Conrad Grebel University College is marking the first 50 years of Mennonite writing in Canada by hosting a nine-week reading and lecture series and playing host to some of the worlds top Mennonite authors and poets. The series kicked off Wednesday when world-renowned Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe read some of his work and provided a retrospective view on his 57-year career.
Wiebe is largely credited with starting the Mennonite writing movement back in 1962 with the release of his novel “Peace Shall Destroy Man,” credited as the first Canadian Mennonite authored book published by a national publisher and widely available in English.
He has twice been awarded the Governor General’s Award for fiction, and in 2007 he won the Charles Taylor Prize for his memoir, “Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest.”
Wiebe was born in Saskatchewan in 1934 as part of the last generation of Mennonite homesteaders to settle the Canadian west. He did not even speak English until the age of six.
Other speakers in the series include Canadian novelist David Bergen on Feb. 29, who won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2005 for “The Time in Between”, David Waltner-Toews on Jan. 18, an internationally known epidemiologist and a poet and novelist will talk about how science and a Mennonite upbringing inform his work, as well as Magdalene Redekop on Feb. 1, Rob Zacharias on Feb. 8, and Paul Tiessen on Mar. 14.
“This particular series is the first we’ve ever done of this magnitude,” said Hildi Froese Tiessen, a professor of literature at Conrad Grebel for the past 25 years and a scholar of Mennonite writing.
She acknowledged that Mennonite literature continues to be a minority form of writing to this day, and that there are only about 25 or 30 prominent writers in the world today, but also noted that it is gaining momentum which is demonstrated by the quality of writers taking part in the lecture series.
“The Mennonites effectively shunned creative writing for hundreds of years because it was seen as not truth-telling,” she said. “So it’s certainly significant for the Mennonite community to have this blossoming of literary figures.”
According to Tiessen, it was a confluence of several factors that led to the genre’s growth. Certainly the release of Wiebe’s book in 1962 started it all, but other events during that time period also contributed.
During the 1920s migration of Mennonites to Canada, and earlier migrations dating back to the 1870s, Mennonites began moving into the cities and eventually they become more comfortable with English and gaining an education.
By the 1960s those experiences, combined with the growing sense of multiculturalism in Canada and the post-Trudeau years which gave birth to a renewed sense of nationalism helped give rise to Mennonite writers and poets in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The writing of the earlier era was very much what I would call writing of diaspora, where we had people who in effect were bridging two cultures,” said Tiessen.
“Now they’re very much in the mainstream, writing about experiences that are most familiar to them but would have parallels throughout the country.”
The remaining eight weeks of the literature series run on Wednesday evenings in the college chapel of Conrad Grebel.
For more information and a complete list of the participating authors, visit www.grebel.uwaterloo.ca.