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Dec. 7, 2009 issue

Memoir of going home is acclaimed, critiqued

By Paul Schrag Mennonite Weekly Review

Rhoda Janzen freely admits readers shouldn’t take everything in her new memoir literally.

Rhoda Janzen's memoir has received praises and critique for its treatment of Mennonites.

Rhoda Janzen’s memoir has received praises and critique for its treatment of Mennonites. — Photo provided

“It is obviously written in a humorous style, so there is exaggeration,” she said of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home.

Janzen’s style — “snort-up-your-coffee funny, breezy yet profound and poetic without trying,” The New York Times said — has sparked a buzz most writers can only dream about.

Her story of returning to the Fresno, Calif., Mennonite Brethren community where she grew up has garnered positive reviews, articles and interviews in People, Entertainment Weekly, Time magazine’s Web site, USA Today and other publications.

Publicity has driven brisk sales. In late November the book was in its third printing by Henry Holt and Co. and stood at No. 434 on the online retailer Amazon’s sales chart.

Janzen’s mainstream success stands in contrast to some negative reactions in the Fresno Mennonite community.

Some find Janzen’s humor at times offensive and insensitive. They note factual errors and say she promotes misconceptions about Mennonites.

“People here by and large don’t like it,” said Hope Nisly, acquisitions librarian at Fresno Pacific University. “There’s a sense that she’s not being completely accurate and is a little mean-spirited.”

Nisly’s personal reaction is mixed.

“I like the humor. I realize it is very biting,” Nisly said. “She does what writers do. They make a story. But I think she stepped beyond that.”

Janzen says she only meant to show affection.

“I know there are some who read the humor as disrespectful, and that is not what I intended,” she said.

“The book was written as a gesture of affection and respect for the Mennonite faith and people. I intended it to be a tribute to a community I admire very much.”

Kevin Enns-Rempel, archivist at Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, said he had heard more critical comments than positive ones.

He said Fresno MBs are not as culturally isolated as Janzen describes.

“There’s some concern that the Mennonite community she portrays is an exaggeration of reality,” Enns-Rempel said.

“Fresno represents an urbanization and acculturation process of Mennonite Brethren on the West Coast. They’re not religiously odd people in the classic sense of the word, but in Rhoda’s hands they’re very much described that way.”

There’s nothing wrong with a parody of Mennonites, Enns-Rempel said, “but it needs to ring true.”

He said the book’s success “speaks a lot to the fascination the general public has with Mennonites.” He regrets that it may promote stereotypes, such as that Mennonites come from one ethnic group (“we’re all ruddy Teutonic giants,” Janzen writes).

The negative response from Mennonites has surprised Janzen.

“I didn’t anticipate some of the criticism Mennonite readers have made,” she said.

Janzen, 46, who teaches English at Hope College in Holland, Mich., draws humor from painful adult experiences and from memories of growing up in a strict but loving family.

Her story centers on her return to Fresno and the West Coast for five months in 2006 after enduring two traumatic events in the same week. Her husband came out as gay and left her for a man, and she suffered serious injuries in a car wreck caused by a drunken driver.

Spending time with her parents, siblings, old friends and others back home, Janzen finds people who “radiate genuine warmth” and rediscovers a “Mennonite community [that] is the real deal. They really do try to practice what they preach.”

She describes Mennonites as holding principles both positive (pacifism) and negative (“fear and loathing [at] the thought of a female pastor”).

Mennonite quirks and culture — obsessive thrift and odd ethnic food (“Pluma Moos, a hot fruit soup starring our friend the prune”) — supply comedic material.

Stories from her childhood center on feelings of being different. She remembers the humiliation of wearing “severe Mennonite skirts” because “the Mennonite God circa 1970 had not yet made up his mind about jeans.” She took “shame-based lunchpails” (one may have been a diaper bag) filled with “shame-based foods” to school because “everything that went into our mouths was homemade.”

Her parents, Edmund and Esther Janzen, play leading roles in the family’s foibles. While some stories about them could be read as unflattering — such as one involving public flatulence — Janzen said she’s heard from people who have found it refreshing to read of a religious upbringing that wasn’t dysfunctional.

“In non-Mennonite communities people say, ‘Isn’t it great to see something written from a positive family experience?’ ” she said. “There seems to be an appreciation for that.”

Janzen changes the names of some people, including her father, whom she calls “Si.” She doesn’t reveal that he was president of Fresno Pacific University from 1975 to 1985. He also was a moderator of the North American MB conference, a role Janzen describes as “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope.” In this and other cases, Janzen treats an MB reference as if it applied to Mennonites as a whole.

An error that Mennonites often point out, Janzen said, is where she says “North American Mennonites all used to grow up speaking Low German.” That description only fits most of those whose ancestors came from eastern Europe or Russia, such as MBs and some members of the former General Conference Mennonite Church.

Janzen says inaccuracies like that are acceptable in the kind of book she wrote.

“The book is conceived for a non-Mennonite audience,” she said. “I am aware that my own Mennonite experience is not a representative model of the global or even the national Mennonite experience.”

Janzen says the book is not an autobiography but a memoir, which gives a writer more freedom to shape the narrative.

“Memoir works with the notion that there is a narrative arc that spans a specific time and that focuses on the part of the story that results in a permanent change in the protagonist,” she said.

Changes in her life have continued. In the book she writes of believing in God and loving the Bible, and she says her faith has progressed since then.

“Where I am now is different from where I was when I wrote the book,” Janzen said. “It started me on a journey of re-examining my faith, and I have now come to a place where I am participating in a church and have married a man of faith.”

She describes the book as a personal journey of healing.

“So often Christianity in general is presented in terms of negative do-nots and thou-shalt-nots,” she said. “I think people are eager to see an inquiry into faith that doesn’t have to be joyless and humorless.”

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