February 1, 2013

from A CONVERSATION BETWEEN RHODA JANZEN AND ALAN FOX,
IN EAGLE ROCK, CA, OCTOBER 26th, 2011

Note: The following is excerpted from a 15-page conversation, which can be read in its entirety in Rattle #37.

FOX: So you can write in those other genres as a poet, using that sensibility.

JANZEN: I think so. Or at least, I don’t know, maybe it’s just that I was limited for so long in my own understanding of my skill set. And maybe I was so limited in this genre-box that I just didn’t learn enough of the joys that the other disciplines offer. I’m a creature of habit and I love what I know, so I take some of the things that I know and that’s what makes me love memoir, what makes me love fiction now, that I can apply these things in some fresh way to these other genres.

FOX: Well, also the idea of going home again … what’s the question … just rediscovering, in an immediate way, your community which you grew up in … I believe that what we grow up in affects us: if you’re born in Afghanistan, you’re going to like Afghanistan; if you’re born in Canada, you like Canada, just because we get used to it. Is that the way you feel about the community you grew up in?

JANZEN: No, no it isn’t. I spent fifteen years in the Mennonite community, the first fifteen years, those formative years, but I think any growing up that I did was actually after that. [laughs] I love that community. I was always aware that this was a community where the dangerous, scary things of the world didn’t really penetrate. So the serial killers and their unmarked white vans were hovering around the community—I felt sure that they were all there trying to take advantage of the girls, you know. I felt safe and sacrosanct in this community. And I could see, for example, that marriages in the Mennonite community seemed stable and monogamous and intentional, and I could see that families were tight and that there was support and that people loved each other. I could see that people wanted to go to church potlucks even though I couldn’t imagine why. I could see it. And those were things I knew I was lucky to be seeing, but they didn’t feed me in any real way, and in many ways they became the very things I wanted to set aside as I moved forward.

FOX: Do you feel in retrospect that your early years being in a very definite community point of view … I assume there’s some benefits and burdens from that.

JANZEN: Benefits and burdens, sure. Lots of practical benefits that now I’m just so glad I had, basic things like cooking and sewing and quilting and butchering and candle-making. Drop me in the middle of a desert island and I’m pretty sure I could kick desert island ass. So all of those things are in place for me. The other values, spiritual values and communal values—and character values, like, for instance, my parents’ notion that we are richly responsible for our own happiness. It prevents that victim shtick that happens so much on the part of contemporary culture; it just shuts it down and you just don’t really see that in the Mennonite community, at least the one in which I grew up. So really lovely values like that have prospered me, I think, and I have held them more and more dearly as I’ve gotten older. And then some of the negative values—I think any woman going through academia today would look back on some of that and raise her eyebrows about some of the gender stuff that was in place, the old patriarchal stuff.

FOX: Is that changing at all?

JANZEN: It is changing, and it was changing even when I was a child, when I was growing up. It wasn’t changing fast enough to suit me, and I had that impatience of young scholars who just want everything to instantly change. And if it’s not going to change, they’re going to immediately turn around and walk away to some place that has already changed. So it is beginning to change. There are still some areas, I think, where theologically I might part company with the position of some of the Mennonite churches, and probably more areas in which I would support what they believe. For instance, I would position myself today as a pacifist, as someone who’s interested in nonviolent resistance. That of course is one of the central organizing Mennonite tenets.

FOX: So what happened when you moved out of that and went to college?

JANZEN: [laughs] The usual thing that happens! Kids testing their power, kids beginning to suspect their skill set and moving violently, unwisely, toward it at too furious a pace. I married an atheist, and that was quite formative in how I structured my next twenty years. He was not just an atheist; he was an angry atheist who directed a lot of animosity toward organized religion. And he was very insightful, just gorgeously astute. His critical spirit combined with my own critical spirit and we created a third critical spirit between us. It was a really critical marriage. That shaped a lot of non-participatory judgment to my community of origin for many years, so much that I didn’t even go back very often.

FOX: Did that create a schism between you and your parents?

JANZEN: No, which I think is a testament to their maturity and their ability to walk in love no matter what. And I think I probably said and did some things that were pretty appalling, and they never made me feel unloved. They were always really cool.

FOX: That’s big.

JANZEN: That’s big. I remember when I called my mom to tell her I was—I can’t remember if I wrote this in the book so you can edit it out if it seems repetitive—when I was calling my mom to tell her I had met this guy and we were engaged now two months after we had met, her response was, “Rhoda, have you been drinking?”

FOX: Whoa.

JANZEN: That was her first response, and I knew even through that response that she would be loving, and that she would offer to make that wedding happen. And in fact she helped me make my wedding gown, which was lovely, even though I’m sure that she and my father were sitting there going, “This is a catastrophic decision for our daughter and this isn’t the husband for her.”

FOX: It sounds like your parents have reached a level of maturity that perhaps we all aspire to.

JANZEN: I aspire to it. I learn from them all the time. Every time I’m there I see something I want to work toward.