I spent an interesting weekend attending a series of presentations by Mennonite writers at the University of Winnipeg. Entitled ‘Personal Narratives of Place and Displacement.’ I was drawn to it, not because I have Mennonite roots, but because my German Baptist background shares many similarities with the Mennonites. This includes the German language, a Biblical faith and for some of us, the Soviet era. I’m not an active Baptist. I was kicked out of the church back in my late twenties when I was ‘living in sin’ before marriage. Unlike Mennonites, who seem to see their religion as a culture, I no longer consider myself a Baptist.
The discussions around displacement fascinated me. My parents immigrated to Canada in the mid-fifties. Homelessness was central to my mother’s identity. Having a Canadian passport and later, a nice new house, was very important to her sense of self.
Elsie Neufeld’s narrative "Ort und Vertreibung," shared on Saturday afternoon, mirrors much of my own mother’s past. (Her mother was born in 1926, my mom in 1919). It was a hard life these Russian-born women lived during incredibly violent times. A very hard life. It’s a life I keep going back to in my own writing because my mother was shaped by that violent past and she, in turn, influenced me…as I now influence my own family.
I was also moved by another theme that recurred during the talks—born not of a geographical displacement, but a spiritual one. Elsie Neufeld, Di Brandt, Miriam Toews and Rhoda Janzen all talked about the shunning, the judging, the condemning that happens in churches. That’s a displacement that rings true for me with my German Baptist upbringing. I have no interest in returning to my German Baptist roots—I’m relieved to have survived.
I’m not sure if the conversations I witnessed yesterday amongst the Mennonites could happen with a German Baptist group…although I am a tad curious. It’s taken me decades to recover from the narrow-minded religion that raised me. But I admire the Mennonite writers who have the guts to stand back and examine a mindset that destroys individuality by shunning differences. Displacement is more than losing place. Displacement can be about losing self. And the journey to find one’s self can be long and lonely. And empowering.