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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Listen: Rhoda Janzen Discusses Mennonite In A Little Black Dress (Duration: 4:43)
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Rhoda Janzen Quick Facts

Where are you from?
Even though I’ve lived in Michigan for years, California still feels like home. I was born in Harvey, North Dakota, where my father pastored a tiny Mennonite church.

Who are your favorite writers?
Henry James, Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, Shirley Hazzard.

Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton. Weird answer, but there it is.

What are your hobbies and outside interests?
Cooking, running, hanging out on my deck as the sun dips behind the lake and the fireflies flash up. I love it when those big slow pontoons drift by, and from a great distance across the water you can hear whole conversations, dreamy but intact. I like reading theology, tailoring trousers, meeting my girlfriends for a drink at Butch’s. Whenever I travel with my sister and Mom, we have a sweet tooth for those nineteenth-century mansion museums. And who wouldn’t enjoy interpretive dance with my niece? She is a gifted impersonator of wolves, I tell you.

What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
When I was in grade five, autograph books were all the rage. Mostly the messages of my friends reflected the cheery zeitgeist of the times, like this gem from Debbie Garcia:

I wish I was a grapefruit
And here’s the reason why.
When you came to pick me,
I’d squirt you in the eye.

I do like the citrus fantasy, I must say. But the more memorable advice was penned by my own mother:

Life lies before you
Like a field of driven snow.
Be careful how you tread it,
For every step will show.

If I had read Orwell in grade five, I would have described this advice as Orwellian. As it was, in grade five it felt ominous and punitive, with its faint quiet threat of Sundays. In later years, however, I have refigured the advice as beautiful. I take it to mean that all of our mistakes and choices, even seeming missteps, constitute who we have become on the paths we have chosen. Now my mother’s little ditty seems to say. “Love the field, love the snow! Be grateful for your snowboots!”

What is your favorite quote?
“A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves.”—Simone Weil

Is it true that you once hit Derrida, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, in the head with a cheese cube?
Well, it wasn’t on purpose. It was pepper jack. He was a small guy, and I was wearing really high heels, and so had to bend way over to hear him. I was so nervous to be meeting him that the cheese cube popped out of my hand and beaned him on the forehead. I suppose that when you’re that famous, you learn to take the occasional cheese to the head with dignity.

What is the question most commonly asked by your readers?  What is the answer?
People often want to know how I really feel about the Mennonites, since my work challenges some aspects of organized religion. I answer that I love and respect the Mennonites, and that I value the spiritual as well as the cultural heritage. Plus I got a recipe for Pfeffernuse that would knock your socks off.

What inspired you to write your first poem?
I have a niece—not the wolf dancer, a different one—who ever since she was two has been contorting her body into splits and loops. You set her down and she inches backward down the wall like a happy little millipede. I couldn’t say what inspires her, but I rather think it is similar to what made me hide in the hall closet with pencil and paper when I was four.

Where do you write?
I write best in my parents’ gazebo, under a slow fan and a jasmine vine. I like the extravagant California heat, and those tipsy velvet bees. In my own house in Michigan, I write at a desk overlooking a small piney lake. And I find that things move along more briskly if I eat with my finger out of a pot of leftover cold caramel sauce.