‘I Write About Weird Mennonites’: 5 Questions with Author Jessica Penner

Jessica Penner earned an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work appears in Wordgathering, Bellevue Literary Review, Luna Luna, Necessary Fiction, The Fiddleback, Center for Mennonite Writing, Rhubarb, and the anthology Tongue Screws and Testimonies. Her fiction and nonfiction have been honoured by the New York City College of Technology Literary Arts Festival, Open City, and Bellevue Literary Review. She lives in New York City. Shaken in the Water is her first novel. Learn more at www.jessicadawnpenner.com

 1. Your last name is VERY familiar in southeastern Manitoba… what’s your background with Mennonite-ism?

I’m often thought to be Canadian because of my last name, especially in Swiss Mennonite circles on the East Coast of the United States. I have cousins in Ontario, but if I have Manitoba relatives, I’m unaware of them. My family (Penner, Groening, Siebert, Richert, Ens, etc.) is Russian Mennonite, specifically Mennonite Brethren. We all came from the Molotschna Colony in the Ukraine and settled in Kansas in 1874. I grew up in Hillsboro, Kansas. My parents still live in Hillsboro and attend Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church—locally known as the “Big MB,” because of the church’s size. My mother is an English professor at Tabor College, which will probably be familiar to Canadian MBs, since it’s an MB college, and my father is a wheat farmer and active in the national agricultural community. My older brother is an organic farmer in Minnesota; he produces the original wheat that Mennonites brought with them in 1874: Turkey Red. My younger brother is a web developer at Eastern Mennonite University (my alma mater) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Currently, I attend Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship in New York City, which is a part of the Mennonite Church USA conference, and I write about weird Mennonites. So, in our own ways, my whole family has remained linked to the Mennonite world.

2. Your book “Shaken in the Water” is haunted by Midwestern Mennonite imagery… can you talk about the process of searching for an agent, and the feedback you received?

I think I spent two years searching for an agent for Shaken in the Water. It was a rather disheartening process, even though I had a lot of positive feedback from some of the agents I queried. I even had interest from an editor at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, but in the end, the answer was generally the same: “Beautiful book, but we don’t know how we’d sell it.” The rejections were discouraging, even if they said it was a great book. If they’d said: “Your writing stinks,” I could’ve dealt with that, because I could work on that, but when they say they like a book but still won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, it shows how little control your quality of writing has over your success. I understand logically why they’d reject it—an agent or an editor may personally love a book, but that doesn’t mean it will do well in the cold world of marketing, so they have to be very picky about what they choose. The (awesome) author Julia Fierro eventually connected me with a small press that took books without an agent, and they published it.

3. At the Mennonite/s Writing conference, it was suggested that perhaps Mennonites are a little too obsessed with ourselves and our stories. Do you agree?

Yes and no. I think that Mennonites like to hear themselves talk (which often leads more vocal Mennonites to not hear other voices even within the Mennonite church: LGBTQ, non-European-descent voices). That said, I live in New York City, and one thing I’ve learned here is how much no one gives a scheiße about Mennonites and their stories, because in New York, EVERYONE has a unique story to tell about how they came to live here. I think most Mennonites—at least (in my experience) those who aren’t in a Mennonite center, or are involved with the larger art world, or work in the non-Mennonite academic world—live their lives as one more voice in a flood of voices, and when we get a chance to talk amongst ourselves, when we don’t have to “explain” our Mennonite-ness to each other, we probably go overboard with navel-gazing. It was so nice to not have to spend a few minutes outlining what Mennonites were about before I read my piece at the last Mennonite/s Writing conference. I could just assume that most of the audience would already have a basic knowledge so that I could simply dive in to the heart of the story.

4. In his introduction to Rhubarb 41, Maurice Mierau suggested that there can be no new Mennonite writers. Your response?

