When I read Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress late at night, the bed posts shook. I had to choke back gargantuan guffaws in order not to wake my Mennonite husband. The last time that happened, I was reading Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Before that, David Sedaris, Michael Perry, and sections of Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven also left me shaking soundlessly. I hate when this happens, since I have to stay under the covers while I read. Sleeping in the nude has its disadvantages.
If that is “TMI”–too much information–for you, gentle reader, beware of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. You will blush often. Right away, on page two, the word “tit” appears in a discussion of breast cancer, and Janzen tells you that she and her women kin have none. Tits, that is. After that, more intimate details follow: discussions of menstrual flow, pee, whangs, thangs, the Big Job, pubes, and farts, just for a few examples. I admit that I laughed often about subjects that, in the hands of a less gifted writer, could have been not only unfunny but a total waste of time. More than anything else, this book reminded me of dorm-room conversations in (a Mennonite) college in the late 1960s where we exercised our growing vocabulary and vented our sexual curiosity. We cut through both piety and naivete–our own and others– with boatloads of sarcasm.
But this is a mid-life memoir, not a late-night, 60s-era bull session. Our memoir heroine is a college professor, not a college student. She’s written a version of the coming-of-age story as a middle-aged woman, and she pulls it off with great verve and style.
Janzen earns the right to hilarious descriptions of body parts and functions because her own body is central to her story. First, she has an operation to remove her uterus which resulted in a punctured bladder, requiring her to wear a “pee bag.” Though she makes a complete recovery, she endures months of convalescence, including an improvised trip to Nordstrom Rack with the pee bag disguised inside a colorful tote so she can wear it like a purse. About a year later, Janzen hears from Nick, her husband of 15 years, that he has met a man named Bob on gay.com and wants a divorce. A week after that bombshell hits, a young drunk driver nearly kills her as she drove on snow-covered roads in Michigan. She crawls back home to California at Christmas and returns to an ethnic/religious culture –the Mennonites–she had gladly left behind years ago. Odd juxtapositions, bizarre memories, and witty critiques ensue. There you have it–the plot gets no thicker.
I’ve always admired humorists, from Twain to Keillor to Sedaris. And I have noticed that there are few women on that list, just like there are few women late night or Comedy Central talk show hosts–a fact that ought to change. I think Rhoda Janzen could break the literary humor glass ceiling. As a woman, Mennonite, and writer, I can only say, “You go, girl!!!”
Now for the other side of the story. As much as I laughed while reading the book and as much as I celebrate the word “Mennonite” conjoined with “funny” in other reviews of this book, I cringed while reading more than once. No one laughs harder at a Mennonite joke than a Mennonite–unless it is cruel or inaccurate.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, calls this memoir “wincingly funny.” I didn’t wince hard at the obvious candidates–the racy or sometimes too-cute language, the author’s physical and emotional pain, or her critique of the small worldview of her own family. The portrait of her mother Mary is utterly brilliant. Janzen takes huge risks revealing highly personal information that most daughters would die to write and most mothers would die to read–or would commit daughter-cide after reading. But she also convinces us that her mother is so ego-free and so unconcerned about normal barriers between public and private life that we, too, can relax and enjoy the kind of earth-mother love that has the power of creation and re-creation in it.
It’s also clear that her mother’s healing love made this book possible. I thought of Julia Kasdorf’s frequently anthologized What I Learned from My Mother as I read about Mary. I also thought of my own mother, and I gave thanks for the indomitable, oblivious, fashion-challenged caregivers of the world whose faith is in their eyes, and hands, and hearts.
What I Learned From My Mother
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
Janzen’s mother has all the healing qualities of Kasdorf’s mother persona–without the sexual hang-ups. We love her for her healing and for her freedom.
I winced less for the treatment of the Mennonite characters in this book, ironically, than I did for those who were grafted into the story either through marriage or friendship. One of the major controversies in memoir writing is how much we owe to other people in our stories. Annie Dillard sets the memoir high bar: “I don’t believe in a writer’s kicking around people who don’t have access to a printing press. They can’t defend themselves.”
Janzen does not appear to hold such scruples and will go far for a joke (or even for revenge?). One wonders what future Thanksgiving dinners will be like in the Janzen household. Sisters-in-law Staci and Deena come across as vastly inferior in sensitivity and taste than Rhoda and her sister Hannah. Janzen mentions the fact that she has seen Staci only a few times in the last five years. She damns with faint praise, approving of Staci’s honesty in not pretending to closeness she does not feel and then quotes the thoughtless things Staci said to her. Staci could certainly not enjoy seeing these words in print, even if she said every word between the quotation marks, which could only be the case if Janzen has perfect recall.
