5 Questions with Jonathan Dyck

Jonathan Dyck an illustrator, designer and cartoonist working in Winnipeg, MB — Treaty 1 territory and the homeland of the Métis Nation. His art and writing have appeared in The Globe and MailThe WalrusReader’s Digest Canada, and Prairie Fire. https://www.jonathandyck.com/ 

1. I remember when I first heard your name. There was a buzz about the new comic in The Walrus entitled Mennonites Talking About Miriam Toews. It pretty much blew up, right? I read it and felt like yes, I’d heard all those varied conversations too! I’d say it was an accurate and compelling collage of the Mennonite response to Toews’ writing. And to be published in The Walrus — that’s huge! A very belated congratulations. Could you give us an overview of the kind of responses this work provoked? 

Thanks! I’m so glad it resonated with you. Overall the responses were positive, and many readers did exactly what Christine (my co-author) and I were hoping for — they added to the conversation, in some cases suggesting other comments we could have included in the piece. There was one along the lines of “I’m praying for her,” which would have fit right in. There was an interesting blog entry about the comic from the Drunken Mennonite, which included an original cocktail recipe. I remember also that the following issue of The Walrus featured a very supportive letter about the comic from the poet di brandt.

2. Another thing about the Miriam Toews comic — there are some familiar faces in that work, however you do not name any of them (except R.W., sort of). Has everyone you’ve drawn recognized themselves? Or were some of those images composites? 

Everyone in the comic is a composite except for Rudy Wiebe. We weren’t going to interview people for it, so we couldn’t treat it as a piece of journalism. That would have been a different kind of project. We wanted to be more playful and ambiguous, to blur the lines between fact and fiction, partly as a nod to Toews. At the same time, I felt it was important to include Wiebe and to make him recognizable because he looms so large in the Mennonite literary scene, and because, for certain groups, he’s the ultimate foil to Toews: still very much embedded in the Mennonite church community. And he continues to be used this way by her critics, even though he takes every opportunity to champion her work. The one time I met him, he wanted to talk about All My Puny Sorrows, which had just come out. Reflecting on that was one of the seeds of the piece.

3. The “About” on your website states that you’re “currently working on a graphic memoir (exploring Mennonite history and migration)”. I feel like this is going to be the first of its kind and I’m stoked. What has the process been like, and when do you suspect it’ll hit bookshelves so we can buy it?

I’m not really sure, since I’m still in the process of planning and drawing it. It’ll be a year or two at least. At the moment, it’s helpful for me to think about the project in two parts. The first is based on a trip I took in the summer of 2019, where I spent time in northern Poland and eastern Ukraine, exploring former sites of Mennonite settlement and grappling with some of that history. The second part is about the first wave of Russian Mennonite migration to Turtle Island, how that experience fit into Canada’s larger colonial project and how it shaped the region of southern Manitoba where I grew up. These different parts of Mennonite history have some parallels that are worth thinking about, and one of the goals of the project is to draw some of those connections. But honestly, I’m very much in the weeds right now. The research seems unending, and with so much important work being published in this area right now, my reading list keeps getting longer.
4. I’m assuming, given your current project, that you’ve been researching Mennonite history and migration. Can you share with us one remarkable thing, or the strangest thing, you’ve learned thus far during this process? 
I don’t know how remarkable it is, but I learned recently that there was a small group of Hutterites living near Kiev, decades before the first Mennonite families arrived in eastern Ukraine (then a newly acquired part of Russia). This community sent two men to Austria to recruit more Hutterites. When the two men heard that there were still Anabaptists living in Poland (then Prussia) they walked 400 miles to the Vistula Delta in order to encourage Mennonites to relocate to the Russian empire.
The strangest thing I’ve learned doesn’t relate to migration or to Russian Mennonite history, really. At one point, a “Mennonite wedding” was Dutch slang for emptying one’s chamberpot. It reportedly may have had something to do with mass diarrhea brought on by the food at an actual Mennonite wedding, but the incident could also be entirely made up. There’s a detailed engraving from 1680 called “Satire or Renewed Remembrance of the Purgative Beans” that recreates the scene.
5. From Twitter, I’ve learned that you also read old issues of Preservings. What about those old magazines captures your attention? What are you looking for? 
On a practical level, they’re great resources for visual references. Lots of photographs and illustrations that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to, which I need for my comic project.
But there’s also a level of scrutiny and personal investment in those old issues that fascinates me. I find some of it pretty intimidating, especially as I approach these topics in my own work. Certain personalities shine through, and it becomes very clear that for older generations the project of recording and interpreting the past was deeply important. The old issues of Preservings are an expression of a subculture that was fully preoccupied with exploring its history, with building an archive that serves its audience. And that archive is being built through this very ephemeral, unpolished format. At times it can read like an issue of Coffee News or a zine, where the logic of how things fit together isn’t straightforward, especially for readers who aren’t as deeply embedded. And I appreciate that depth, even in instances when I disagree with how something is being framed. Sometimes I see literary qualities in those old magazines, with the editor functioning like a recurring character or providing a strong narrative voice. Occasionally it’s charming; at other times it can be a bit abrasive.