If you look closely in this picture of the Berkeley Ward building, you can find President Grant and a little girl named Mary Wallmann. Mary Wallmann has just passed away.
Mormon literature and culture
If you look closely in this picture of the Berkeley Ward building, you can find President Grant and a little girl named Mary Wallmann. Mary Wallmann has just passed away.
So, I finished Eric Jepson’s novel, BYUCK. I found it hilarious, heartwarming, and refreshing. The description of BYU (and Happy Valley) culture from the perspective of someone who wasn’t bred and born in it, who could therefore look at it from an outsider’s perspective, delighted and amused me. As I read the story, I remembered my own bemused feelings entering happy-valley culture for the first time. And I breathed a deep sigh of relief that I do not live in Provo anymore.
It also brought memories of a story I wrote about six or seven years ago that was very similar (not in writing quality, but in subject matter, characters, setup.) Nobody has read it except for my family and the editorial board at Covenant, who eventually tabled and then rejected it, saying the audience was too narrow for them to spend money to publish it. I’m grateful for that now, because it wasn’t very well written and I needed the time to learn how to write properly before critics got at it.
But I found myself wondering, after I finished BYUCK, and as I looked back on the experience with Covenant: where is the place for that sort of writing; for the works of LDS writers writing about our LDS culture? And where is that sort of writing going, now that things are changing so drastically in the industry? Could this sort of writing appeal to a general, not just LDS audience, and how would we accomplish that?
There are some stories that are more narrowly focused on an LDS audience (and I’d argue BYUCK is an example of that; inside jokes only Mormons would get, mormon dialect, etc). There are some one could argue might appeal to a broader audience–Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene, Steven Peck’s Scholar of Moab. But would they?
I’m wondering, too. What if something amazing, and literary, and focused entirely within the LDS experience (aka the Great Mormon Novel) would be considered even generally marketable by anyone. What if someone did write something along the lines of Potok’s works. Would anyone read it (and of course, *we* would. But would anyone beyond the world of LDS lit advocacy read it?)
I was thinking about how in general, people who consume LDS fiction are looking for an uplifting story that will make them feel better about their life and the challenges of being LDS in a world that’s not too kind to us. That’s often why I read it. I want an inspiring story about pioneers, or an uplifting romance (guilty) or something that makes me laugh at and love the absurdities of my culture and my life (like BYUCK, or Joni Hilton’s work).
And when we look at the audience for literary fiction, there are other issues. Is Mormonism really taken seriously enough, considered fascinating enough, to be a worthy subject of study? In general I feel like religion is out of vogue in the literary world. Maybe that’s pessimistic of me.
My question is, where is our audience? Do we have to channel things in a commercial direction, create the sorts of plots LDS readers will enjoy, in order to feed them some more complex and even controversial stuff? And if we’re trying to write to a general audience, what do we have to do to make it consumable to that audience? What have others done? What are some success and failure stories?
In her essay “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism,” critic Rachel Adams argues suggests that twenty-first-century American fiction has been moving in a transnational direction as “a constellation of authors” have resisted “the stylistic and conceptual premises of high postmodernism” by focusing instead on “the intensification of global processes” that have developed over the last half-century (250).[i] Using Karen Tei Yamashita’s excellent novel Tropic of Orange (1997) as a model, she describes this new focus as “American literary globalism,” a kind of post-postmodernism that builds upon certain conventions of postmodernism (like fabulation), yet has an entirely “new set of genealogical, geographic, and temporal referents,” including an interest in the global politics, multiethnic perspectives, geopolitical cleavages and tensions, border crossings, national and transnational relations, economic flows, and polyvocality that characterize contemporary globalized society (see Adams 261-265). For Adams, this literary globalism opens up a “shared perception of community whereby, for better or worse, populations in one part of the world are inevitably affected by events in another” (268). It is the new direction American fiction is headed.
