Interview by Michèle Dawson Haber
Mary Alice Hostetter’s Plain: A Memoir of a Mennonite Girlhood (University of Wisconsin Press; December 2022) tells the story of her journey to define an authentic self amid a rigid religious upbringing in a Mennonite farm family.
Although endowed with a personality “prone toward questioning and challenging,” the young Mary Alice at first wants nothing more than to be a good girl, to do her share, and—alongside her eleven siblings—to work her family’s Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, farm. As an adolescent, that keen desire for belonging becomes focused on her worldly peers, even though she knows that Mennonites consider themselves a people apart.
Eventually she leaves behind the fields and fences of her youth, thinking she will finally be able to grow beyond the prohibitions of her church. Discovering and accepting her sexuality, she once again finds herself apart, on the outside of family, community, and societal norms. (Description excerpted from jacket copy.)
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mary Alice in the month leading up to her debut memoir’s release. We talked about her writing style, whether she really wants to be the poster child for lesbian Mennonites, and the impact her New York Times Modern Love essay had on her publishing journey, among other things.
Here are the highlights of our conversation:
Michèle Dawson Haber: I would call Plain: A Memoir of Mennonite Girlhood a quiet memoir, although that’s not to say you haven’t added in tension to the narrative. One of my favourite examples of this is when you sneak outside to gaze at your classmate Suzanne’s house in the distance. (If I’m not mistaken, this is taken from Yearnings, the story you published in this magazine.) There are so many other passages where I thought, “Wow, how astute and self aware she is!” I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of your short fiction as well, and it is similarly introspective and reflective. What is it that draws you to this style?
Mary Alice Hostetter: Ah, interesting question. I think in these noisy times, a quiet book may be just what we need! I’m drawn to quiet books in a way many people aren’t—that’s part of the heritage I grew up with. The quiet surface was very much honored and encouraged in my family—not that there wasn’t a lot going on—and we didn’t have time for a lot of noisy emotions. I don’t know if you’re aware of the fiction writer Kent Haruf, who wrote very quiet books about ordinary, small-town people who on the surface seem to be doing very little. A lot of us are like that, just quietly living our lives. To find tension and drama in those quiet spaces is both challenging, and, when it can be done, delightful.
MDH: Will you tell us how you arrived at the title? Were any others under consideration?
MAH: Many were under consideration. This one was suggested by the publisher, and it has grown on me. One-word titles are a bit trendy right now, and I like them. Both Educated and Wild, work nicely. In the community where I grew up, the Mennonites were called “the plain people,” so the title works on that level, but also on others. It suggests simple, straightforward, unembellished, all of which seem appropriate to describe both my story and my writing. It even works with the coming out story. The word obvious comes to mind, as in “plain as the nose on your face.” Although her sexuality wasn’t plain to the protagonist, the reader might well have been saying “duh!” So, I came to appreciate the title even though it’s not where I started.
MDH: What about the cover?
MAH: For the cover, I was certain of what I did not want: any photographs of people, myself, or some other archetypal plain person. And so, I was delighted that they chose, quite on their own, a painting by my wife, which they found after I suggested they take a look at some of her work online.
MDH: You cover a lot of time in this memoir, starting from early childhood, high school, college, and first jobs—then jump to your more recent years. You chose not to spend much time on your coming out or your life as a lesbian (the subject of your 2016 New York Times essay). What factors contributed to these decisions?
MAH: My first draft did not include any suggestion of coming out and, in fact, the arc was to end with a kind of acceptance that I was going to be what my mother called “an unclaimed blessing.” I was in a small memoir group, and someone asked me whether I’d ever considered including my coming out story as part of my memoir. I recall saying, “I do not want to be the poster child for lesbian Mennonites!” But they had other questions, such as, “did you ever come out to your parents before they died?” I told them I’d written a piece about that—not to have published, just to preserve it for myself. I shared it and they urged me to send it to the New York Times’s Modern Love column. I thought that was a long shot, but what was there to lose? So that’s how the piece came to be.
