Sunday, November 08, 2015

Letter from Harrisburg: On Appropriating Cultures

Write and explore your own culture, your own journey

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
NOV. 8, 2015

"More and more, around Halloween, people are beginning to discuss cultural appropriation,” my college-­senior­­ daughter told me a few weeks ago after a day at Oregon State University. “When is it OK to copy someone’s culture, and when is it offensive, making fun of them or grossly misrepresenting their customs?”

I learn a lot from Emily, and she makes me think. Was it cultural appropriation when my sister Margaret and I dressed up as Amish, I wondered.

We didn’t see it as our culture at the time — Mom and Dad’s, definitely, but not ours. Goodness, we were far more progressive — driving cars, listening to 8-track tapes, and wearing pastel dresses with zippers up the back. True, our dresses still had “capes” and solid colors only, but as “Beachy” Amish we were a long, long way from the Old Order, we thought.

Like the Amish of our past and the Mennonites of our future, we didn’t celebrate Halloween. It was too tainted with evil, too happy about death and darkness.

But even in that strict setting there was an unspoken understanding that sometimes exceptions are perfectly fine, such as the woman I knew who enjoyed watching quilting shows on TV while she cleaned houses in town. It was all about knowing who might find out and how much was too much.

One year, we made an exception on a chilly Halloween.

My little sister Margaret was a young teenager and I was back home after three years away. I was determined to make it a fun year for her in order to undo some of the damage I inflicted in earlier years. So we had fun adventures like dragging Mom to “The Sound of Music” at a local high school for the one and only musical of her life.

We were eating supper together when one of us said, “Hey! It’s Halloween. We should do something!”

Margaret and I pondered this. A prank of some kind? Certainly dressing up, as we loved to do that. And surprising someone. Maybe Marcus and Anna, our brother and his wife, who lived just up the road.

Yes, definitely Marcus and Anna.

We thought some more and then at the same time we looked at each other and said, “AMISH!!”

Instantly we were buzzing with plans while Mom smiled in spite of herself and said, “Ach, girls!” which meant, “This is risky but I guess I won’t stop you.”

We raided Mom and Dad’s closet for the Old Order outfits they kept on hand to wear to Amish relatives’ funerals.

Margaret dressed up in Mom’s long, black, Amish dress with the “schatz und hals-duch” (cape and apron), a mass of straight pins and polyester. She wore jet-black stockings and Mom’s black shoes and her big black bonnet and an old pair of cat-eye glasses. She even found a huge, ancient black purse.

She looked an absolute sight.

I wore Dad’s white Sunday shirt and his gray “mutza” suit with the funny flaps in back and his black church shoes and his black hat. I was also an absolute sight.

Except, we decided, I looked too girlish.

So I smeared Vaseline all over my jaw and Margaret helped me press coffee grounds into it, and suddenly I was transformed into a young Amishman with a good start on his beard.

Mom was amazed. “You look like Johnny’s boys,” she said — our handsome, renegade cousins who, in Amish custom, showed up at their own weddings with a hint of dark beard, since single men shave and married men do not. These cousins and the bridal party also slipped behind the house after the ceremony and posed for pictures for the worldlier guests with cameras, which was not an Amish custom, but Johnny’s boys knew when an exception was in order.

Mom also warned, “Margaret, don’t you hold Lenny on your lap, with all those pins.”

We drove down the gravel road to Marcus and Anna’s and knocked at the door. Anna opened it.

Margaret in her black bonnet opened the big black purse, held it wide, and said, “Trick or treat!”

Anna made a choked exclamation and then she started laughing. She doubled over and laughed some more. Marcus came up behind her to see what was going on and he simply howled.

They managed to invite us inside, where we sat primly on the couch while Marcus and Anna collapsed into chairs and guffawed like I’ve never seen them laugh before or since.

They played along and asked us questions, and we pretended to be an old married couple with eight children. Margaret said our oldest son just got a job in town, and I hung my head and said, Dad-like, “Ya, we don’t like it...” and Marcus laughed so hard he nearly passed out.

Little Annette stood around looking bewildered and Lenny sat on someone’s lap — not Margaret’s — and looked frightened.

We rode this horse as far as it could take us, all with straight faces on our part, and then when Marcus and Anna were exhausted from laughing we got up to leave.

