Carla Funk was born and raised in Vanderhoof, one of the earliest Mennonite settlements in British Columbia, Canada. She is the author of the memoir Every Little Scrap and Wonder, which was a finalist for the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. She has also written five books of poetry and is the former poet laureate for the City of Victoria.
At once a coming-of-age story, a contemplation on meaning, morality, and destiny, and a hilarious time capsule of 1980s adolescence, Mennonite Valley Girl offers the best kind of escapist reading for anyone who loves small towns, or who was lucky enough to grow up in one.
Interviewed by Caley Byrne
Caley Byrne (CB): First of all, let me share that I really loved, and connected with, this book! It described an adolescence that was worlds away from my own, but there were so many nostalgic coming of age moments that I could completely connect with. What is your favourite memory from the book, and was it hard to capture in words? What else can you share with us about the curation of memories into memoir?
Carla Funk (CF): I’m so happy you enjoyed and connected with Mennonite Valley Girl, Caley! Of all the memories that make up the stories in this book, the ones that were the most fun to write weren’t necessarily the scenes filled with tension and conflict and dramatic highs that fuel a good story. Instead, the favourite memories were the ordinary ones, like a Sunday family gathering at Grandma Funk’s, with all the aunts in the kitchen and the uncles on the porch talking Low German and the cousins running wild in the yard. To return to those memories is a kind of time travel. To write them—well, the major challenge for me is the rebuilding of the mood and atmosphere so that the very feeling of being alive in that place—physically, emotionally, psychologically—comes through as truth. When I’m writing from memory, I’ll often close my eyes, picture myself back in that place—in Grandma Funk’s kitchen, for example—and then float in my mind’s eye through the rest of the house, trying to dial open the bandwidth of my senses to perceive it rightly. I’m listening for the laughter of my uncles, smelling the Zumma Borscht simmering on the stove, watching my aunts in their dresses as they peel the potatoes and slice the homemade buns. That process of going back to re-inhabit the moment, the scene, and the memory so often yields details I’d lost, like the hot flowery scent of Grandma’s laundry room, the digital clock that announced the time on the hour with a stern robot’s voice, or the clang of the horseshoe pitch every time an uncle threw a ringer. Those forgotten elements are surprise gifts—and sometimes even clues to the bigger story being told.
CB: I love where you write about the power and symbolism of names (“…she called me ‘strong and womanly,’ a name that tried to hook me to a different story”) and allude to the inheritance that comes with a family name. Can you talk a bit about what embracing or rejecting that inheritance meant to you then, and what it means to you now?
CF: In the throes of teen angst and hormones, I wanted to hurl back whatever was handed to me by my parents. Part of that, I think, is simply the process of figuring out one’s identity within the family structure. First, I was a daughter and the name my mother and father gave me, then a Funk, then Mennonite, then “from Vanderhoof,” a small-town, Sunday-school girl. As a child, I accepted the inheritance of those names without question and even with delight. But in adolescence, I questioned all of it, pushed back, tried to untether myself from those labels because they seemed synonymous with constraint. In the inheritance of my faith tradition, I only felt the pinch of the rules and boundaries, never the liberty to run within them. But it is a mercy that time and distance allow for clearer vision. I can look back now with curiosity and wonder at where I come from; at whom I come from. The rejecting or embracing of my inheritance ended up having almost nothing to do with which recipes I held onto, which rules I decided to follow, and what religion I chose. It turned out to be far more about the posture of my heart—toward people, God, and that awkward, angsty, striving girl I was. To write the stories of my teenage years has been a retrieval of everything I thought I never wanted, a sifting through the strange and often amusing terrain of memory, and an illumination of the richness of my inheritance.
CB: I definitely felt the tension through the book as you tried to understand the traditional gender roles you grew up amongst and within: “It seemed unfair to me that the very thing expected of girls – to be beautiful – could lead to hell.” How did navigating those traditional views affect the person you are today?
