Book Interview: Wiebe’s gourmet prose

By Katherine Fletcher

Award-winning Alberta author Rudy Wiebe would like to give you a gourmet feast instead of taking you to McDonald’s. No, this decent proposal isn’t the result of some “Win a Date with Rudy” contest but rather an analogy the award-winning Alberta author makes regarding his writing.

“I want to give you a wide range of tastes, and perhaps strange and new tastes that you’ve never tasted before,” he explains. “I’m not disparaging hamburgers. They have their place, but when you read a Wiebe novel I hope I’m giving you a somewhat wider gastronomical experience.”

Wiebe is preparing to dish out this type of experience when he comes to the University of Calgary as the 2005 Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Visiting Writer for the month of October. As he was writer-in-residence at the U of C in 1978-79 Wiebe is certainly no stranger to the university.

“I really enjoyed my year in Calgary,” Wiebe recalls. “It was kind of a year off for me teaching at [The University of Alberta] and it gave me a good deal of time to write on my own. Besides that, I was able to enjoy the faculty and meet some really interesting writers.”

An author of nine novels, four short story collections and five pieces of non-fiction, Wiebe has given readers a lot to feast upon. His subjects range from Canadian history to Natives and Metis to Canada’s Mennonite community, which he is part of. Wiebe’s debut novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, was the first novel written in English about the Mennonite community. Controversy surrounded the book’s publication, resulting in his resignation from the Mennonite Brethren Herald. Since the birth of Wiebe’s revolutionary tale over 40 years ago, the Mennonite character in liter- ature has changed drastically, thanks in part to Miriam Toews’ bestselling novel A Complicated Kindness.

“What has happened to the Mennonite image in literature and what’s been written about in the last 20 years is absolutely astounding,” remarks Wiebe. “I think David Bergen and Miriam Toews and Di Brandt and writers of that calibre are telling new and wonderful stories, not only about Mennonites but about Canadians in general.”

Toews’ novel and Peace Shall Destroy Many share similarities besides just their subject matter. The protagonists in both books are torn between the Mennonite community and Canadian middle-class culture, but the four decades between the two books yields different reactions. Nevertheless, Wiebe notes the image of the Mennonite in Canadian literature has changed for the better.

“We’re telling stories about the Mennonite world in Western Canada, the way there’s a Greek world in Western Canada, or in an Indian or Aboriginal world, and writers from those communities are telling their own stories, which is more complex now that it was 15 years ago,” he says. “Literature of the West, especially in Western Canada, has blossomed in marvellous directions.”

Wiebe also hints at an insatiable appetite for literature coming out of Calgary, whose literary community he deems active and supportive.

“There must be some marvellous stories in fiction for adults in Calgary and I think that is to be encouraged,” he stresses. “I see this partly as an exploration of our own particular world, in our own precise case, because that’s the way fiction works: you write about an exact place and particular people who live somewhere, they’re not sort of generally interglobal creatures. Every person lives in a specific place, and I would say there’s some wonderful room for fiction to be written about Calgary.”

During his stay in Calgary, Wiebe will read from his soon-to-be-published memoir, Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest, on Wed., Oct. 5 at Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall at the Rozsa Centre. Be prepared for him to serve you a seven-course meal complete with wine, not stale chicken nuggets and cold fries.

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