Monthly Archives: October 2016

On Violence, Culture and Literature

A few weeks ago I presented at a conference about human rights, and I discussed conflict about land between LeBarons (a group of polygamous Mormons with an exceptionally violent history) and primarily Indigenous ejidatarios (people who live on collectively owned land granted or restituted by the Mexican government). My conclusion pondered the merits of consuming representations of the obviously violent aspects of this conflict, particularly as it is situated in Mexico.

“This talk about violence, and the overt representation of violence, may do harm than good. It is another way to exoticize Mexico. It overshadows the structural violence that leads to abject violence, which is then represented in visual and print cultures. I wonder if paying attention to the everyday bureaucratic actions and corresponding acts of resistance and the ways that they are represented would be a better approach. It would allow us to return to the reason we study literature, culture and history: the chance to glimpse times, people and places outside of our own experiences and to offer us ways to pay attention and to understand what we prefer to ignore. Returning to why we began such an unproductive career path in the first place allows us to trace the history of the machine that produces so much violence it has now become palatable for us.”

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Meditation for a Faculty Meeting

Today I come to you with a heavy and uncertain heart. I know that many of you are feeling afraid, feeling threatened or feeling exhausted. In the country where we are living, people with power have taken advantage of these feelings to divide people and to present stereotypes and prejudices as if they were facts. Today, I offer you three short stories and a prayer to encourage us to live and work with honesty and integrity in this context of uncertainty, heaviness and divisiveness.

The first is about how we might see the good in others. About five and a half years ago I lived in a house with three roommates. One of them, who had grown up Catholic, and joined a non-denominational church as a teen, had a shelf full of statues of the Virgin Mary. I was very curious about this, as Mennonites of my background and friends from non-denominational evangelical backgrounds have not not often had saint statues. She told me that she thinks of the Virgin Mary as the Biblical/religious figure, and, as Madeline L’Engle pointed out, one who was obedient to God’s creative work. The concept of Christian obedience has often had awful consequences for women; however, I still like to light candles to the Virgin to remember to notice and to magnify what I believe is the divine light in all of us.

The second story is about finding ways to create conversation. I did not want to come back to school. My summer was amazing. I got to research in archives, research by talking to people and attend cultural events at least once or twice a week that directly pertained to my interests. Then we had faculty/staff retreat. That’s never the most uplifting part of the year for me. The following weekend, I went to a conference about Low German women, on a day when only women were speaking. It was in London, Ontario, close to large communities of Low German Mennonites. The panels were set up with kringel, a traditional braided breadstick-item as if we were going to visit. In this way, my research on how Low German people are seen in Mexican and Canadian culture (too often as drug traffickers) could more easily converse with the experiences of Dietsche women, and the social workers, teachers, public health researchers and MCC staff who work with them. This conference helped me realize that my research matters.

The last is a story of encouragement. In 1952, my maternal grandparents were called by the Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions to work in Paraguay with refugees who had recently arrived there from the Soviet Union. They had come to Canada from the Soviet Union as young children and so they shared a language, church, and culture with these people. My grandfather was a teacher and a preacher and my grandmother was a nurse. But, my grandma did not want to go and found it very hard to live there. She often said that one thing that kept her going was a verse that a couple from Kansas, who also belonged to their denomination, had sent them before my grandparents left for Paraguay. It was such an important piece of paper to her that she kept it in her wallet until she died, about a month ago. It said, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deutoronomy 33:27a).

And that is my prayer for you. That in the coming days and months we might find strength to magnify the divine creative light in one another and in our students, and to see how our research can deepen our relationships with marginalized people and to trust in God’s everlasting arms.