Anna offered to find some candy to put in our black purse.

We went home and even Mom and Dad chuckled at us, and then we carefully returned our clothes to Mom and Dad’s closet and washed the beard off my chin.

Every Halloween, we remember. “Shall we dress up Amish tonight?” Margaret texts me from Pennsylvania. “I’ve got the coffee grounds all ready,” I text back.

I realize now that, culturally, we were a lot closer to the Old Order Amish than I liked to think, and we knew, without anyone explaining to us, what was appropriate in this charade, what was going too far, why I could have a coffee beard but not a moustache, what kind of pins we should use, and where they all belonged on that complicated dress.

If you’re part of the culture, you instinctively understand the subtleties that are almost impossible to explain to someone outside of it.

This year, just a few days before Halloween, I received yet another request to help an author who wants to write a novel about conservative Mennonites. She wants to make sure she’s authentic with the details, she said.

Perhaps I was too harsh in my refusal, as she seemed more serious and scholarly than most, and I applauded her desire to not be offensive. But I couldn’t bring myself to help her, not only because of all the details that defy explaining, but because I have come to believe that the only story you can really tell is your own.

Back when Margaret and I were young, the Amish and Mennonites — sister denominations under the Anabaptist roof — were an obscure subculture that few Americans had heard of and even fewer admired. It wasn’t unusual to be harassed and mocked.

Then, for reasons I will never understand, Anabaptist became cool. Bizarre TV shows featured the producers’ visions of Amish and Mennonite life, giving an entire generation of watchers — I am told — a completely distorted picture.

An avalanche of novels featuring the Amish but written almost entirely by the “Englisch” poured out of Christian publishing houses. “Bonnet fiction,” the industry called them. They range from well-structured but subtly “off” to simply horrifying, with boxy Photoshopped kapps on blond girls with eyeliner on the front covers.

Struggling authors saw a potential bonanza, and too many of them somehow found me, hoping that I would be that genuine source who could lend the stamp of authenticity to their hopeful story of young Lizzie pinning on her kapp, enjoying her Rumspringa without getting shunned, and falling in love with the handsome non-Amish neighbor, leading to a crisis of soul to be solved by following her heart in a very suburban-American way.

Always, these manuscripts were all wrong from the opening, “Ach, such a beautiful day it is,” to the individualistic-­American approach to decisions. They made exceptions to the rules, but always got them wrong, in vague ways that I couldn’t put into words.

“But I found a glossary on the Internet,” one author said, “and it said that ‘ach’ means ‘oh.’ ”

“But it’s always negative,” I said. “Ach, the pigs are out again,” not, “Ach, it’s a beautiful day.”

This phenomenon goes deeper than the cultural appropriation of a costume and brings troubling questions of exploitation and superiority.

Why, for instance, do publishers and producers and writers think the Amish/Mennonite story needs to be told for them?

Also, why is it OK to impose their own perceptions on another culture, portraying them either as universally holy and peace-loving, or oppressive and patriarchal, or wild and trapped under the plain exterior?

The saddest questions in this fascination with Anabaptist culture, I think, are, first, why do so many creative people feel that their own lives do not have a story worthy of telling, and they must cast their nets in utterly foreign waters to produce something worthwhile? And then why do so many readers immerse themselves in these stories?

If there is such a deep longing and admiration for the Amish way of life, then what is missing in modern culture that creates this hunger?

Instead of ranting about exploitation, I have learned, like a good Mennonite woman, to turn to gentle encouragement for these aspiring authors who contact me.

“Why don’t you write what you know best?” I ask.

“You too have a subtle thread winding through your life. You know why you did what you did, most of the time, and why you took that crazy adventure, and when you knew enough was enough, and how that single choice affected the rest of your life. You were a product of your parents and your community, and yet you created your own path and walked it. You knew the unspoken rules of your school, family, and hometown, and you knew when they needed to be broken.

“You had times when you embraced your past and times you let it go, and moments on a chill October evening when you swam in laughter, and you were sure you mattered to your big sister after all. Years later, you still text and remind each other.

“You don’t have to live someone else’s life or write another culture’s story. You have a life, a history, a story of your own. It is worthy of telling, and no one else will ever tell it quite like you can.

“It is yours to tell, and if you tell it well, I promise we will all be eagerly listening.”


