Di brandt coverI wrote this back in February of 2015 as part of a series on Mennonite literature. I’m way behind on this series and need to catch up on my Menno reading. This is, to date, the only Mennonite poet that I’ve written about/made a cocktail in honour of.

For all Di Brandt’s poetry shocked particular branches of the Mennonite Church, it strikes me as actually pretty sober. Well, sober in that there’s not a lot of drunkenness. I don’t believe there’s more than a single teacup of alcohol in her whole oeuvre of spiritual, bodily verses. Though, in truth, I haven’t read all of them, and may have forgotten bits I read a long time ago.

Di Brandt was born and raised in a teensy town in southern Manitoba — a town so small it doesn’t even exist anymore. Her poems reflect on her Mennonite upbringing in that tiny town with equal measures of love and bitterness.  I was surprised, on my recent reading of her first collection, by the love in the poems, the bitterness having become so much more famous. But the poems ache with love even as they speak her resentment.Back when these poems were first published in 1987, I might have thought that they spoke directly and exclusively to a Mennonite audience.  Now I look at them and can hear in my head almost the same words coming from the mouths of Greek, Russian, French, Iranian, Indian, even small town Anglo-Canadian young women. Not in their particularities, of course. Not the low German words or the memories of Winkler. But Mennonites hold no monopoly on small town thinking or patriarchal anti-intellectualism, and I’ve met enough women from enough different heritages to know that Di’s emotional scars have their counterparts all around us.

Di Brandt starts her first collection of poems with “learning to speak in public   to write love poems for all the world to read   meant betraying once & for all the good Mennonite daughter i tried so unsuccessfully to become… ” Ah, but Di, isn’t that what it is to grow up? Wanting and trying so hard to be the person we see imagined in our parents’ and our cultures’ eyes even while at the same time you know you really don’t want to. It can’t have been easy for a little girl from Reinland, Manitoba but then neither is it easy for the little girls from so many other places, nor for a certain number of little boys.

There is often something of a backlash against Mennonite writers who say things in public that the people of the community don’t find complimentary. I get that. As Mennonites, we actually spend a fair bit of time flagellating ourselves over our inadequacies and so it’s not surprising if we don’t think we need a bunch of outsiders coming to lend a hand just because they’ve read a book of poems. On the other hand, we can get pretty smug in a false confidence that our communal failings are less reprehensible than those of the world at large, other groups of Mennos, or the Mennonites of past generations. And if we’re reading on our own, as particular Mennonites in particular places, we can do so comfortably by knowing that we aren’t the people in the book. The problem comes when other people read and mistakenly think we are all like that. Hence the backlash.

The joke is that we really are all like that. I don’t mean just the Mennonites. The danger in Mennolit isn’t that readers will think that all Mennonites are  narrow minded, it’s that readers might think that only Mennonites are narrow minded. They’ll read this literature and, instead of looking at themselves through it, will think as I lightheartedly suggested earlier, “Thank God, I didn’t grow up in such a repressive culture.” But they probably did — just repressive in its own special and peculiar ways that bred their own breed of love and resentment if not in the readers themselves than among others around them. We like to show the world the sides of ourselves that we’re proud of (head over the The Third Way Cafe if you’re looking for what that is) but that hardly ever makes good literature if there isn’t a dash of bitters thrown in.

Which is why today’s cocktail needed to have bitters. There are a couple of Diana cocktails out there but a couple sounded sickly sweet and I just couldn’t do that today. This is close adaptation of Diana’s Bitter which is described as bittersweet and strong.

The Bitter Diantchebitter diansche

2 oz gin
1 oz Campari bitter
1 oz freshly squeezed lime
1/2 oz maple syrup

  1. Throw all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice.
  2. Shake until mixed and chilled
  3. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with a lime wedge

Never mind that you can’t grow limes in southern Manitoba; it’s time to get outta there.

*oh, I haven’t actually done enough research to know exactly which sub-branch of the Mennonite Church that Di Brandt came from. There are 8 branches of the mennonite Church in Manitoba and my father sprang from one of them. I didn’t grow up there so there are ways in which I can say that I’m not that kind of Mennonite but then again, there are other ways in which I am.