Since Mennonites Don’t Dance was published nearly two years ago, I’ve been asked a lot of question, by readers, by reporters, scholars, book clubs, friends, family and strangers. Everything from What does it mean to be Mennonite? to Why didn’t you write happier stories?
(The very short answers: Being Mennonite means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And authors don’t always get to choose their stories so much as they are chosen by them.)
Mostly, I’ve responded live, or by phone, but a few times, I’ve been able to think about, then write, some responses. I thought it might be interesting to assemble some of them here.
The following Q&As come from Book Club Buddy (a wonderful author-promotion site created by Pearl Luke), the Stratford Library’s Good Book Club, as well as a pastor, concerned that I’d crossed a line by writing these stories.
Questions from Book Club Buddy:
Q: What is your favourite thing about writing?
A: People don’t always believe me, but I find writing incredibly difficult. Stories rarely feel like they’re inking themselves onto the page. I write, rewrite, rewrite the rewritten rewrites, throw out more than I keep. But then there will be this moment when I feel all the elements come together. The landscape becomes a real place. Characters and metaphors become part of their world. It begins to feel like memory instead of story.
It’s like working on a ball of string that seems hopelessly knotted, until I suddenly pull on the right loop and everything becomes straight. That’s my favourite thing. When the knots come undone.
Q: What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn about you?
A: I’m hopelessly smitten with Sci-Fi and fantasy TV and movies. Star Trek, Stargate, Galactica, Firefly. When I can’t seem to write, I have a Firefly marathon, finishing with Serentity, the movie. A pox on Fox for canceling Firefly in the middle of its first season!
Then there’s Lord of the Rings. My husband and I have an annual Hobbit Day, when we watch all three extended edition films and prepare seven Hobbit meals: Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Elevensies, Luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Dinner and Supper. It’s the best day of the year.
Questions from Stratford Library’s Good Book Club (August 2012 meeting):
Q: What prompted you to write these stories?
A: In the beginning, before it became apparent that I was writing stories that would fit together in a collection, each story had its own prompt. Often I imagined a young woman in a garden, or a daughter returning home to an empty house, long before I knew where the story might go. In the case of Luna, I remembered being told about a moth burrowing into the ear of a family member, and felt the significance it might have as a metaphor. From there, I followed the moth.
Q: What is the significance of the title “Mennonites Don’t Dance”.
A: The title came about one Christmas, when my mother and I were spending the day with my husband’s family, who are a much more gregarious group that I grew up with.
Together, we’re a very multi-cultural assembly, and everyone was performing a skit, song or dance from the country of their family’s origin. When my mother-in-law turned to us and asked for a “Dance of the Mennonites,” I couldn’t help but laugh, while my mother leaned towards me and whispered, “Mennonites don’t dance. Might lead to sex.” And I knew I had my title.
The significance, though, is not simply a nod to that day, or the title story (where Lizzy watches her mother’s and sister’s feet moving around the kitchen in a choreography of sensible shoes).
While there are characters who take joy in nothing, there’s also a theme threaded throughout the pieces: while Mennonites may not (typically or historically) dance, there is still joy and grace and expression in acts like a mother teaching a daughter to cook; in planting seeds and watching them grow; in fermenting dandelion wine in a cellar, and passing down its story to the next generation.
Q: You paint some rather damning pictures of certain characters in your stories. Were trying to show readers the dark side of the “simple, gentle folk”?
A: Damning, yes. Of individual characters as certain types. But not as a finger pointed, or an umbrella over, an entire people group.
Wherever I’ve gone with these stories in the past two years, I continue to hear similar reactions from people who are Mennonite, and people who are not. Especially if they have a farming background, they find themselves and their own families in the stories, and don’t view them as specifically Mennonite. It’s in the specificity, however, that universal themes are best understood, and the reason why ethnic literature has a deeper appeal than the simple opening of a window to look into the lives of those who may live and believe differently than the reader.
With that in mind, I didn’t set out to expose, but rather to show that people, no matter where they come from or what they believe, are people. They suffer the griefs and brokenness of being human, and those griefs, kept smothered in silence, instead of being opened to healing, are wounds that get passed from generation to generation. I also hoped to show not just darkness, but moments of simple, subtle, grace that has the potential to change everything.
Whether that grace is received is something I often left open. A moment that might impact a character on the very next page, might take root and grow, or might fall on hard soil and be lost.
Darcie. I was at [your] lecture/reading last night. I thought it was great. I have a question about the reason for going public with these stories. I understand, i think, for your need to write the stoires about life, and your specific life, but I would like to know the reasons that your feel that you need to have them published. I am a pastor, and if I would tell these kinds of stories as part of my short story, sermon, I would consider it spiritual/emotional abuse. Pastors in the past have told public stories of sin and pain, and they have rightly been talked about in Mennonite novels and short stories as not being true to their calling as followers of Jesus. I think I heard you say that you knew that people would get mad at them when they read them. For personal healing and wholeness, I get why you need to write them, but I would like to hear your reasons for going public.
Dear Pastor. Please, first, remember that the stories, while they are grown from grains of truth, are fictional. The answer, I believe, is in your question. As a pastor, you are a shepherd. Whereas you speak from a place of authority and the congregation is vulnerable to you in a particular way, I speak from within the flock. My reason for publishing is that I believe it is a calling. But, too, a specific reason is found in things overheard after the readings that night were over. (I also read excerpts to students after Community Supper). One girl, after hearing passages from Little Lamb, said to another, “I felt so bad for the little boy.” Her friend replied, “My grandfather was exactly like that.”
How else do we let in light except to make holes where the Enemy has spread a fabric of darkness?
Elsewhere, I’ve heard from a son who gave the stories to his mother and asked her to please read them so they’d have a place to begin a conversation. They were terribly difficult for her, being familiar. She and her son were able, afterwards, to speak to one another of things that had, for years, even generations, been burning in the darkness between them.
Others have said, “No one is really that cruel.” And in reply, sisters, brothers, mothers, people of all kinds, who have known cruelty, [find] words to speak, to others and themselves, stories that have gone unspoken, and in being kept silent, gaining power to harm, to infect, to create unhealing wounds. Stories are a mirror. We see ourselves in them. We see each other in them. We gain compassion through them. We tell truths (in fiction, this is not the same as facts) through them. We claim the blood of Jesus in victory over them, alone and together. And evil, sometimes, is caught in the light.
I’d like to add that, in the appropriate context and time, I’d be blessed to hear from pastors that they, their families, are or have been as broken as anyones. We are all under Jesus, who is Shepherd.
Pastor: Thanks so much for the very thoughtful response. Your comment that I am a shepherd really sets me apart. I have always cringed at that, but I believe that you are exactly right. We believe in the priesthood of all believers, but pastors and teachers are set apart . Maybe writers, like yourself, are prophets and prophets have always had a more difficult time in the church. But both are indeed a calling. I am happy to hear that you feel called to be a writer. I feel called to be a pastor, but some days I would just like to be a sheep. blessings to you in your following your passion, and will look forward to your novel and more stories. I will let you know when ‘i use part of your stories in one of my sermons. I was a history/english major in my previous life. All the best.