather than offering the inclusive version of the field that distant reading allows.
Similarly, Chapter Three examines the field broadly by considering depictions of “the Mennonite Thing” in various texts. This “Thing” is the assumption that “an essential, static, and authentic Mennonite identity” exists. It is exemplified by the stereotype of sectarian Mennonites in plain dress that conflates Mennonites from different ethnicities and denominations into an ahistorical figure for public consumption.
This chapter is Reading Mennonite Writing’s one major flaw because it leans on the work of transphobe Slavoj Žižek to theorize the idea of “identity as Thing” even though it also cites several Mennonite authors who have already employed the term “Mennonite Thing” without relying on Žižek (indeed, in some cases writing before the cited Žižek works were published), thus rendering the use of Žižek unnecessary. The end of the chapter mentions Žižek’s transphobia, calling it “a limitation with Žižek’s own work,” but from my U.S. perspective where anti-trans legislation is rampant, this disclaimer does not feel like enough. I can’t speak authoritatively to the state of trans rights in Zacharias’s Canada, but I doubt it’s great. It is difficult to stomach the Žižek citations in what is otherwise a thoughtful and astute chapter that would still be so if these citations were removed, especially considering how well Zacharias handles the trans novel Little Fish in Chapter Five (it is clear that Zacharias does not share Žižek’s transphobia). Although Reading Mennonite Writing is a strong book, it would be an even better book without these citations.
Chapters Two, Four, and Five offer close readings of Mennonite texts as defined by Zacharias’s model of texts about, rather than solely by Mennonites. These texts all stretch the field in important ways, and Zacharias’s treatment of them feels complementary to Chapter One, despite that chapter’s emphasis on distant reading. Chapter Two examines the textual history of Dietrich Neufeld’s diary A Russian Dance of Death, which was published in multiple editions and translations between 1921 and 1988. Zacharias argues that diaries are an integral part of Mennonite literature, even “a mode of reading” that Mennonites engage in, and that Neufeld’s diary “demonstrate[s] the importance of life writing to the early field.” The chapter is a good general discussion of life writing and the challenges it presents to literary critics, whether one is interested in Neufeld’s text or not.
Chapter Four examines Miriam Toews’s novel Irma Voth (2011) and the film that inspired it, Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007), which starred Toews. The chapter is an engaging examination of the texts’ similarities and how the novel corrects the film’s use of the Mennonite Thing by rejecting the film’s attempted erasure of Mennonite individuality. The chapter’s most important contribution to Mennonite literary studies is its claiming of Mexico as a Mennonite literary space, expanding the field’s definition of “North America.” Film scholars in general will find its close reading of Silent Light through the lens of a text by one of its actors fascinating.
Chapter Five compares two recent pieces of fiction that portray “the complex need to recall and revise the [Mennonite] past, rather than simply reject or replace it,” Casey Plett’s novel Little Fish (2018) and Sofia Samatar’s novella “Fallow” (2017). Little Fish investigates the queer and trans Mennonite stories that have existed despite their silenced archives. “Fallow” imagines a Mennonite community in space that, contrary to traditional Mennonitism, accepts racial and sexual others but fails to live out its pacifist ideals. Zacharias’s readings of these works are strong and help to show why Samatar and Plett are the most important Mennonite authors currently writing, along with Toews. Anyone interested in queer and/or trans literature needs to be reading Plett (among other awards, she’s won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction twice), and anyone interested in speculative fiction or African American literature needs to be reading Samatar (she’s won the World Fantasy Award and has a huge cult following), so readers with no interest in Mennonite studies will still find this chapter engaging.
Overall, Reading Mennonite Writing is an exciting, daring book that anyone interested in North American literary studies should read. Whether one is interested in Mennonite literature or not, the book exemplifies literary criticism that troubles traditional (read: oppressive) reading strategies and that makes literary criticism relevant for readers outside of the academy.
Daniel Shank Cruz (he/they) is a queer disabled boricua who grew up in New York City and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He has a PhD from Northern Illinois University and studies Creative Nonfiction in Hunter College’s MFA program. Cruz is the author of Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community (Penn State University Press, 2019). Their writing has also appeared in venues such as Crítica Hispánica, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Modern Haiku, the New York Times, Your Impossible Voice, and numerous essay collections. You can find Cruz on Twitter.
ARB was referred to Daniel Shank Cruz as a possible reviewer by ARB editor Casella Brookins’ connections with Mennonite academics. As an active writer in the field, Cruz is cited in the work being reviewed. This review was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Alex Skopic. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Penn State University Press.