Conference at FPU connects West Coast Mennonite writers, eastern colleagues

By wayne.steffen on April 6, 2015 @ 11:12am
Tiessen, Wiebe, and Janzen group photo

By Kristian House

The first U.S. West Coast edition of the Mennonite/s Writing Conference took place at Fresno Pacific University from March 12-15, 2015. “Mennonite/s Writing VII: Movement, Transformation, and Place,” was on the main university campus, 1717 S. Chestnut Ave., Fresno.

Organizers expressed happiness with the conference and the attendance of 215 people from across the U.S. and Canada. “Attendance was a concern because we are way out here on the West Coast and the conference is traditionally on the East Coast, so we were very happy with the numbers we got,” said Fran Martens Friesen, M.A., assistant professor of humanities.

An inter-Mennonite event, this conference was sponsored by the Marpeck Fund, California Mennonite Historical Society, Jean and Louis Janzen Visiting Writers Series, Fresno Pacific University, FPU Council of Senior Professionals and Hesston College.

The keynote presenters were poet Peter Everwine and author Mas Masumoto. Everwine’s most recent books are From the Meadow: Selected and New Poems and Listening Long and Late. Some of Masumoto’s works include “Letters to the Valley” and “Epitaph for a Peach.” “Peter Everwine did a superb job in drawing in the audience. And Mas Masumoto really engaged the audience and particularly memorable was his analysis of the selfie, where he discussed how we create story and put ourselves into the story,” Martens Friesen said.

One of the most prominent features of the conference were the writing workshops. Since the inaugural conference in 1990 this conference was the first to place significant emphasis on workshops. “They often don’t have much in line of the workshops, actually getting hands on teaching about writing. The workshops were a piece we added in and they were heavily attended,” said organizer Hope Nisly, M.L.S., acquisitions librarian for Hiebert Library. Each workshop focused on a particular topic. For example, the poetry workshop, led by Jean Janzen, whose most recent book is What the Body Knows, and Jesse Nathan, Ph.D., taught people how to better their work by studying the styles of other poets.

Another powerful component of this conference was the first Lesbian Gay Transgender Bisexual (LGTB) fiction panel. Same-sex and similar issues are controversial among U.S. and Canadian Mennonites. “The comments were that it felt like a historic moment and event, because they don’t always feel welcome in a Mennonite context. It is about coming together and understanding the lived experiences of others. People telling their real-life lived stories to help us better understand who we are,” Nisly said.

Other sessions included “Theology and Place,” “Feminist Interpretations” and “Writing as Healing.” Each session was run by a moderator and featured several presenters with experience in the topic.

The overarching significance of the conference was to connect the West Coast writers to the larger group of Mennonite writers: “We wanted to introduce ourselves more fully to the larger Mennonite body across the U.S. and Canada. And we wanted to introduce local people to the richness of Mennonite writing and literary critique. There is a rich of body of literature coming out of the Mennonite community,” Fran Martens Friesen explained.

“Part of how we wanted to show ourselves and who we are is we have Kevin Enns-Rempel do a presentation on California Mennonites, to show who we are, our diversity, what this particular kind of Mennonite looked like,” she added. Director of the Hiebert Library, Enns-Rempel, M.A., is a historian and former archivist.

In the photo, from left to right, are writers/participants Hildi Froese Tiessen, Rudy Wiebe and Jean Janzen. (Photo courtesy of conference organizers)