And then, to answer your question, the responses I received from that essay made me realize that my memoir might have the potential to inspire readers to recognize the value of embracing differences in ourselves and each other in an increasingly divided time. I began to feel it was a little irresponsible to avoid that part of my story, and since I was out anyway to the entire New York Times world, I included it in the memoir.
MDH: So that 2016 Modern Love essay, entitled “Dear Dad: We’ve Been Gay for a Really Long Time” is published, then it’s chosen for the Modern Love podcast and was read by actress Cynthia Nixon, all of which is pretty fantastic. These achievements are the dream of all memoir writers. What role did these opportunities play in your publication journey? Did you find an agent as a result, or did you go directly to the publisher?
MAH: I tried the agent route. Everybody said, “the agents are going to come calling, you won’t even need to call them.” Well, that was not my experience. I queried agents for a time, but they seemed to consider the book too risky, and I couldn’t blame them—it was not an obvious best seller. So, I decided to try a few publishers that don’t require agents. I did research on that and found some independent publishers as well as university presses. I found out that the University of Wisconsin has an imprint called the Living Out series which are all lesbian and gay biographies or memoirs. When I submitted to them, I asked to be considered for that series. Had I not included the NYT piece in the arc of the memoir, I would not have been considered, so in that way the Modern Love essay certainly did play a role.
MDH: The early parts where you write from the POV of yourself as a young girl are really well done. Did you find it difficult to achieve a believable and relatable child’s voice? Can you talk about the role of memory here? What is your secret to doing this well?
MAH: I probably found those pieces the easiest to write. My main background in writing was in fiction and the distancing I needed to do felt closest to fiction. But the memory aspect was challenging because anyone doing a childhood piece knows you don’t really know what the conversation was when trying to go into scene for something that far back. I remembered senses—how the hot lard smelled, all the things that happened in the kitchen, and my mother warning us about hot lard—but I don’t remember her exact words. I tried to give her words that would sound like her. I don’t know if this happens for all memoirists, but I found one memory would beget another. When your brain starts tapping into the reserves, it opens new reserves of things you had not remembered initially. I found this one of the most exciting parts of writing memoir.
MDH: There are several areas (I counted 3, maybe 4) where you say a version of “and no one noticed the difference”—was this purposeful? What did you mean to convey with this repeated observation?
MAH: I think it was a subtle commentary on being a girl and a young woman in that culture and how it could feel being part of such a huge family with so much work to do. There was a lot of not noticing and certainly moments of not feeling special. Even now, if I’m the center of attention I’m uncomfortable—I don’t have a lot of background in this. I didn’t realize it’s there in three or four different places, but I definitely think as a theme it reflects how someone in that time and place and as a part of such a large family might feel.
MDH: Let’s talk religion for a moment. The reader sees you rejecting your family’s traditions, but they also suspect that you find a way to maintain a relationship with the divine in other ways, although you don’t spend a great deal of time on this. What message were you hoping came through regarding the nature and value of worship and faith?
MAH: I hope it comes through that I have deep respect for people of faith and for my parents, even though I rejected their kind of rigid adherence to religious beliefs. In terms of where I went personally, my involvement with a faith community is now with the Quakers. Some of their beliefs are similar to the Mennonites, especially the pacifism and the simplicity. The part I truly appreciate is their belief that the divine is something that lives in all of us, and we live to find it in ourselves and connect with it in each other. That just makes a whole lot of sense to me—rather than this oppressive God In The Sky telling women how they should dress. As a thoughtful, young person I thought, really? What king of a weird God is that? Aren’t there more important things to do to keep the world running smoothly than worry about women’s clothing? I didn’t realize the rules came from the men in charge of the church and not from God.
There certainly was more to the religion. I think I needed to leave and then reassimilate it to appreciate it. And in fact, where the Mennonite Church has gone now, if that’s where they had been when I was a teenager, I might not have left. In mainstream Mennonite churches today, there aren’t rules about how young women dress anymore.