Finally, there is the issue of marketing and commodification of culture. Like James Frey, who made his addictions stronger and jail time longer in his book than they really were, Janzen sometimes makes her own upbringing sound more sectarian or perhaps more exotic than it may have been. She conflates two denominations and two different ethnicities, picking and choosing ones which will serve the purpose of entertaining her primary audience (the literary and academic elite whose haute cuisine and haute couture fascinate the author as much as the pale blue embroidered silk envelope she clutched as a child). Such readers won’t care if her ethnography is accurate in every detail.
The first U.S. Mennonite writer (Rudy Wiebe preceded her in Canada) to break into the literary high culture was poet Julia Kasdorf, cited above, with four poems in The New Yorker in the early 1990s and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize in 1991. These poems turned the liability of being a Mennonite from the provinces into a fascinating counter-cultural phenomenon and helped to create a flourishing sub-genre of American literature unapologetically called Mennonite writing.
The problem of being a Mennonite writer is that you cannot be one completely un-self-consciously anymore, and too much self-consciousness has ruined many a writer. Self-consciousness is to writers what the sin of pride is to Mennonites. Try to be humble and a minute later you will be proud of it. Try to erase self, and you are soon looking in the mirror. Perhaps awareness of the paradox itself is the only answer to this dilemma. Mennonite poet Jeff Gundy uses humor as a gentle prod to himself as well as to other poets Julia Kasdorf and Jean Janzen (Rhoda is not the first published Mennonite writer with this name). Here is a fragment from the beginning stanza of his “How to Write the New Mennonite Poem” anthologized by editor and poet Ann Hostetler in a cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry:
Get the word “Mennonite” in at least
twice, once in the title, along with zwiebach
vareniki, borscht, and the farm,
which if possible should be lost by now.
No longer Die Stille im Lande (the silent in the land), Mennonites now have the responsibilities of telling their many stories as honestly as possible. How do commerce, marketing, branding affect this agenda? Actually, much in the same way that the word “Amish” affects sales of furniture, cheese, space heaters, and chicken–very positively!
Did you know that Amish “bonnet rippers”–romance novels–are among the best selling books in America right now? That one author alone–Beverly Lewis–has sold more than 13.5 million copies of her chaste love stories? The field is exploding, and The Wall Street Journal and Time have taken notice, along with bloggers and, of course, book publishers.
Every writer struggles with marketing issues as a necessity of 21st-century publication, and every publisher wants an angle. But what is the responsibility for accuracy, especially since people buy memoirs because they want the real thing, true stories? Take the cover of this book as a case in point. I would love to have eavesdropped in the office of Henry Holt publishers as editors and designers chose the book cover. Did the conversation go something like this? –“Let’s show some leg, skirt blowing up like Marilyn Monroe’s– and then let’s dangle one of those funny hats the Amish wear right under the word “mennonite”! Never mind that neither Janzen nor her family ever wore distinctively religious garb of the Amish or “old Mennonites.” The author can explain all that after the book is published. In the meantime, book browsers in Barnes & Noble will be attracted to something we know sells well–sexual and Amish imagery combined.
Janzen tells us that her father was like the “pope” at one time of the “North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States.” If you Google this denominational name, you will find that it does not exist. What did exist (before the separation between the U.S. and Canadian members) was a group called the North American Conference of Mennonite Brethren. Like the casual browsers in the bookstore who see an Amish image on the cover, most readers will never know, or care, that Janzen’s branch of the Mennonite family is called Mennonite Brethren, a smaller denomination than the Mennonite Church-USA. Janzen tries to preempt criticism of such fine points by making fun of factual accuracy in her savagely funny Mennonite History Primer appendix. I enjoyed her romp through the past and recognize poetic license when I see it, but I also think I recognize licensing of the Mennonite “brand.” That kind of license is a whole other kettle of fish . . . or borscht. . . or shoofly pie.
How much do these two issues of compassion and integrity matter in memoir? They matter a lot; the genre will only continue to prosper if readers can trust the author. Fortunately, the lapses cited above are just that, lapses. They do not permanently mar the integrity of this fine coming home story. The author may not have chosen the cover, Staci may well be proud of her portrait in this book, and Janzen might be so removed from her former Mennonite Brethren community that she has forgotten its name. If any or all of these things are true, I retract my critique.
Mary Karr recently said that if the antagonist of your memoir is not you, you have not gone far enough. Rhoda Janzen has already gone further into the comedy and memoir worlds than any American writer born of Mennonite (or Mennonite Brethren) parents.
Here is my wish for her future: may she borrow more of her mother’s kindness and a tad more of her father’s integrity– without losing an ounce of her own wonderful chutzpah. And may she turn a forgiving but clear-eyed focus on her true antagonist, herself.