Our Voices, Our Visions: A Mormon Women’s Literary Tour

I first encountered Joanna Brooks during freshman orientation week at BYU in 1989–she was sitting on a table in the checkerboard quad recruiting for the Student Review, swinging her feet and looking like a pixie with her freckles and short, dark hair.  She quickly gained a reputation on campus for being articulately outspoken on various social issues, and I admired her from afar.  But I didn’t get to know her until my junior year, when both of us took a certain contemporary literary criticism course from a certain feminist professor. On the first day, I spotted her a few seats down (her hair was longer then–super thick and shiny),  and knew this would be a class to remember. And I was right.

I’ll spare you the details of the wild, semester-long romp through Kristeva and Cixous and Jaggar (drop me an email if you want to hear about the bra burning). Instead, let me tell you about the groundbreaking multi-state event that Joanna is spearheading this month: Our Voices, Our Visions: A Mormon Women’s Literary Tour. Better yet, let Joanna tell you about it in this mini-interview we had recently:

How and why did you come up with the idea for this tour?

A few years ago, I was teaching a Native American women’s literature class, and we read a collection of Native women’s writings entitled A Gathering of Spirit. It was published in the 1970s.  Basically, these two Native women writers put out a nationwide call (back in those days, it was typed and mimeographed letters!) to all Indian women writers to send in their writing.  As Native women, they wanted to hear other Native women’s voices about their common experience, and the anthology that resulted was a real starting place for Native women’s literature coming together as an field.  I thought to myself, “Gee, I wish something like that happened for Mormon women.”  And then I realized if I wanted to see it happen, I better put my shoulder to the wheel.  So out of the blue, I emailed Holly Welker, a Mormon woman writer I had never met before, and said, “Do you want to do this crazy project with me?” And she said yes.  So we drew up a call for participants and sent it everywhere we could imagine.  The response has been terrific, both from writers and from women who are organizing local events, and from host universities.

What do you hope the tour will achieve?

We want to see more Mormon women writers achieve national audiences.  Mormons are a subject of great fascination and curiosity on the national stage.  Mormon women have incredible stories to tell.  But so often it is non-Mormon writers like Jon Krakauer who try to tell our stories for us. Mormon women should be telling our own stories for a national audience. The only way that can start to happen is if Mormon women support each other.

Also, as literature professors, we’re keenly aware that writing from the Mormon tradition does not get a lot of recognition from the academic world.  We’d like that to change, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve chosen to hold the readings at universities.  We’ve enjoyed terrific support from Utah Valley University’s English Department and Claremont University’s Mormon Studies program, as well as Arizona State University, Southern Utah University, and the University of Utah Library.  But one of the funniest stories from organizing this tour is that one English department chair at a large university in a big Mormon city wanted to charge us hundreds of dollars to book an auditorium there.  Other departments were contributing money to the tour, but this Department wanted to charge us!  When award-winning Mormon women writers can’t get a free room to speak from the literature department of a university in the city their ancestors built, that tells you something.  It’s hilarious, and frustrating, but also shows us that it’s time to speak up and claim a place for ourselves.

Tell me about some of the writers on the tour.

We have a fantastic gathering of writers. Prize-winning poet Danielle Dubrasky from Southern Utah University, award-winning essayist Holly Welker.  Judith Curtis is an amazing poet from Arizona who began writing in her 50s. We also have younger writers like Whitney Mower, Whitney Nelson, and Cassie Eddington who make us very excited about the future of Mormon women writers.  Full bios for all our participants are available at mormonwomenwriters.blogspot.com.

This gathering emphasizes diversity, not orthodoxy, and includes Mormon voices from outside the LDS Church mainstream (indeed, from outside the LDS Church itself). What benefits and what challenges do you anticipate with this approach?

The question of what counts as “Mormon” literature has been a subject of ongoing debate among Mormon readers, writers, and scholars.  Our approach was to create as open a space as possible–to welcome all women writers who love and identify with the Mormon tradition.  It’s important to us that the “Our Visions, Our Voices” Project be a space respectful and welcoming to those who are faithful and observant members of the LDS Church, as well as to those raised in other branches of the Mormon movement, and those whose artistic and spiritual lives have taken them to unorthodox places.  There is fantastic writing happening in all of these dimensions of the Mormon world right now.  We’d like to explore and support and promote all of it, especially work by younger women writers.

Already we’ve experienced some benefits from this project in finding and connecting Mormon women writers across the country.  Susan Scott, an RLDS-heritage woman writer from Canada, wrote to us remembering how before the RLDS-LDS split, at the time of the building of the Kirtland temple, women broke their dishes to create shine for the temple exterior.  “I come bearing broken dishes in hand,” she wrote.  That sense of shared history and sisterhood across difference is beautiful to us.  We’re thrilled she will be with us for every stop of the tour.

As for challenges, the challenges we’re most worried about at this point are getting the word out about the tour and keeping all our authors fed and housed for a week, from Southern California through Salt Lake City!  If anyone would like to feed a travelling Mormon woman writer, please let us know!

Obviously this event will hold great appeal to those of us who are interested in women’s studies. What other audiences do you hope to reach?

Denizens of the bloggernacle!  Lovers of Mormon culture!  Women who have writings squirreled away that they’d like to contribute to the Our Voices, Our Visions archive at the University of Utah!

Thanks, Joanna. I’m excited to participate. See you in a few weeks!

And I hope to see many of you ‘nacle brats at the U of U and UVU events, where I’ll be reading an excerpt from my memoir and coveting Joanna’s hair. For more info, email jb@joannabrooks.org, visit mormonwomenwriters.blogspot.com or join the Mormon Women Writers Facebook group.

