When Sofia Samatar took an American literature survey class at Goshen College more than 20 years ago, she wrote a paper about Walt Whitman, the “good grey poet.” Among the thousands of student papers I read, this one stands out in my memory.
What made it remarkable to me was the way she complicated the meanings of “good” and “grey,” showing an ability, much like the poet’s own, to read radically, viewing both words and their contexts through many prisms, or mirrors.
Like Whitman, one of her many literary mentors, Samatar is “large.” She “contains multitudes.” She sings the “body electric” this way: “My mother’s family are Swiss-German Mennonite, my father’s Somali Muslims. I stand amid this lightning.” She chooses to stand with both traditions, inviting one to critique the other, celebrating strengths and observing weaknesses in both.
She worships with Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., knows how to play the “Mennonite game,” has read Ben Goossen’s analysis of Mennonite susceptibility to racism and fascism and has studied Martyrs Mirror cover to cover. Few of us can match her education in contemporary Mennonite identity. None of us can make those issues more universal, poetic and prophetic.
For Mennonites, Samatar’s memoir, The White Mosque, published this month by Catapult, should be required reading. We need it even more because the author’s gaze is not solely on us: “I would not be spending my time on this subject, believe me, if I thought it only pertained to a certain offshoot of the Radical Reformation.”
The plot centers on a Great Trek by a group of Mennonite families from the Molotschna Colony (in present-day Ukraine) to Central Asia, influenced by Claas Epp Jr., who had read a novel about Christ’s return at the end of the world and constructed his own prophecy. He came up with March 8, 1889, as the day of the Second Coming and wrote his own book, The Unsealed Prophecy of the Prophet Daniel and the Meaning of the Revelation of Jesus.
Eventually he convinced scores of families to undertake a dangerous journey into alien territory. They were open to a trek in part because of Epp’s mesmerizing personality but also because the Russian government no longer promised exemption from military service.
On top of this backstory, Samatar layers her own participation, more than a century later, in a Mennonite and Uzbekistan history tour in 2016. What draws her? A photograph of a plain white cube building. Taken by the Swiss photographer and adventurer Ella Maillart in 1932, the photo depicts the church building of the Mennonite group that split off from Epp’s group and went on to live in the village of Ak Metchet for 50 years.
The name of the town where weary Trekkers found a welcome from the Khan means White Mosque, and the Mennonite church building was called by the obvious name in the local language: mosque. Here was a place where Muslims and Mennonites met in a rare and distinctive way. No wonder the white mosque called to a Somali-American Mennonite writer.
When she meets with a group of students of color in 2016 at Goshen College, they name feelings of isolation they experience in the presence of what they call The Mennonite Wall. She responds as an artist: “And when I heard this, I wanted to write something for those young people who came from the world where most Mennonites live. They were something that seemed very odd, at least at first: a minoritized majority. Among my notes, a scribbled line: Write something to answer their confusion.”
The White Mosque is her answer to the confusion about how a church, which globally has more Black and brown members than white ones, still identifies itself as a white ethnic group with 500-year-old origins in Switzerland and Holland. Implicitly, Samatar calls for a truly inclusive church that no longer minoritizes its majority.
What could be more relevant to a world filled with strife among many religions and races? Could Mennonites become radical again? If it happens, we must take a Great Trek, not to a specific place but to the great dream of the Mennonites, the place of peace.
When I read these words, I wept:
Let us recall the reason behind these struggles. The choice of Central Asia, it’s true, is based on prophetic visions, but the original reason for leaving Russia is peace: the refusal of violence, even in self-defense, the refusal to enable the violence of others. In this shining absolutism lies the great honor and dignity of Anabaptist life. This is their gift to the world, and it is the reason the world needs them: These travelers are not just a quaint German-speaking cult but the stewards of a precious ethic.
Samatar’s purpose is larger than the Mennonite church, yet she does not rush past the church to embrace the world. In fact, as in the paragraph above, she shines a light on the great vision of wholeness that leads a people to long for, search for and sometimes find, home.
At home in fiction, especially the bizarre and the fantastic (she’s published two award-winning fantasy novels), Samatar makes innovations in the field of memoir.
The first sentence breaks its own path. “Begin with the glow: the faint beam of a half-forgotten history.” The sentence structure counters our expectation that memoirs begin with “I.” Instead, the sentence is a command, an imperative: “Begin with the glow.” Is the author receiving dictation? Grammatically, the imperative mood implies the second person as the subject: “(You) begin with the glow.” The author could, theoretically, be summoned (by a muse?) to write.
Or she could be instructing on how to read the text. Don’t start with action. Start with atmosphere, the special atmosphere of light. Follow the light, the author suggests, don’t just follow me. The imagery of light suffuses this book from beginning to end, at times illuminating and luminous, at other times mingled with shadow and haunted by absence.
Soon, however, the persona of the author herself appears: “a fawn-colored radiance blooms against my arms.” We American readers have found ourselves in a light-drenched space on the other side of the world, Tashkent. We turn the page and enter new worlds with her. Included in her “I,” challenged by her “you” and intrigued by her “she,” we recognize a trinity of identity in her and in ourselves.
This book demands keen attention. Its structure is postmodern, moving from one place and time to another without explanation.
If it were fiction, we’d have to call much of this book fantasy. A fantasy instigated by an apocalyptic novel read and imbibed by Claas Epp Jr.: Johann Jung-Stilling’s Das Heimweh: Erster Band, 1794.
But this is memoir. We’ve traveled the path of a very particular life, our eyes wide with wonder and our hearts moved.
I think again about that class, that “child” who came to Goshen College years ago. Her perception of how a great artist, Whitman, constructed meaning out of his life. Her refusal to let a great poet be patronized. Her insistence that reality is not one thing but many, while also, even then, focusing on the light beyond the shattered fragments.
Samatar has bequeathed herself to grow from the grass she loves. Let us look under our boot-soles and behold the light of home.
Shirley Hershey Showalter taught at Goshen College from 1976 to 2004 and was president of the college from 1997 to 2004.