On ‘Making Believe’: 5 Questions with Magdalene Redekop

Magdalene Redekop is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Toronto. Her new book, Making Believe: Questions About Mennonites and Art, is “part criticism, part memoir”. Making Believe is available now.

5 Questions with Magdalene Redekop (in conversation with Andrew Unger)

  1. I imagine that literary criticism was not something you had much awareness of as a Mennonite child in southern Manitoba. When did you first discover literary criticism and when did you decide to dedicate your life to it?

This is a good opening question. It lights up the territory because I can’t answer it. When I was an adolescent I had to memorize a German catechism before baptism, to show that I had “dedicated my life to God.” There was a right answer to all the questions. By contrast, the pleasure of this Q & A is that you and I both know there are no right answers to your questions. The bad news is that my response to your first question is going to have to be longer than the answers in the catechism.

You imagine right, Andrew. There are no words for “literary criticism” in Low German, the language I spoke at home during the first decades of my life. I was born in 1944 and grew up on a small farm. There was limited contact with the “outside world,” but even after I learned English I don’t remember ever “dedicating my life” to literary criticism. I did not consciously choose this career. One thing just led to another because of a passion for literature that I seem to have been born with.

As I think about your question I feel as if I am summoning ghosts from a distant murky past. When did the ghost of Magdalene develop a longing for art? It’s tempting to make up an answer by identifying a “moment.” The truth is that it was always there. Even before I was born I would have heard my mother laughing as she told stories in Low German. Snuggled there in her warm belly, I must have heard people singing every day, often in four part harmony. We spoke only Low German at home but on my first day at Roseville School, the one room school near our farm, I remember the teacher being surprised that I could already read. That was thanks to my older sisters, one of whom also taught me to read music. I was lucky to have Nick G. Neufeld as my teacher for the first three years at Roseville School. Best teacher ever! I remember him performing a dramatic reading of a chapter from Uncle Tom’s Cabin every day. We hung on every word!

Ariel view of Roseville School, between Altona and Rosenfeld. (Source: Altona and District Heritage Research Centre via Manitoba Historical Society).

I guess I’m saying that a rich oral culture made up for a shortage of books during my childhood. There was a small collection of books in Roseville School but never enough to satisfy my hunger.  I lost track of how many times I reread Jean Val Jean and The Robe. Somehow I learned about the University Extension Library—a mail order service operated by the University of Manitoba. Those were exciting days when a parcel arrived for me at the post office in Altona. I got hooked on Thomas Hardy. I remember reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles and being furious at Tess for being a passive victim and at Hardy for bowing to a brutal force called Fate. Reading Tess filled me with what Northrop Frye would have called “the energy of repudiation.” It motivated me to keep working to escape from the restrictions set up by my father and by the church. I felt the thrill of escape on the day when I went for the first time into the stacks of the University of Manitoba library. I would compare that to the first time I saw an ocean. I guess now we would say I was gobsmacked.

I realize that I have traveled a cultural distance that appears vast to some people. I get asked about that quite often. But really there is no mystery about how I got from A to B—from a small farm to teaching at a large university. It was just the hard work of getting an education. Secretly I always wanted to be a novelist. But as an adolescent I knew that would not get me the freedom I longed for. So I postponed that dream and made it my first goal to go to university. I studied with fierce determination, hoping for an entrance scholarship. At night I would stuff something along the bottom of my door so my mother could not see that my light was still on. I remember memorizing chemistry equations by the light of a goose neck lamp, trying not to scrape my chair on the wooden floor so as not to wake up my parents, whose bedroom was below mine. Most nights my back hurt from bending over the green card table. It paid off literally one day when my father came home from town with a small parcel for me and a letter informing me that I had won an Isbister scholarship. The parcel contained a gold medal with my name carved on the back of it. Imagine! I remember us all standing next to our forest green 1953 Ford in the dirt between the house and the barn when I unwrapped it. My sisters were literally jumping up and down with excitement and my mother was smiling in a stunned not-entirely-happy sort of way, as if she could already see me flying the coop. My father gave us a stern warning about pride and walked into the barn to be with the animals. He did not fool me. I knew he believed in me and that he would let me go. Besides, the scholarship included a $100 entrance award. That was a heck of a lot of money on a farm that was barely above subsistence.

