Interview: Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

By Laurel Rhame

“I had that experience of being in the notion of creative flow, in which the outside world didn’t exist. I just got lost in it.”

The daughter of two conservative Mennonites in North Dakota, Rhoda Janzen grew up in a strict household, steeped in rigid tradition. As soon as she left home and began her college years, Janzen strayed from the beliefs of her childhood, met the man who later became her husband, and embarked on a life that was quite the opposite of her upbringing.

Janzen became a professor of English and creative writing, and, for many years, maintained a frequently unstable marriage. Despite problems, she was shocked when her husband left her for a man he met on the Internet. Shortly thereafter, Janzen was badly injured in an accident, and, at 42, moved back home with her parents. It was while she was at her parents’ home in California, surrounded by the Mennonite community she had left years before, and reeling from the events of her life, that Janzen realized she had the makings of a memoir on her hands.

What began as funny, anecdotal e-mails to girlfriends about her life as a grown woman living with her parents, turned into long days of writing outside, in a gazebo, and resulted in the memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.

You’re a teacher and a poet, so how did you come to write a memoir?
It wasn’t intentional or planned. The circumstances of my life were so extremely crappy that I was in a situation in which I had no project, no money, no time, no outside resources. So I just started writing funny e-mails to my girlfriends.

When you started the memoir you weren’t teaching? Were you on sabbatical?
I was. And that was when my ex-husband had left me for a guy he met on, and I had been in a car accident. My whole life was in upheaval, and I couldn’t afford to do the sabbatical research that I had planned—an academic project—and so I went home to stay with my conservative Mennonite parents.

The format of the book seems like you’re writing after this is happening, but the way that you talk about it—it sounds like you’re very in the midst of things.
Yes, exactly. I started that project while it was there and while it was happening. I later returned to California and finished the bulk of it, revised it, and then revised a lot of it again at my parents’ home.

Eating cold caramel sauce? I read that you wrote while you were eating cold caramel sauce.
That actually happened in my own house. That was a moment—that was an embarrassing moment. But, yes.

How did you know where you wanted to start the story? Was there a moment where you thought, This is the beginning of the book?
I had started writing e-mails to my girlfriends about how funny and silly and awful it was for a woman like me, who had lived away from a conservative community for her adult life, to return to it and suddenly, at age 42, be living with her parents. I was writing e-mails about how funny and odd and frugal they were and my girlfriend Carla said, “Maybe you should begin to think about putting them together as a story, as a memoir?”

I didn’t really begin to do that until she gave me repeated encouragement. And then I started. I began thinking of it as narrative. I began thinking of it as, What kinds of family anecdotes would best move that action forward? When I finished those initial couple of months with my folks, that’s when I began looking around, thinking of a proposal, pitching it to an agent, an editor, and so on. And that’s how it got legs.

Were you talking with your parents about this as you were writing? Did they know what you were doing while you were there?
They knew that I was writing, and I hadn’t yet begun the notion of a memoir. As soon as I had that notion, as soon as I wrote a proposal, and as soon as that became a formal project, I immediately talked with them about it.

Did they react well to it? It seems that they might be a little apprehensive because your lifestyle’s ended up being so drastically different.
At that point I was publishing in egghead journals, you know, poetry for other poets, academic work for other academics. My father’s an academic as well, and my parents know it’s a very small audience and a very closed world. I don’t think that they were anticipating that the story would get national attention. But to their credit, they trusted me, and they didn’t express nervousness or anxiety at any time before the book was published.

And you depicted them very well. I know a little bit about Mennonite culture, but the way you paint your mother it’s as if she’s almost draped in whimsy. She’s not at all what I would expect or what I imagine most readers would expect.
Well, she’s unexpected, and I’m glad that that came through. She’s fabulous, and, I have to say, as I’m telling it and as all my friends know her and interact with her: that picture is true to life.

Was there anything that was exaggerated or held back in terms of your family?
Oh sure, absolutely. Because I’m writing it in a humorous genre, I have to use hyperbole and exaggeration. For example, when I say in a humorous way that Mennonites worship in a church in a rigid way, as if a snake had bitten them, it’s clearly an exaggeration. What I’m suggesting is that they are more conservative in their demonstrativeness with their bodies. For instance, they would be at the opposite end of the spectrum of, let’s say, Pentecostals who worship with their bodies, their hands in the air and their motion—they’re up there dancing at the altar. So the book has lots of exaggeration in terms of how frugal and how conservative the Mennonites are. But the story happened as I narrate it.