It would be incorrect, of course, to suggest that Mormon novelists have embraced “American literary globalism” as Adams defines it, or even a kind of “Mormon literary globalism” subspecies. While transnational concerns have had a place in Mormon novels since the days of Nephi Anderson, these novels hardly constitute a majority within the still-developing genre. In fact, I think the relatively small number of writers producing Mormon literature today is enough to explain why more novels aren’t being written that address Mormonism from a global or transnational perspective–especially when you consider that most Mormon novelists who are able to find publishers for their work come from the United States and have strong ties to Utah and the Mormon Corridor. As Mormon fiction goes, Nephi Anderson remains the most important immigrant Mormon novelist. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but Mormon poetry, with poets like Alex Caldiero, has fared much better in this respect.)
From Jews and Words (2012) by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberg:
We know you’ve heard this one before, but please bear with us:
So a Jewish grandmother walks on a beach with her beloved grandson when a big wave suddenly sweeps the boy underwater. “Dear God Almighty,” cries Grandma, “how can you do this to me? I suffered all my life and never lost faith. Shame on you!” Not a minute passed by, and another big wave brings the child back to her arms safe and sound. “Dear God Almighty,” she says, “that’s very kind of you, I’m sure, but where’s his hat?”
An oldie we know, but a true classic. What is this joke really about? Continue reading “Reverence vs Chutzpah”
I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it’s not hyperbole, it’s that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona’s articulate voice, engaging ideas, and her powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:
MS: First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens.
FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university. The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself. The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated. Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends. I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind. Eventually she took me to her “church”–a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building. What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before–a spiritual warmth that was inviting. And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more. That being said, I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.
However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful. I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me. I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room. It is still there. The wounds are still palpable. However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.
Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young. I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer. Terryl was seated on the back row. I was seated on the front. He was self-effacing. I was not. We were married a year later. He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak. Continue reading “Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, co-author of _The God Who Weeps_”
I was happy when Wm approached me become a blogger on A Motley Vision. I have lurked on the blog for several years and, for the last few, actually commented. My poetry has been featured on Wilderness Interface Zone and in several of the LDS periodicals. My first novel, Lightning Tree, was published last April (2011) by Cedar Fort. I just signed a contract with them for a second novel, which will likely be released before the end of this year.
This is my life:
(btw–one missing from that picture).
I submitted two proposals for this year’s AML Conference, both poetry-centered, of course. Here they are:
Proposal 1: Live Poetry Anthology: Mormon Poets Read (Two full sessions)
Based on the success of the two poetry reading panels I organized for last year’s AML Conference, I approached my poet friends to see if there was any interest in organizing more readings for this year’s conference. I have around twenty poets* who said, “Heck, yeah! We’d love to read at AML in 2013.” So this proposal is for two (2) sessions (preferably back-to-back sessions) filled with poetry read by a range of Mormon poets. Each session would include approximately ten poets reading for around five to six minutes each. Michael Hicks has called this event format “a live poetry anthology” because it allows space for many poets to voice their poems and shows how the community of poets so involved is a living community whose canon of texts is constantly expanding.
*As of right now, my list of definites includes the following: Alan Mitchell, Alex Caldiero, Amber Ellis, Brian Brown, Doug Talley, Elaine Craig, Elizabeth Pinborough, Jim Richards, Jonathon Penny, Laura Baxter, Laura Stott, Lisa Fillerup, Mark Bennion, Michael Hicks, N. Colwell Snell, Rachel Noorda, Sarah Duffy, Sarah Jenkins, Susan Howe, and Terresa Wellborn.
Proposal 2: Performative Poesis and the (Un)Making of the World
In the days following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, I came across or remembered several texts that were composed in response to this event and to other violent events in contemporary America, including 9/11 and the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. The first text I encountered was an article published by The Onion, satirical online news rag, the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. The article, “F*** Everything, Nation Reports,” is short–it comes in at only 456 words. But as the title suggests, its language is potent: of the many profanities included, 16 are the f-word. The second text was a poem called “In the Loop“ by Bob Hicok, who explores with the poem a response many people had to the Virginia Tech shooting: to say “how horrible it was, how little / there was to say about how horrible it was.” The third was Alex Caldiero’s “Poetry is Wanted Here!,” a poem dedicated to his friend “Bob Heman, in New York, Oct. 2001 re. 9/11.” And the fourth was a poem by Shane Koyczan: “.” Unlike the other three texts, Koyczan’s poem isn’t a response to a specific event; but it does reference “kids who turned their school into a shooting range,” kids who “play Russian Roulette with guns . . . they found on their playground,” and “airlines [that] plummet from the skies.”
