A hilarious and moving memoir—in the spirit of Anne Lamott and Nora Ephron—about a woman who returns home to her close-knit Mennonite family after a personal crisis.
Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her brilliant husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on Gay.com, but that same week a car accident left her with serious injuries. What was a gal to do? Rhoda packed her bags and went home. This wasn’t just any home, though. This was a Mennonite home. While Rhoda had long ventured out on her own spiritual path, the conservative community welcomed her back with open arms and offbeat advice. (Rhoda’s good-natured mother suggested she date her first cousin—he owned a tractor, see.) It is in this safe place that Rhoda can come to terms with her failed marriage; her desire, as a young woman, to leave her sheltered world behind; and the choices that both freed and entrapped her.
Written with wry humor and huge personality—and tackling faith, love, family, and aging—Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is an immensely moving memoir of healing, certain to touch anyone who has ever had to look homeward in order to move ahead.
What prompted you to write Mennonite in a Little Black Dress?
I had never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer, and I never would have started writing a memoir on my own. When I first returned to the Mennonite community, I started peppering my friends with astonished e-mails about my folks. I was, like, Check this out! My father reuses his toothpicks! My mother is ideologically committed to finishing a super stinky cucumber lotion that she got at a hotel! It was my friend Carla who first told me that I’d better start saving the e-mails. She said they were beginning to smell like a memoir.
Your previous book is a collection of poems, Babel’s Stair, and your poems have also been widely published in journals and anthologies. Was it difficult to make the switch from writing poetry to writing prose?
Fools rush in. I’ve been studying the craft of writing poetry my entire adult life, and my commitment to it has a serious edge that I blessedly don’t feel when I write creative nonfiction. Because of my training, I’m supposed to know what I’m doing in poetry. But I’ve never studied nonfiction in a formal context, so it’s easy to give myself permission to wing it. This is the beauty of ignorance.
What’s up with those head coverings that so many Mennonite women wear?
My question exactly! The Mennonites would tell you that they wear them as a public sign of modesty. Mennonite women have a long tradition of not wanting to tempt men with their worldly beauty, you know. They used to wear ugly little capes like ponchos to hide their “womanly shape.” But I suspect that the head coverings are just cheaper than hair products.
Where are you on your spiritual journey today?
So often we think of faith as the crutch of crisis; we turn to it only when our world bottoms out, as mine did when my husband left me. Weirdly, faith is becoming more important to me, not less. I’m still exploring issues of spirituality and theology, and I’m even regularly attending a church. Also, nobody’s twisting my arm! I’m often amazed that an English professor prefers nonfiction to new fiction….with a nod to Viktor Frankl, the books on my nightstand are all about man’s search for meaning.
You write briefly in your memoir about having chosen to not bear children. Was this a difficult decision?
Nick had a vasectomy the first month we were married. That was a joint decision. Given his misery, we felt that it would be irresponsible to risk passing on bipolarity. I do love children, and I’ve often wondered what kind of a mother I would have made. For us, though, the harder decision was not to adopt, as my brothers have. We chose not to because we couldn’t provide a stable parenting environment.
But I can’t pin my decision solely on Nick’s situation. You know what troubles me? The notion that we should reproduce just because we can. Seems to me we should be able to articulate some proactive, deliberated reasons for bringing a child into the world. When women cite their biological clock, I wonder if they’ve thought that out. Shouldn’t human beings assess their biological urges as well as admit them? What if we’re having babies to feel less lonely, more needed? If so, we’re using someone to make us feel better about ourselves. That’s a little creepy.
Your mother is wonderfully, irrepressibly upbeat. Did her sunny outlook on life shape your terrific sense of humor?
Sure. She cracks me up. She sees the world through an astonishing parental lens. Recently I drove her to a family reunion and she sent along a picture of me that made me look like the love child of Menno Simons and Spiro Agnew—no comment, just, Here, I thought you might like this hideous picture of yourself! Then there was a picture of my sister with a pandowdy face and an underslung chin, like a muffler dragging a bumper. What is it with moms? Have they no sense? I retaliate by taking pictures of her in hats. She has a global head and no neck, and yet she just peacefully stands there and lets me photograph her in any hat whatsoever, including an eighties shoulder pad I removed from her coat.
What memoirs have moved or inspired you? Did they influence the way you wrote your own?
One memoir I read late into the night was Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer, about the Hmong immigration to the United States from Laos. But I never seriously read memoir as a genre until I had written one. I was always too busy with poetry and with cultural criticism circa 1885. Now, though, I love curling up with a good memoir from time to time. Who doesn’t love David Sedaris’s deadpan humor, Jeannette Walls’s submerged self-pity, Elizabeth Gilbert’s discursive questing? Good stuff.