Does your ex-husband know about the book?
He did know about the book. And this is another question about what kind of material I have omitted from the book. When you’re writing memoir, you have to make choices about what goes in and what goes out, and much of the story is omitted. There were a lot of choices I made about our marriage and about things that happened there with him that I didn’t want to put in.

I wanted to connect with the ways in which I really cared about him, and so I tried to create a fair portrait. I didn’t want to vilify or demonize him in any way. I hope I didn’t do that. But he knew that [a memoir] was in the works. He asked me specifically if he had anything to be worried about. I told him how I was going to be portraying him, and he understood that.

There are definitely points during the book where he does seem sympathetic. It’s clear that you cared for one another.
I hope so. I hope that there is a sympathetic portrayal because I still like and care about him and respect him tremendously.

Has there been a collective reaction from the Mennonite community, or at least from the community in California that you grew up with, after the publication?
There’s been a reaction, but I couldn’t call it collective, because it’s so varied. A lot of Mennonites respond positively, and they’re resonating with depictions of things that they worked with in their own youth. But some Mennonites have been hurt or offended; some have thought that the humor was irreverent. Some Mennonite scholars and some Mennonite theologians have wished for a greater and more extensive representation of Mennonite culture and theological development. They’re wishing it wasn’t really a memoir, but wishing it was more about Mennonite faith and cultural practice. Some people have been upset by the fact that I represented my Mennonite experience as representative of the global Mennonite experience, because there are so many kinds of Mennonites and so many Mennonite churches, ranging from conservative to charismatic, across the globe. So, lots of different reactions.

And your siblings? Have they read it and talked to you about it?
They have read it. And, of course, my sister had read it beforehand, so there was no surprise for her. I have talked with my older brother about it, not with my younger brother. We’ve been in communication with our families, and I am not going to be writing about their families anymore.

Once is enough?
I think it was enough. [Laughter] Call it a day on that!

You said the book started in e-mails, and then after you kind of knew where you wanted to go. Were you just sitting in California in the gazebo scribbling stuff out? How long were your days?
Those days had a really strange almost ritualistic similarity to them. They would start with my running six miles in the morning; I’m a runner, and that’s what I did. It would sort of magically, transcendently come to me —exactly what I needed to write for that day, because nothing was outlined or formalized in advance. Those six miles of running gave me the preparation, then I would come home, take a shower, go straight to the gazebo, and sit there until my mom would shout from the backyard, “Rhoda, lunch is ready!” That was a four or five hour stint, then I’d go have lunch. I’d go back to the gazebo, and then I’d write until I got writer’s cramp, you know, typing. So: a long day, four or five hours again in the afternoon.

That’s definitely a full day.
Yeah, but I finished the whole book in a month.

That’s dedication.
It’s weird how, when you’re into what you’re doing, there’s no sense of time. I had that experience of being in the notion of creative flow, in which the outside world didn’t exist. I just got lost in it.

Is that the kind of thing you like to share with your students? Do you talk about creative process with your students?
I do, but before that, before I wrote this memoir, I had only been teaching creative writing and poetry, and the creative writing process is a little bit different when you’re schematizing a poem, which is typically one or two hours at the most before you have a working draft. It’s interesting. I’m getting a lot of questions about process now from students who are non-fiction students.

Are you planning on writing more non-fiction, or doing work that isn’t poetry, or are you planning on going back to your roots?
I am. I intend to keep publishing and writing poetry, but I’m under contract now for a second book, a second memoir, called Backslider. I’m working on that now.

Does it pick up where Mennonite left off?
It does, and it’s also written in the same kind of humorous, narrative style. It’s a book about sliding back into religion; the sort of spiritual motion I was making toward the end of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress continues, and I’m on this journey. What happens when someone like me with a very liberal and sort of cosmopolitan past makes a move back toward being churched and joining a worship community on purpose, with all of my existing doubt? I go ahead and do that. Then it also tells the story of my recent marriage, of becoming a mom for the first time, a little bit of cancer drama: chemo-emo. It’s a fun book.

In terms of going back to religion, you’re probably not going back to a Mennonite community, per se, but is it similar?
I would describe it as polar opposite. I might be interested in attending a Mennonite church, and I have Mennonite friends nationally and internationally who attend churches that I resonate with, especially on the peace principle—that they do not participate in military engagements. I really support that, and I’m a pacifist, so that’s very attractive to me. There is no Mennonite church in [my] geographical area, and I am attending the church that my husband attends; it is a Pentecostal church, so 100-percent opposite.