  1. Well done, Dorcas Smucker! You made me stop and think. I haven't been Amish since age 17 when I left home; it is astonishing to me how I too know instinctively what the line is and where it belongs. I guess it is something one never loses. I know that if I should visit relatives in Kansas or Indiana/Michigan or Ohio or wherever, there is no way I could make it respectful if I put on the dress and kapp. It is possible that I would tell myself and others I'd be doing it to honor them or my ancestors but what a bad taste in the mouth it would leave! However, your prank on your brother and his wife was very funny. And well told. I enjoyed it.

    Elva Bontrager

  2. What a beautiful post. I agree we each have our own set of history why cant we just lean on that for authentic authorship when writing a book.

    I fellowship with Mennonite brothers and sisters, and though was not born into such a culture.. I find in my own personal faith, that in Christ we are each others brethren.. For whatever reason other than Jehovah Fathers leading, it is where HE has me at this season to learn from and to grow in my faith.

    I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog, it is a peaceful one to read

  3. Well said! Honestly those of us who are Southerners cannot abide anyone trying to be or talk like us either! How can anyone from outside understand that college football is practically a life or death matter and that many women in our area enjoy hunting? And sugar you cannot talk like us if you are not one of us so please do not try!

  4. I don't read the Amish novels either, for the same reason. Except for those written by Elizabeth Byler Younts who is my cousin's daughter and was born Amish. Her parents left the Amish when their children were small. Elizabeth's wish was to write about her own heritage and incorporates experiences from her own extended family such as a young Amish man marrying a non Amish girl and a little deaf/hearing impaired girl. Growing up I read and enjoyed The Tender Herb and another whose title escapes me. They obviously were written by someone who had experienced the culture.

  5. Well, Dorcas, I'm pretty sure you touched a nerve with this one! You articulated well the majority of what we have been seeing stream by in the publishing world of Amish fiction. "Individualistic-American decisions", Yes! One-dimensional portrayal of the Amish, Yes! That typical plot line you mentioned, Yes! All feeding into misconceptions of Amish culture. I'm a bit surprised that there is anything but disgust among the Amish for these books . . . but that would be a one-dimensional perception of them, wouldn't it? I'm eagerly waiting to see this trend pass. Thank you for speaking of what you do know.

  6. But what does that have to do with Halloween? Not much I think. Perhaps the difference for the line is profit. It may be one thing to get a culture horribly wrong in an attempt to make a buck off of it, but another to caricature something for a little temporary entertainment among friends. If the goal is to be outlandish, then getting the nuances right could be wrong.

  7. Lucy--Halloween and the conversation about costumes made a timely way to introduce the subject that I actually wanted to talk about. :-) Culture and costumes and caricatures are far broader and more nuanced than I could cover in 1700 words.

  8. Dorcas, I so appreciate your taking on this subject! I've been rather disgusted for a number of years with authors who try so hard on a subject they obviously know very little about! I don't particularly like the ones who DO know, because somehow the subject makes them think they are actually writers!! Yikes! At any rate, thanks!

  9. But what about the many people who enjoy reading these books? I am a Mennonite and close friends with many Amish, and my parents grew up Beachy Amish. There are books out there about the Amish\Mennonite culture that are complete bogus, and others that are not that far removed from my own experience with the Amish. Fiction, I might argue never get's it completely right or it wouldn't be fiction. I wonder what people years ago would say about the historical fiction today. However, how sad would life be without historical fiction ;) Other cultures depicted in fiction are not perfectly portrayed either. I personally enjoy fiction that is romantic, beautiful, and some what removed from our own world. Not near everyone has the talent to write their own stories, so we need someone who can enter into our stories and write them for us. Does it have to be perfect to be enjoyable? Just some thoughts...

  10. I could have never expressed so well what I dislike about bonnet fiction. Thanks for putting it into words.

    And thanks for encouraging writers to write their own stories.

    I hope you keep writing yours!

  11. To Anonymous who asked, "But what about the many people who enjoy reading these books?" and, "we need someone who can enter into our stories and write them for us. Does it have to be perfect to be enjoyable?"
    Obviously a lot of people enjoy these books or they wouldn't be selling so well, and everyone is entitled to their own taste.
    If they ring true to you and your experiences, I can't argue with that.
    I spoke my mind on the subject, and others are allowed to disagree.