By Erin Crowell
On the heels of its first comedy festival, Northern Michigan will get
another dose of humor when the National Writers Series presents An
Evening with Rhoda Janzen, on March 5, at the City Opera House, in
downtown Traverse City.
Janzen will present her humorous and candid memoir, Mennonite in a
Little Black Dress, the story of howat the age of 43she returned to
her conservative childhood Mennonite community after a 25-year absence
in order to recover from two traumatic experiences: a car accident
that left her with a cracked patella, two broken ribs, a fractured
clavicle and a concussion; and a divorce from a man who left her for
Bob the Guy from Gay.com.
The former poet laureate of UCLA, now an assistant professor of
English at Hope College in Holland, shared a phone conversation with
the Northern Express on what its like growing up Mennonite and
learning to handle the tough stuff with humor.
NE: You take these horrible situations and turn them into humor that
is just hilarious. Would you call it a coping mechanism?
Rhoda Janzen: I think humor is a coping mechanism, and for me its one
of the ways that I could work toward gratitude and clarity; but in
terms of developing it for literary style, Im just now beginning to
do this. Since Im new to memoir writing and everything outside of
poetry, its kind of a process. Im sort of investigating.
NE: Would you call the memoir a long and tough process?
Janzen: No, actually, you know what? It was strangely easy. I wrote
the bulk of it in one month, sitting in my parents gazebo; and I just
wrote all day long. I had my little ritual. I ran six miles, took a
shower, went out to the gazebo and then boom, suddenly its dinner
NE: If you had a name for it, what would you call your style of writing?
Janzen: In the memoir? I would call it wry humor.
NE: Any particular reason?
Janzen: Well, wry in the sense that I think things are always
funnier if youre aware of the largest implications of self and
culture. So its not a slapstick humor. Im not sticking my head in
the sand because I dont want to confront my life. Through thoughtful
confrontation with your issues in your life, youll find humor.
NE: Would you say you get your humor from your mother? She seems to
have this oblivious innocence and it comes off really funny.
(In the book, Janzens mother suggests she start dating again and
offers the notion of dating Waldemar Janzens first cousin. Janzens
mother defends her position saying, I think that the Lord appreciates
a man on a tractor more than a man smoking marijuana in his pajamas. I
know I do.)
Janzen: (laughs) you know both of my parents have a great sense of
humor and I think they modeled that for us.
NE: Obviously you live a more secular life these days. Are there
still certain Mennonite principles that you still follow?
Janzen: Yeah I do, the Mennonite theology is very attractive to me.
And, I also feel as the Mennonites do that if you want to promote
your own spiritual growth, you need to make some choices between how
you live and what you value. I deliberately dont expose myself to
violence. I dont like watching violent movies. I do things that
promote what I think is spiritually healthy: meditation, exercise,
things like that.
NE: What did your parents think of the book?
Janzen: Well, my mom read it before it went to press and she made some
suggestions, which I took, and she is cool with it. She is proud of me
and thinks Im operating fully in my skill set and shes proud of me
for that reason. Shes a little surprised at some of the controversial
reactions of the Mennonite community. When I asked my father, he said
he was proud too. He laughed, he cried.
NE: What do you mean by controversy?
Janzen: Well, its a memoir and so theres going to be all kinds of
reactions. I know some Mennonites who think the humor is disrespectful
or some people who are horrified that I would publicly talk about an
issue like divorce. One of the women at my moms church said, Well,
we certainly wont be putting her book in the church library with
language like that. There have been all kinds of reactions.
Rhoda Janzen will be the second featured speaker at the 2010 National
Writers Series. She will appear at the City Opera House, in Traverse
City, on March 5. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the event starting at 7
p.m. Following the presentationwhich includes an on-stage interview
with series co-founder and New York Times best-selling author Doug
Stantonthere will be a reception with a cash bar, appetizers and book
signing. Advance tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors. Tickets
at the door are $20. Cost for students is $5. For more info, visit