Thursday, December 30, 2010

Trouble overseas? Send in the Mennonites!

As I'm in Hawaii attending and presenting at an international education conference (that's my excuse, in any case), I grabbed a book on impulse at Powell's at the Portland airport. Mennonite in a little black dress, by Rhoda Janzen. An airplane read.

I rarely make such impulsive purchases and even more rarely am so glad I did. I had the first section finished by the time the delayed flight took off and I finished the book late last night in my room in Honolulu. It was brain candy with organic scholarly vitamins and nonviolent conflict management trace minerals embedded in the delightfully tasty prose. If Janzen taught Nonviolence 101 it would be an outstandingly popular class.

She is flat out funny. She is barenaked honest, whether that redounds on her, on her family, or on teachers or society in general. Those two qualities in a memoir--this is possibly the best memoir I've read--are what pulls the reader through page after page, looking for new bits and for the new ways the lietmotifs will reappear.

I want to meet her mother, an old-school Mennonite whose outlook on life is so sunny it turns lemonades into lemony snickets-of-the-gods, and who, we learn, will reliably gross out all and sundry with graphic medical descriptions of ghastly pus and blood, rot and scat, at the dining room table. It has to be the best weight-loss program ever; even after, the images of decomposing flesh would ruin any sudden urge for some Menno Kartoffelsalat or raisiny Persimmon cookies. Hey, it's working for me here in Hawaii. Food looks grotesque and I'm a fairly simplistic vegetarian. What this would do to a bevy of Menno kids facing a lard sandwich lunch sack is beyond my capacity to image, or at least I'd like it to be.

The entire book goes down so easily and yet we get powerful insights into Mennonite pacifism conflated with patriarchy, a sort of nonviolent Talibanic world in which a girl can emerge into womanhood capable of both societal challenging and quiet victimhood. Rhoda is liberated from some of the Mennonite anti-intellectualism at a young age, rising to her various graduate degrees and even her status as Poet Laureate for the University of California two years, but she suffers tremendous verbal abuse and catastrophic physical intimidation from her bipolar, bisexual husband, who destroys furniture and other household objects in rages and calls her every nasty misogynist term imaginable, even in public. She reflects on her tendency to Just Take It and ascribes at least part of that to the Mennonite problem of failing to teach any meaningful assertiveness to their daughters.

Still, as Janzen describes in those embedded bits, the Mennonites abhor war and will all resist it. They proselytize, but not like Jehovah's Witnesses. They are about deeds, not theological argumentation. They serve without as much doctrine. She says they beat Gandhi to the punch, so to speak, in resisting war by refusing to cooperate and suffer consequences instead (e.g. the pogroms in Europe that were only relieved by Catherine the Great inviting Mennonites to colonize part of Ukraine, which they did quite successfully). However! She doubts many Mennonites would join him in fasting, as the Menno family and culture and society is so utterly food-centric. No skinny vegan ascetics otherwise living very simply indeed in Mennonite enclaves. Sausage-fed pacifists all, ready to help humanity.

Indeed, far beyond the brief of her thoroughly enjoyable book, Mennonites established the Mennonite Central Committee, which offers volunteer service to Mennonites and non-Mennonites, and I have friends from the world of nonviolence who have done just that. They have globalized this service and do more on the ground around the world to establish structural nonviolence than all the Human Terrain components of DoD and State combined, which not surprising at all but I thought I'd stick in a little jab. After all, I just got a request from a grad student in the Beltway power schools to refer him to the literature of nonviolence in Afghanistan, which set me off, I can tell you.

Meanwhile! Toss yourself a favor. Buy, borrow or check out this little book and end the Old Year or start the New Year with something that will renew your love of reading. Grad students and academics nota bene: it's not too late. Some academics can still write palatable prose and Janzen rehabilitates the entire genre in one easy read.

Janzen, Rhoda (2009). Mennonite in a little black dress. NY: Henry Holt.

1 comment:

Michael Beer said...

I look forward to reading it. thanks for the review.