[Catapult Books; 2022]
My mother doesn’t write books, but she tells stories. My childhood bedroom was her stage. Perched on the edge of my bed, she would ask me, “Do you want to hear the story about Texas?” “Yes,” I said. Always yes. My mom described a cluster of tents pitched against a bank of scrub. She talked of nights spent praying, playing spades, and reciting bible passages. She and my father were Christian missionaries, she told me. They toured America in a hatchback, painting churches, singing hymns, and preaching with puppets on their hands. The tents they called home were donated. They had bent poles, stained floors, holes. I was conceived in one of those donated tents somewhere outside Houston on a rainy night. Droplets spangled the tent’s nylon walls. “Tell me again,” I’d say even before she had finished. I was desperate to know where I had come from and why I was here, on Earth, in this wood slat bed.
My mother’s narratives gave me my first taste of the pleasure and power of storytelling. But I was unprepared for the power her stories would hold over me specifically. They made me thirsty. I was desperate for ever more stories about missionaries, religious drifters, and outsiders. It was this desperation that led me to The White Mosque, Sofia Samatar’s brilliant new memoir about family, identity, and the power of storytelling. Samatar’s mother was also a missionary. She identified as a Mennonite, a protestant denomination of the Anabaptists. Like me, Samatar’s identity is irrevocably tethered to her parents’ faith. Samatar’s Swiss-German mother met her Somali father while teaching English in the Horn of Africa where the majority of the population is Muslim. Of her mixed religious and ethnic background, Samatar writes, “I’m in this electrical storm.”
Hoping to make sense of her family’s complex religious legacy, Samatar embarked on a Mennonite Heritage Tour of Uzbekistan in 2016. The region is steeped in Mennonite history, but its significance to modern Mennonites is largely forgotten. This collective amnesia is not accidental. Not everyone cares to preserve the memory of The Great Trek. In the late 1870s, the Russian Mennonite minster Claas Epp Jr. convinced a group of believers to journey to Central Asia, where he claimed Christ would return in 1889. Their journey took over two years, and those who survived the harrowing trek ultimately settled in Uzbekistan.
As Samatar travels through flats of sand, she devours memoirs penned by Epp Jr.’s followers. Their prose provides the roadmap for the heritage tour. “Tracing the path of the travelers, we immerse ourselves in their story,” Samatar writes. Their stories obsess her. But she doesn’t read to learn what happened to them. She already knows the future: persecution followed by movement. “Mennonite history is so boring,” she tells us, “just people leaving their homes time after time.” No, she reads their memoirs to experience the texture of their days. She wants to taste their wild honey and sniff their horse’s shit. She wants to live inside their stories. How else will she find her own?
Samatar returns to the memoirs of Franz Bartsch and Elizabeth Unruh most frequently. Their books have the goods: horses, honey, homesickness, thirst, sleepless nights, wind storms, bugs, a jagged line of mountains burning in the distance. Like Samatar, Bartsch and Unruh are documentarists; lovers of ordinary, earthly things. “Even when looking backward, the documentarist is less interested in the result than in preserving the details of each passing moment,” Samatar writes, laying bare her preference for domestic details over grand narratives. Her focus on details is both an aesthetic and an ethical choice. Associated with the particular, the eccentric, or the domestic, the detail resists idealist notions of a unified whole. Details, in their very prosaicness, destabilize master narratives.
One of the big pleasures of reading The White Mosque is lingering in Samatar’s lush descriptions of the desert landscape and everything else she encounters. Samatar is also an award-winning novelist and poet, and she borrows tropes from both forms in The White Mosque, blending research with fantasy, diaristic vignettes, biography, film theory, and personal memories. By telling the story of The Great Trek alongside the official Mennonite narrative of service and her own trip through Uzbekistan, she subverts the very notion that there can ever be a single, grand narrative of Mennonite history, or any history.
Soon Satamar’s gaze drifts, from Epp Jr. and his prophecies to the outsiders of Mennonite history. One of the most compelling stories is that of Johann Drake. In Russia, he settled among the Mennonites to escape the German draft and followed Epp on the last wagon train to Central Asia. Samatar describes him as “hounded by unhappiness” with a “tendency towards impulsive behavior.” The Mennonite settlers called him “the outsider.” This didn’t stop him from trying to connect. Grief-stricken and lonely, he steals a horse from a Mennonite family, flees, and then returns, begging for forgiveness. The church accepts him. His anguish blooms, nonetheless. He is later seen on a hill, trying to swallow a bible, choking on the pages.