Comments

  1. How exciting! I really wish that there were at least one Midwestern date. Maybe one could be brought into being, Joanna?

    Thanks, Kathryn; a neat interview.

  2. Please record the audio. With redundancy, even. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty please with sugar on top?

    Happy to help if I can.

    P.S. I’m still grumpy that USU was left off the tour. WTF(reak)?!?!?!?

  3. Outstanding. This quote is extremely powerful: “When award-winning Mormon women writers can’t get a free room to speak from the literature department of a university in the city their ancestors built, that tells you something. “

  4. Yay, Cassie! That is all.

  5. This is really important. The Mormon Intelligensia, despite our mostly lofty and progressive intentions, can be its own strange brand of Boys Club. Even Mormon Feminism can sometimes resonate weirdly patriarchal overtones. Even the most courageous voices calling for change (Bennion, England) tended, it seems to me, to promote, probably unconsciously, a fairly male-centric brand of intellectual Mormonism.

  6. ” Even the most courageous voices calling for change (Bennion, England) tended, it seems to me, to promote, probably unconsciously, a fairly male-centric brand of intellectual Mormonism.”

    Brad, could you explain that a bit for me. Not disagreeing, but as I try to model myself after the likes of Bennion, I do not want to make the same mistakes.

  7. The tour comes to UVU on March 26th. SMPT will also be having their conference at UVU that day. Since, I am presenting at about that time, I will miss it. However, I will relish in the thought of that much progressive Mormon intellectual activity all in one corner of Orem.

  8. Rebecca England says:

    Brad, I think you’re right that Eugene England (I won’t speak for Lowell Bennion) was (unconsciously?) male-centric in the 1960s and somewhat in the 1970s. However, having spent many hours, days, and weeks sifting through decades of my father’s letters and writings, it’s clear England consciously came to value and champion Mormon women writers, especially the last two decades of his life. He wrote and taught that the best Mormon writers were women. And to his credit, England often wrote very personally about confronting and struggling to overcome the sexism and racism of his generation and culture.

  9. Molly Bennion says:

    In writing of Merle, Lowell Bennion’s wife, and his beloved ranch, Lowell’s biographer, Mary Bradford said “Lowell’s commitment to his dream came at personal and family cost. In 1990 Merle recalled her own part: “I did a lot down here that he doesn’t appreciate. Put them up, placated the mothers, fed them–I spent hours,” She was proud of the ranch’s achievement, but the memory of the loneliness still stung. Turning to Lowell during the interview, she asked, “Why didn’t we run it together, Lowell?” He had no answer.” @ p. 207
    Lowell Bennion has been my Mormon intellectual hero for decades. I prefer to think of him teaching and inspiring some of today’s most highly respected women intellectuals. But even the finest bear the imprint of their times and demand of us the fairness of suspended judgment for what we didn’t live and can’t truly understand.

  10. Interesting to read more about this.

    One question I have about potential challenges of the approach of ‘diversity, not orthodoxy’ is this: Isn’t it possible that this effort could contribute to continued confusion ‘out there’ about what it means to be Mormon, and, more specifically, a Mormon woman? I do understand the interest in bridging gaps between mainstream, active LDS and others who share common Mormon roots, and think there is value in that (it’s sort of the age-old tension discussed with Sunstone, etc. and I don’t mean to rehash that here). But I also am interested to know if there will be any deliberate effort to also help people understand some of the differences, too, between the faiths that have common roots in early Mormonism. I think there is value in both recognizing the commonalities, but also recognizing and discussing in clear ways where the different religious beliefs diverge.

    Thoughts?

  11. m&m, what sort of deliberate instructional effort do you think would be appropriate to include in this event, given its purpose?

  12. Some speakers could sew a scarlet “X” onto their blouses. Others could a scarlet “CoC.” Any FLDS participants would, of course, be immediately recognizable.

  13. I just want to point out that, while I am not actually an ESL writer, I always seem to do a good impression of one unintentionally.

  14. I first encountered Joanna Brooks during freshman orientation week at BYU in 1989–she was sitting on a table in the checkerboard quad recruiting for the Student Review, swinging her feet and looking like a pixie with her freckles and short, dark hair.

    I knew her from the Student Review too!

    Remember this post I linked to from Norbert’s recent BYU post? Well, Professor Brooks is in the second picture, standing behind me on the other side of the bar. (I hope there’s no problem posting this link, but) here‘s an even better picture of her from the same party.

  15. Sorry for the link error, the second one is here.

  16. m&m, what sort of deliberate instructional effort do you think would be appropriate to include in this event, given its purpose?

    I can imagine some simple explanations for those possibly unfamiliar with the different “branches” of “Mormonism” — what they share in terms of doctrine, where in history (and why) the different groups diverge. I think a brief historical outline/background intro could be helpful so as not to further the confusion about what *most* people mean when they talk about “the Mormons.” People are already confused about “Mormonism” and Mormon womanhood (as in, “Can Mormon women wear pants?” kinds of questions).

    To me, it seems a little contradictory to say that “we” (“Mormon women”) should be telling “our” stories when I think in most LDS people’s minds, those of non-mainstream branches of Mormonism are still “non-Mormons.”

    Again, I think there is value in shared dialogue and shared stages and shared stories, but I think value is lost if you aren’t clear about the fact that being “Mormon” can mean different things to different people. Otherwise, in telling too-broadly defined “Mormon” stories to a national audience, I think this can risk perpetuating the confusion the Church has been pretty deliberate to try to dispel regarding what the mainstream Church is all about.

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