So there you go. My rags to riches story. My road to the University of Manitoba was paved with gold. That was certainly a moment, a turning point. But there were others. I owe an enormous debt to all the English professors at University of Manitoba. The first one was Jack Woodbury, who could spend an hour talking about “Lycidas” (sans lecture notes) and make you feel the music of Milton in your very bones. Then came Joseph Gold, who introduced me to Faulkner, and George Amabile, whose smoky voice I still hear in my head when I read Yeats’s “O Rose Upon the Rood of Time.” I can never thank them enough. In later years I also had female mentors, but these teachers transformed my life and every class I have ever taught is a tribute to them.

To tell you the honest truth, Andrew, I am still sometimes sad that I never did find time to write a novel. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I admire you for having done that while teaching. That said, I don’t actually think that critical and creative voices are mutually exclusive. It’s too late for me to start writing novels, but lately it seems that everything I write is on a boundary where the critical and the creative are mixed. It’s a challenge to do that balancing act and often I end up clowning, but I intend to keep at it for as long as I enjoy good health.

But I should not end my too-long answer to your first question on a note of regret. I am overwhelmed with gratitude when I think of the people who have encouraged me along the way. I cannot not mention Al Braun, a charismatic high school English teacher who has been cited as an influence by other writers, including Armin Wiebe. Here was a person who had a passion for literature equal to my own. Maybe he also longed to write a novel. What mattered then was that he dared to be different. Some people called Al Braun a beatnik but I had no idea what that was. There were rumours that Al Braun had been seen walking barefoot on the sidewalks of Altona. Al Braun was dark and handsome and did not look even remotely like a Mennonite. Alas, I had a painful crush on the man. Never mind that I was pretty sure every other girl in Grade 10 was similarly infected. I remember the intoxicating smell of his cologne when he walked past my desk while talking about Barometer Rising. Sex was not supposed to exist so I could not even commiserate with the other girls and lament the fact that Mr. Braun’s cologne made me want to die. I don’t know about them, but luckily I survived. And here I am.

  1. What role do you think literary critics and scholars play in our society today? Do you think critics and scholars have any unique roles within the Mennonite context? 

To answer those questions I need to begin by making a distinction between what we are actually doing and what role I think we ought to play. It saddens me to see how many literary critics talk only to a small group of other specialists in language that is opaque to anybody else. Of course specialized language is inevitable in all disciplines, but it seems to me that many critics make things worse by being intensely evangelical. By that I mean that so many seem to believe that it is their job to save the world.  There are enormous quantities of energy being wasted by highly intelligent people in efforts to construct some ideological framework that will enable them to stand on a high moral ground from which to judge others. In the meantime, our planet is at risk as the result of a profound failure of collective imagination. It is a scandal of our time that literary scholars, instead of communicating clearly in an effort to educate our collective imagination (to echo Northrop Frye), are instead splitting into tribes at war with each other. I visualize them as getting territorial on the deck of the Titanic and managing to move some chairs around.

But I remind myself not to tar everybody with the same brush. Since you have read Making Believe, you know how deeply I am indebted to the work of other literary scholars. I rely especially on those who engage with actual works of art and learn from it—E. H. Gombrich, W. J. T. Mitchell, and many others. I love how Mitchell just keeps saying: Slow down! Look again! Listen again! You may have noticed how often I turn to Linda Hutcheon to understand the workings of parody, irony, and adaptation. She’s all about engaging with the art, whether it’s opera or a recent movie. Don’t you wish she would write a book on satire?