Beyond similarities in subject matter–all reference violent events that have received national, even global, attention–the one thing that connects these texts in my mind is the way each shows how four very different writers turned to words in response to violence as a way to mediate the ongoing effects of violence. These movements toward language in the face of destruction jibe with the understanding I’ve developed as a Latter-day Saint that words are an act of faith and have a profound, creative influence on the world. As noted in the Lectures on Faith, faith works by words; indeed, faith’s mightiest works have been and will be performed with words. These works, of course, include God’s eternal performance as World-Maker (his poesis), which proceeds through his Word, who is Christ. Through personal and scholarly reflections on the texts cited above, this paper explores my LDS-informed view of words and the Word, especially in terms of how we mirror the World-Makers’ creative performance in our own word-making.
(Also posted here.)
I do not own a black beret so I did not wear one to church yesterday. But I did wear a maroon tie. I didn’t wear it ironically or aggressively or subversively. No one in my ward, in fact, knew why I was wearing it. But I knew why. And one of the reasons was to recognize this:
Art keeps me from being dogmatic about my religion; religion keeps me from fetishizing my art.
One of my favorite Mormon albums of the past few decades from a little-known LDS musician who lived in New York City for a while, Charlotte Smurthwaite. Her mid-90s album, “Lift me,” featured LDS hymns sung in jazz arrangements and her treatments of “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob” are fantastic and are still played regularly in our family. Since then, it seems like new arrangements of LDS hymns in different styles have become an important part of current Mormon music. I hear the Sabre Rattlers’ version of “Come, Come Ye Saints” introducing each Mormon Stories podcast. I believe I’ve even seen such versions on the latest music CDs even from Deseret Book.
I’ve been very pleased to see the rise of such music. And I hope to hear more. As I understand it, when similar versions of hymns first started appearing many Mormons objected, saying that such versions were sacrilegious. Fortunately, I think most of those objections have dissipated, or at least I’m tone deaf to them. But in thinking about these songs, a couple of questions occur to me. First, I wonder why so little of this kind of experimentation has appeared in Mormon literature. And second, I wonder what other kinds of experimentation are possible that we have simply not yet heard or read.
Note: Both my wife Anne Stewart and I read Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl over the holidays and were deeply affected by it. I asked her to write a guest post on her response to it here, and I will write my own thoughts on the book at a later date. –Mahonri Stewart
A number of years ago, while I was working at a book store in Springville, Utah, called the Red Leaf, I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. I can’t remember the moment I picked it up or why I decided to read it (other than the obvious: women and the Old Testament). In the fictionalized world Diamant creates, Dinah (daughter of Israel) is surrounded, not by twelve brothers, but by women. While I was ever aware that these were fabricated tales, I was struck by the way she fully structured the story around the Biblical women. While I’d read many fictionalized accounts from the point of view of Biblical women, this was the first that felt so singularly focused on the woman’s journey. Here were women, strong women. These were not women whose rituals and practices were a shadow to the men in their lives; these were women with rich, powerful stories who led lives of their own. The Red Tent filled in the absence that is present in so many religious narratives: the women’s story.
Like other religious narratives, the Mormon story is starved for female narrative. In the Book of Mormon there are six named women, the Doctrine and Covenants only two, and even our female deity remains mostly veiled to us. In The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith, Joanna Brook’s narrative connects to generations of Mormon women and makes a place for women who are less orthodox. Continue reading “Guest Post: Anne Stewart’s Reflections on _The Book of Mormon Girl_”