Finally, Rhoda Janzen, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
I don’t think I can boil it down to six words. That sounds like a haiku. I love a haiku, but I don’t think I could do it. Maybe, okay, here’s what I would say: Sometimes you have to go home. Sometimes you have to go back in order to move forward.


READ an excerpt of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.

BUY Mennonite in a Black Dress.

LEARN more about the Mennonite denomination and its beliefs.

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25 responses

  1. Bethe says:

    Her book title is six words! I plan to buy this book. It sounds fascinating. In Missouri, we have several Mennonites and Amish and occasionally see the Amish buggies on the road. What a step back in time. In fact, my husband and I hired nine Amish brothers for a big project. We absolutely loved them. Great sense of humor. Loved to tell and hear jokes. I’ve often thought about writing about them.

  2. Linda says:

    I grew up with an Amish Grandma and Mennonite Grandfather. So many of the things she writes brought back the memories of them. The songs, the recipes (ours were a little more German), the humor. People think Mennonites are “stern”, but I always saw it as “devoted”. This is a great memoir.

  3. Kari says:

    I loved this book. I’ve never laughed so hard while reading…almost peed my pants. You can tell she genuinely loves her family and friends. I miss having that type of connection with my family & community.

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  4. Shelley Jahn Pineo says:

    I loved this book. I went to Hartland CHristian Camp and the Mennonite church of East Bakersfield..I remember so many of the same things. I love my memories of growing up Mennnonite but I didnt stay with it. I jumped right into the worldly stuff as an adult and was soundly thrashed after 11 years - now I go to a church that seems to be geared to reach the broken and lost..ex-addicts and divorced…second chancer’s like Peter and the apostle Paul.
    Again I loved this book and cant wait for Backslider to come out. Hurry Rhoda!

  5. Marie says:

    This book is amazing! i am 16 and i had to do a reading project for this book and i was absolutely hooked! i can not wait for her second tale of wonder……and who said teens don’t read?!!! p-shh :)

  6. Delores says:

    I grew up a Mennonite in the Fresno/Reedley, CA area. Her anecdotal memories and German phrases are so absolutely mine. I love her telling the story of her background and know exactly where she came from. Thanks for these wonderful memories, Rhoda.

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  8. Bernelda Becker says:

    I picked up Rhoda’s book at a Goodwill Store for $1.99. I need to tell you I’m age 87, of German from Russia (Ukraine) ethnicity. In order, I was outraged, almost threw book into wastebasket, intrigued, began comparing to my own evangelical background, depending on which chapter I was reading, trying to figure out who I should loan the book too, and ended up deciding to first ask a published poetry friend who shares my ethnicity and taught German to my 4th grade daughter first chance. Still not sure which option to pursue. In spite of occasional thoughts I should obey my first impulse, I ended up realizing we had many thoughts and ideas in common, and hope to read Backslider.

  9. George says:

    I loved this book. My mom grew up Mennonite in a small town in southeastern, IA before she married my dad and they moved to southern CA. We attended a Presbyterian church We would visit that small Iowa town every summer during my youth. Pretty much all my mom and Oma’s friends were either Mennonite or Amish. Coming from southern California to this small town was a culture shock, but I lived their more simplistic life. To this day, my mom still uses the term,”big job” just like Rhoda’s mom to describe a certain bodily function.

  10. Laura Suderman says:

    I live in Iowa, where we have lots of the Old Order Mennonites, but none of my variety, (Mennonite Brethren), so it was such a delight to read about Rhoda and connect with her background. I even have a daughter who chose to leave and pursue the academic world, so I related on a lot of fields. What a fun and wonderfully nostalgic book for me!

  11. susan bergey says:

    I live in a heavily populated Mennonite area. However, from one end of the spectrum to the other-very conservative to very liberal. My husbands family were all Mennonite but his parents became Lutheran. I am a huge reader but usually everything except the whimisical. Oh, what a joy to read this bk. I laughed outloud many times. Could relate to her experiences Also many , and not just the Mennonites, can still speak the “lower German” which we call Pa. Dutch. I was surprised that when Rhoda was interviewed when said she was Pentecostal. Quite a big leap.

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