A certain amount of specialized vocabulary is necessary and useful, but I believe we critics should not lose sight of our larger responsibility. We are not called to dedicate our lives to saving the world! We just need to do the work of cultural translation and encourage dialogue about art, which includes listening and embracing difference. This is a tough job because, although identity is dialogical, the heated public debates all swirl around the mistaken assumption that it is monological. There are now many scholars listening to the voices coming from various minority groups and doing the hard work of excavating archives. And there are others, like Kwame Anthony Appiah, who write helpful theory grounded in their own minority experience. If there is a particular role for critics who are themselves part of a minority group, Mennonite or other, it is to resist the pressure to accept monological definitions of ethnicity and race. I see a lot of novelists and poets, especially Indigenous ones, doing this in powerful ways. The critics not so much. Let’s be honest about our differences and not acquiesce to the absurd stereotypes that are out there. But as I said, that’s a tough job.

  1. In Making Believe you describe Mennonite writers and artists as having a sort of identifiable “accent” or sensibility. Do you see this accent as fading in the future as we become increasingly distanced from our Kanadier or Russlander ancestors? 

That’s a fascinating question! In some ways it seems obvious that increasing assimilation would lead to fading. If there were just one Mennonite community (or even just the two you mention), then that would probably be inevitable. But as you know there are many Mennonite communities all over the world and all at different stages of assimilation. There is not some kind of original essence of Mennonitism that is now fading. To focus only on assimilation, furthermore, is to assume that ethnicity is the only thing that makes for some kind of Mennonite accent. This is contradicted by the experience in Holland. The Mennonites who left from there to go to the Vistula Delta developed the kind of ethnicity that you and I are part of. The ones that stayed behind in Holland never did and assimilated rapidly but I am told that there is still a Mennonite culture there. The history is still different for Swiss Mennonites, as is their aesthetic accent.

What I know best is my own personal history and that has to do with the experience of the two Russian Mennonite groups you mention, and that are important to Manitoba culture. In our case the question of accent is related to degrees of assimilation, yes, and to the powerful and mostly hidden impact of the Low German language. You may remember that Maurice Mierau, a very fine poet, wrote an essay for Rhubarb in which he announced the inevitable death of Mennonite literature. He based this on his perception that the only places where Low German is spoken (in Mexico, Brazil, Belize, etc.) are also places where there is hostility to education. I cannot keep up with all the writing by Mennonites that is happening all over the world now, but there is plenty of evidence to show how wrong Mierau was. There don’t have to be hundreds of young Mennonites in any one place who are learning English and being taught to write poetry. Education is not about trying to engineer creativity. I imagine creativity among Mennonites in these “backward” communities happening in the way that Patrick Friesen once described the Missing Mennonite Cabaret. It only takes two or three people who are learning English while they are thinking in Low German, who hear intoxicating music and start interacting with tricksters from other cultures around them. Will some of these have Mennonite accents? I think so, yes, but who cares if they don’t? I did not write my book to try to ensure or encourage some kind of ethnic survival. I wrote it to celebrate a community with porous boundaries that plays together in a Spielraum where all are welcome.

  1. Your book contemplates many fascinating questions about Mennonites and art. To which question was it the most difficult to compose a response? What questions remain?

Hm. I guess, going by which chapter was the most difficult to write, I would have to say all the questions about music. That chapter was agony to write. I was relieved when Linda Hutcheon said during our zoom conversation about my book that it does not show. I began by thinking about why music is the dominant art in Mennonite culture and I ended up having to acknowledge that my difficulty in writing about music (aside from my ignorance!) reflected the fact that for me, as for many people (not just Mennonites), music is an escape from all the anxieties about representation. Something in me rebelled at the thought of writing about music instead of just making music. I don’t know how I would have managed to finish that chapter without the help of Maureen Epp, who is not only a brilliant editor but also a musician and a musicologist. She urged me to connect my stories about music to what she called “the spine of the book” and then left me alone with that daunting task. What I wrote is not even close to what she would be able to write, but she helped me get to a place where I could say what I needed to say. Where would we all be without editors!

As for questions that remain, I would say all of them. And then some. I have no answers. I love that when you finished reading my book you had more questions than when you started. That’s exactly how I felt after writing it. In a sense we are all like the blind leading the blind. But we have each other. That makes all the difference.

  1. What is your favourite Mennonite joke?

The one that my husband, Dennis Duffy, made up when I asked him that question just now:

Why did the Mennonite cross the road? To get to Yantzeed.