I’ve read and reread that introduction over the past few days, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t fully grasp his…argument…or, suggestion? I feel that I’m missing something when I read it. Perhaps there’s something in the Canadian Mennonite writing experience that is different from the American Mennonite writing experience. (I felt that way more than once at Mennonite/s Writing in Winnipeg—that there was a trip in the translation that everyone who’d lived north of the border just “got” that us southerners didn’t “get.” In conversations with other Americans post-conference, I sensed that they felt the same.) I’d love to sit down and talk with him about it over coffee and peppernuts. It seems to me that he contradicts himself, both in previous writing on the topic—which he admits in the Rhubarb 41 introduction—and in this newest piece. I wonder if his intention is more rhetorical than argumentative.

I might suggest that there have never been any “true” Mennonite writers—or any “true” religious/ethnic writers of any creed or race. Isn’t all—or at the very least most—writing based on the struggle of a minority against a majority? Or even, if you look at Mennonite or other religion-based writing, the minority’s struggles against the minority within? Mierau says as much at the beginning of his introduction.

It all depends on one’s point of view of Mennonites. A person who has the traditionally Mennonite last name of Jost or Augsburger is going to have one definition of what a “true” Mennonite is—but who’s to say that if their family name isn’t a traditional European name or if they’ve only been a part of a Mennonite church for a generation (or less) that their definition of a Mennonite is less “true”? Mennonites have always been evolving, and that, for me, is the greatest thing about the Mennonite faith.

A story: take the hymn #606 (now #118 in MCUSA’s hymnal): Praise God From Whom (All Blessing Flow). Years ago, I ran into a group of conservative Mennonites singing hymns in a subway station beneath Union Square in Manhattan. I stood and listened with other commuters for a bit. A young woman in a floor-length cotton/poly-blend dress and a white head covering approached and asked if I wanted to know more about Jesus. I said no, but that I was a Mennonite, too. She looked at me, with my pierced nose and (at the time) obviously dyed red hair, and probably thought I was joking. Then I asked her if the group would sing 606. She squinted her eyes at me, still in disbelief, so I sang the first lines to her. It was as if I’d said “Shibboleth” (if you’re unsure of what this is, see Judges 12:6). She knew I was one of them, piercings and all, and I sang 606 with her choir.

Those Mennonites probably didn’t see me as a “true” Mennonite, and I might question their desire to wear cotton/poly-blend dresses in subzero temperatures in order to follow their faith, but I think that it’s possible for all of us to consider ourselves to be faithful followers of Menno Simons. I found out recently that 606 only became popular in the 1960s or so. To hear some people talk of it, it’s been sung since the days Mennonites were hiding out in barns and cellars with their outlawed faith. It’s become a tradition in less than a century. Is it less beautiful because of its 20th Century origins? No. That song strikes something in many Mennonites, across conferences and congregations, and that’s powerful.

To link this story back with Mierau’s suggestion, I ask: Why would we expect there to be another Rudy Wiebe or Miriam Toews in the world? I love Wiebe and Toews’ work—but I also love Sofia Samatar and Casey Plett’s work—to name just two newer Mennonite writers. They’re different voices who don’t often let the word “Mennonite” cross their pages, but their influence is Mennonite. Perhaps for a purist, that isn’t the case, but I don’t consider myself a purist about anything: religion, writing, or life in general.

5. You live and teach in New York City… but you did visit Winnipeg quite recently. What was your most “Mennonite” experience while here in Manitoba?

Since I didn’t have a car, I wasn’t able to explore Winnipeg much, but I had a strange sense of familiarity with Winnipeg that I’d been there before, even though I know I hadn’t. I think it had a Midwestern feel—which might be actually a Midwestern Mennonite feel to it—much like I had when I visited Fresno, California, for the last Mennonite/s Writing conference. Take away the palm trees, and I’d have sworn I was in Newton or Hillsboro, Kansas. Take away the underground tunnels to everything in Winnipeg, and I’d have sworn the same.