In his 1983 book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson, a political scientist, suggested that communities can sometimes form even though their members never encounter each other face-to-face. What matters is that members perceive themselves to be part of a group, joined by a mental image of the things they have in common.
Most of the Mennonite artists, poets, novelists and readers who subscribe to the journal Rhubarb have likely never met each other in person. Their artistic styles and literary preferences vary widely, as do their religious convictions, church affiliations and ethnic traditions, if, indeed, they exist at all. Yet anyone reading Rhubarb will come away with a sense that behind the journal is a living community — an “imagined community” whose members recognize each other as part of the same conversation.
Rhubarb (rhubarbmag.com) is a 68-page magazine, edited by Victor Enns and published three times a year by the Mennonite Literary Society of Winnipeg, Man. Each issue is organized around a central theme and features editorials, short stories, poetry, visual art, reader comments, book reviews and often an interview with a writer or artist. Recent issues have featured topics such as money, sex, power, Mennonite theater and life in the city.
The roots of Rhubarb go back to The Mennonite Mirror, a news magazine published by the Mennonite Literary Society in Winnipeg from 1971 until its demise in 1991. In 1998 the Literary Society recognized the renaissance of literature and art among young Mennonites in Manitoba and launched Rhubarb to showcase that creativity. According to the inaugural issue, the rhubarb plant is “an irrepressible, prolific, hardy, perennial” known for its tart flavor and its healthy qualities. But “rhubarb” also refers to a “heated discussion, quarrel or fight.”
The most frequent “heated discussions” in Rhubarb are directed against the constraints of the tightly bounded, ethnic Mennonite communities from which many of the contributors come. In the current issue on “Breaking Mennonite: Living in the City,” for example, editor Victor Enns opens his editorial with: “The city was the only place I ever wanted to live, shaking the dust of southern Manitoba with its chicken shit, Gothic Mennonite fundamentalist bigotry, anger, violence and rural macho bullying from my suede desert boots.” The material that follows includes a series of personal reflections on the transitions from small towns to the city, several short stories, color content featuring works by artist Deborah Danelley and photographer Clint Enns, a long poem by Abigail Carl-Klassen based on the life of her father-in-law who was excommunicated from an Old Colony congregation in Mexico, and shorter poems by a wide range of poets. Then follows an interview with classical music broadcaster Eric Friesen and several book reviews. The final lines of the issue, by Corey Redekop, conclude where Enns began: “I’m not a Mennonite in the city. I’m a person in the city. And for me, that’s enough.”
The inaugural issue promised each issue would include a recipe featuring rhubarb. That seems to have been forgotten. But the tart flavor of the rhubarb plant continues to permeate the magazine. Though the contributors are diverse — “writers and artists who self-define as Mennonites, whether practicing, genetic, declined, lapsed or resistant” — the journal gives voice to a vibrant “imagined community.”
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.