MDH: What do you think the reaction of the Mennonite community will be to the publication of this memoir? I feel that you achieve a nice balance between conveying respect for your community while also helping us understand why you couldn’t stay. Do you think your family/community members will see it that way?
MAH: I have no question about my family. My siblings and extended family have all been supportive. It’s just been amazing. I don’t know that they will be totally comfortable with some of the things I say about the Mennonite church, they might be a little squirmy about some of it. One thing that my parents were so insistent on was that family was more important than anything. Keeping the family together, even if our politics or our beliefs differed, we still had to come together and respect each other.
I have been away from the Mennonite community for a long time, but I can only hope this book might bring up memories for others who’ve grown up there, and it would be wonderful if it encouraged understanding and tolerance.
MDH: You write about your strong urge to leave home but also a compulsion to return, and you’re even sad when that home cannot stay the same for you. I see much of your memoir as a wrestling with what home and belonging mean for you. Was that your intention?
MAH: I wouldn’t have necessarily said that, but I think that’s true. I mean, at the same time that I disagreed with my parents’ faith for myself, I realize how important it was that it was there for me to react against. Home is sort of a still point within me. Now I live in Virginia, and when I visit family in Pennsylvania, it’s a weird combination of both something very alien and also familiar. For example, the smells and sounds, and coming up on an Amish buggy on the road and not finding it strange at all. It’s both, “What? I lived here?” and a feeling that is also familiar and very comforting. I realize that home is a feeling I’ve taken with me.
MDH: Your previous book, published under your mother’s name with you as editor, is an annotated selection of your mother’s diary entries over an 80-year period. Do you see these two publications as connected and do you hope readers will seek out the earlier book about your mother once they get to know her through your memoir?
MAH: That would be lovely! I did that book mostly for my family. When my mother died, I got all her diaries and I decided she should have her own book which would be about a disappearing way of life. Did the one book influence the other? Absolutely. Coming from her book to mine gave me a lot of the texture about the life I was given. And, I had detailed source material. I found little nuggets that I was able to use, even quoting her—such as when I went to the movie without permission. I think that lent a bit of credibility to it. And I wouldn’t have remembered that moment or others so clearly if I hadn’t had the resource of the diaries. Her diaries helped a whole lot to uncover buried memories.
MDH: Which memoirists have inspired you and why? Related to this, did you read any other Mennonite memoirs while you were writing yours?
MAH: There aren’t that many that I’m familiar with and so far, none that I’ve read that touch on being a Mennonite lesbian. So there—I could be a poster girl! The one that I read was by Shirley Showalter, who I reached out to and who was extremely generous in her help on all things Mennonite. Her memoir is called Blush, about growing up in Lancaster County.
Other memoirs I admire are Educated, which I thought was very well done, and Wild. I originally envisioned my memoir as a memoir in essays. There is a writer I admire named Margaret Renkl who’s done a few collections of essays that create a sort of memoir if you put them all together. I love that concept. Six of my chapters were originally published as standalone pieces, so later creating the filament to have them connect was challenging. Many connections happened organically, not in a planned way.
MDH: What’s next for you?
MAH: When the submission process at the publisher and the pandemic were going on and on, many in my writing community advised that I get started on a new project while I waited for publication news. So, I started a novel, because fiction was my first thing, and I thought, “enough with the self-disclosure, I want to make people up again!” The novel is still in infant form. I also continue to write some short pieces just to keep writing, maintain my rejection creds, and maybe even get a few things published.
Mary Alice Hostetter grew up the tenth of twelve children in a Mennonite farm family. She had a career in education and human services before devoting more time to her writing. Among her publications are The New York Times (Modern Love), Gettysburg Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Prime Number, Appalachian Review, storySouth and HuffPost Personal. She lives with her wife in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Michèle Dawson Haber is a Canadian writer, potter, and union advocate. She currently lives in Toronto and is working on a memoir about family secrets, identity, and step-adoption. Her writing has appeared in Oldster Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Salon.com, and in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. You can find her at www.micheledhaber.com.