Drake may have been a disturbed individual, but his story is also very relatable. Who hasn’t wanted to swallow whole the stories we love? Who hasn’t tried to cure isolation with triumphant acts of self-destruction? It was the Holy Spirit who told him to digest the book and preach its contents after all. He wanted a way back into the fellowship. But as Samatar shows us, Drake’s story is more than a historical curiosity. It highlights the primacy of books and martyrdom to Mennonite identity. “What is any group identity but a story a whole community has swallowed,” Samatar asks.
Epp Jr. also ate books. As Samatar details, his prophecies were inspired by the German dystopian novel Das Heimweh by Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling. Epp Jr. believed the book was a revelation. He lifted key ideas from the novel, including the site of Christ’s second coming. He consumed its message, digested it, spat it back out as prophecy. As Epp Jr. preached, he discovered not only prophecies but also himself. The more he tells his stories, the more he comes to sense his own identity. His story becomes not only his home but his self.
Epp Jr.’s stories, like those of Drake and other Mennonite martyrs, have likewise formed Samatar’s identity. “I don’t know what it’s like not to grow up with these stories,” she confesses. Of particular significance are the stories in Martyrs Mirror (1660), which recount the experiences of various Christian martyrs. So central are these stories of martyrdom to Mennonite identity that everyone on the heritage tour can recall them from memory. So central are the narratives of suffering and persecution to their group identity, that other narratives get obscured.
From the archives to her experiences on the heritage tour, Samatar encounters a similar theme in many Mennonite stories. White missionaries are portrayed as benevolent givers while the locals are seen as the beneficiaries. This skewed power dynamic upholds an insidious racist hierarchy that pervades Mennonite literature. “The notion of white generosity to a dark and undeveloped world not only affects us abroad, it affects us at home,” Samatar warns. “It’s often been indicated to me by one side of the family, represented by friends, relatives, teachers, or fellow churchgoers, that the other side of my family, represented by my father, is extremely fortunate to have found the Mennonites.” For Samatar, the toxic effects of white saviorism are necessarily personal.
Throughout The White Mosque, Samatar charts a direct connection between the Mennonite’s service narrative and the Mennonite Wall. The latter is a phrase coined by young students of color at Samatar’s high school to describe how Mennonites of color are shut out by an exclusive, white group identity. Most Mennonites now live outside of North America and Europe. Yet official Mennonite histories often contain mostly European names and white faces. Samatar needs a different history. So, she starts writing.
She writes all the time. The desire for more Mennonite literature possesses her. “I don’t want to leave anything out,” she tells us. “I will write a swollen book.” Samatar writes about the selfies she snaps, the satellite dishes glinting in the morning sun, plastic bags in the wind. Her commitment to maximalism has both aesthetic and political stakes. “I’m terrified of monoculture,” she writes. “Mixed people are likely to shrink from the idea of ethnic or cultural homogeneity, because if the world gets carved up into neat, monolithic boxes, where are we supposed to go?” On every page, The White Mosque resists the temptation to tidy up Mennonite history. Instead, Samatar makes space for the complexity of human experience and identity. She chips away at the Mennonite Wall one story at a time.
I finished The White Mosque weeks ago, but I keep it stacked on my nightstand. I return to it whenever I’m stuck in my own writing practice: The book is a stylistic feat. Every sentence sings, and its structure is as unpredictable as its premises. But I also return to it whenever I feel isolated, when I’m desperate for connection, when my need for different stories about religious devotion and the missionary impulse peaks. At dinner the other night, a fellow writer friend told me that there are more people who write books than there are people who want to read them, as if this were a bad thing. I desire more books about my own family’s religious legacy. I want to read piles of memoirs that tell the story of the Children of God, the religious cult to which my family belonged. This group operates today under the name The Family. I have read every book in print about them, and I want more. Many of us do.
The White Mosque is not only a masterful excavation of religious and familial identity, it is also a powerful cure for literary nihilism. Samatar celebrates storytelling on every page. The White Mosque joyfully reminds us that there are always more stories to tell, more curiosity to feed, more listeners to captivate. As Samatar shows, it’s our collective stories, told slant with desire, over and over, that bind us. Anyone can tell a different story. Maybe you can too.
Elizabeth Hall is the author of the book I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist in nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Bitch, Black Warrior Review, Bon Appétit, The Iowa Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.
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