Earlier this month I was invited to be a guest speaker at a diversity conference in Morden, Manitoba. I found myself in the company of 2 other women, one Aboriginal and one Muslim who like me, come from cultures with great oral story-telling traditions. It was a gratifying experience to be able to share our stories with an audience of teachers and to participate in promoting respect and understanding; the great antidotes to hate and violence.
At speaking engagements like this I am often asked how I came to be a writer. I certainly took the long way but providentially age is not an issue and can even be considered an asset in this profession.
I would have to say that the seed for my career as a writer and journalist germinated in the soil of loneliness when I was an 11-year-old girl attending a small elementary school in Domain, Manitoba. A year earlier my family had left the comfort and security of a Hutterite colony thrusting us into a world that worshiped popular culture. Being Hutterite was manifestly “uncool” and finding friends on the playground, impossible. Books became my best friends and I read everything our meager school library had to offer. It led to a life long addiction to books which introduced me to the craft of writing and its power to engage, enrage and inspire.
One day the teacher invited me to go with her to the big city to help choose a new batch of books for our school. The Winnipeg Centennial Library was enormous and the sheer number of books on miles of shelving overwhelmed me. I made my way to an attendant sitting at a desk and asked if she could help me find books about Hutterites. I knew that if I could just bring my classmates a story about my people they would see me in a whole new light. “My girl,” the attendant sighed patting my hand. “We have books about people from all over the world, but we don’t have any about Hutterites.” Then her eyes softened and she said something I never forgot. “Maybe, when you grow up you can write about Hutterites because we sure could use a story like that.”
I had been raised at the knees of 3 Klanaschuel Ankeleh kindergarten grandmothers; skilled oral story tellers on the colony who held us wide-eyed and spellbound every afternoon. My aunt, Sana Basel, was in the master class and a Hutterite legend. She is from the Maendel clan, known as “schicht” gifted raconteurs. In the evenings people came from other colonies and sat around her table dunking bread rusks into steaming cups of sweet tea to listen to her. She knew how to add “schelly drauf” jam to an unexceptional story and captivate her audience. I would stand in her doorway and watch her perform fascinated not only by how she told the story, but how her audiences reacted to it. It was through her I first became aware of the richness this medium brought to people’s lives. It influenced my decision to become a television reporter. During my decade as a journalist, I won awards for telling other people’s stories but my own story remained a secret until I became a writer.
When I wrote my memoir, I Am Hutterite, I drew on the story telling skills I learned from my Sana Basel. Her imaginative language, facial expressions and vulnerability all found their way into my books including my follow-up Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen.
On my visit to Manitoba (which is where I grew up) I stopped in to see Hutterite family and friends both on and off the colony.
At a stopover at Paul and Katie Hofer’s home, we found Paul rifling through his father’s old desk. In a pile of yellowing newspapers, he uncovered a childhood photo of my sister Rosie and I with Sana Basel that I had never seen before. We are standing in front of the robin’s egg blue church door in Fairholme. I’m the girl on the left who looks like she was rather too fond of Hutterite buns.
Paul and Katie were our neighbours at Fairholme colony and their daughter Catherine and I were like 2 book ends growing up. Sana Basel was Catherine’s grandmother and my aunt. The snapshot along with the laughter, the stories and the singing that ensued that evening were a soulful deep dive into the past invoking the spirit of Sana Basel whose story telling magic had enriched all of our lives. Blessed are the storytellers for they are the golden threads that bind us to our past and help us make sense of the present.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her national best-selling books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook @ www.facebook.com/maryannkirkbyhutterite
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!