posted October 13, 2009

Memoir Reflects on Revisiting Mennonite Roots

Dr. Rhoda Janzen of the Hope College English faculty has found that you can go home again.  In fact, sometimes you need to.

It's an experience that she relates in the memoir "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress," which is being published this month by Henry Holt and Company of New York and has already received national attention.

Janzen, newly 42 and recently recovered from a hysterectomy, found her world turned upside down in the fall of 2006.  As she explains in the book, her husband of 15 years left her for a man whom he met online, and a car accident that same week left her seriously injured.

Already scheduled for a sabbatical leave that spring, she decided against her original research plans and instead went home to the California Mennonite community in which she had been raised.  She had set aside the conservative religion in pursuing her own path as an academic, but in the four months she spent living with her parents and immersed again in the culture and faith of her childhood, she found healing in a safe place that gave her a chance to 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.

While she was West, Janzen stayed in touch with friends.  A published poet, she hadn't planned to turn her reflections into a memoir, but a Hope colleague who was among her correspondents had other ideas.

"I had never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer, and I never would have started writing a memoir on my own," Janzen recalls in a conversation published as a foreword to the book.   "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 superstinky 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.  "She said they were beginning to smell like memoir."

 The resulting book has already received coverage in a variety of major publications, with an excerpt appearing in the Sunday, Sept. 13, "New York Times Magazine" and articles in fall editions of publications including "Family Circle," "Good Housekeeping," "Marie Claire" and "Elle Magazine."

"Publishers Weekly" has praised the memoir, noting, "Janzen looks at her childhood religion with fresh, twinkling eyes...  Janzen is always ready to gently turn the humor back on herself, though, and women will immediately warm to the self-deprecating honesty with which she describes the efforts of friends and family to help her re-establish her emotional well-being."

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love," said, "This book is not just beautiful and intelligent but also painfully - even wincingly - funny.  It is rare that I literally laugh out loud while I'm reading, but Rhoda Janzen's voice - singular, deadpan, sharp-witted, and honest - slayed me with audible results.  I have a list already of about 14 friends who need to read this book.  I will insist that they read it.  Because, simply put, this is the most delightful memoir I've read in ages."

Even as she pokes fun at some of the idiosyncrasies of the Mennonite culture, Janzen notes that she loves and respects the Mennonites and the group's spiritual and cultural heritage.  In particular, she was touched by the warmth and acceptance that she found during her return - an experience that prompted her to reassess earlier perceptions.

"What most hit me was how gracious and open the Mennonite community was," she said.  "I wasn't expecting it to be.  I had sort of stereotyped it during my growing-up years."

Her own spiritual journey continues, buoyed by her time back home.

"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," she notes in the foreword.  "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!"

Janzen has been a member of the Hope faculty since 2000.  Her teaching emphases include creative-writing courses focused on poetry and memoir, American literature from 1865 to 1925 and modern English grammar.

Her poetry collection "Babel's Stair" was published in 2006.  She has also had poems in many anthologies and journals, including "Poetry," "Southern Review," "Gettysburg Review" and "Yale Review."

Janzen graduated from Fresno Pacific University in 1984, and completed a master's in creative writing at the University of Florida at Gainesville in 1989, a master's at UCLA in 1997 and a doctorate at UCLA in 2002. In addition to awards for excellence from her graduate program, she has received honors including a Wilson National Foundation Fellowship for the Charlotte Newcomb Award in 2000; first prize in the 1999 William Butler Yeats National Poetry Competition; the University of California Poet Laureate Award in 1994 and 1997.

 "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress" will be available for $22, and is on sale at the college's Hope-Geneva Bookstore, on the ground level of the DeWitt Center, 141 E. 12th St., as well as at other area booksellers.  Copies may be ordered at the bookstore, which can be called at 800-946-4673 or (616) 395-7833, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  In addition, Janzen will participate in a book-signing at Treehouse Books, 37 E. Eighth St. in downtown Holland, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.