CF: Though I couldn’t have articulated it as a kid, or even as a teenager, I always had a passion for the truth. I wanted to know it and to point it out, to interrogate until I found it. I was relentless with questions (and still am!), wanting to know why, why, why. Why did the boys get to learn how to build fires and fletch arrows and carve wood, while the girls sat primly inside learning how to crochet and cross-stitch? Why could a man stand up and preach a sermon, but not a woman? Why did my mom and aunts prepare the lunch, serve the food, and wash the dishes, while my dad and uncles lounged in the living room watching stock car auto racing or Wild Kingdom?
When I started to ask those questions aloud, I didn’t like the answers I was given, not because they didn’t fit my idea of how the world should work, but because the answers didn’t seem true. If anything, the traditional views of gender roles with which I grew up spurred me on to ask better questions, to keep seeking out the truth. In my teen years, the idea of being some man’s wife and having babies made me shudder. Marriage and motherhood seemed like a trap, a bad trick being played on females everywhere. But oh, the things we say we’ll never do and the vows we make! By nineteen, I was married, with a baby on the way. What is it they say—you can take the girl out of the small town, but not the small town out of the girl? But that’s a whole other memoir, waiting to be written.
CB: As someone who grew up in a city, I was struck by the ‘free-range upbringing’ you describe in the book. There’s a dichotomy, though, between these adolescent freedoms and some of the limitations or constraints you describe or allude to in the book (eg. some of those placed on you due to your community and your faith). What was it like coming of age through some of those experiences? Do you think things would be different today?
CF: By the time I hit fourteen, I was itching to get out of my hometown. Every movie, music video, magazine, and paperback romance I read seemed to promise something brighter and bigger out there, wherever “out there” was (usually California or New York). The growing awareness of the outside world stoked my desire to escape the small town, and yet, that small town allowed me more freedom than I realized at the time. We were teenagers on the loose, roaming the streets at night, driving with a full license at age 16, up to minor mischief that now would likely summon law enforcement to the scene. We were given the gift of independence, partly because it was the 1980s/early 90s and the world seemed less terrifying, but mostly because we lived where we did. My hometown, Vanderhoof, is small enough that a lot of folks know each other, which allows for a stronger sense of trust and accountability.
We were also given the great gift of boredom. Often, it seemed like there was nothing to do in our small town, and in that space of “nothing to do,” we had to come up with something, to make our own fun. I really do believe that boredom is fuel for the imagination, a catalyst for creativity. Of course, that fuel can light a fire that burns down the proverbial house, or it can blaze up into illumination. I imagine that today, in a lot of small towns like Vanderhoof, those gifts of independence and boredom are still being granted. Whether or not teenagers are still taking hold of them, I’m not sure.
CB: You started writing poetry before turning to the memoir form. I’m curious about the writing process of your prose versus that of your poetry. Can you tell us about that? What are some of the similarities and differences?
When I first shifted from poetry into prose, I felt like I was a beginner writer, learning how to make sentences all over again. I was so used to focusing on a single line, a single word—a single syllable, even—that I had a hard time speeding up my writing to match the pace required by prose, those full lungs that breathe from one side of the page all the way to the other. So, sentences instead of lines, paragraphs instead of stanzas, scenes instead of images—gradually, I found the rhythm.
I’ve also found that poetry has been the best teacher for everything else I write, including memoir. I can’t remember the title of the piece or even the name of the woman who wrote it, but years back, I read an essay in which the writer talked about crafting her creative nonfiction as poems first, and then expanding them into essays or chapters. That helped a lot at the start. I’d have a story in mind, a subject, and I’d begin by drafting it as a poem, distilling it to the key images, allowing metaphor to flourish, and then working the progression toward a pattern that yielded meaning beyond the literal. Then I’d take the poem and build it into prose.
For Mennonite Valley Girl, I did less of the initial poem-drafting for the chapters, but I continue to rely heavily on what poetry has taught me over the years. I can’t help but want to bend a sentence into an iambic rhythm, to distill the language to its essence, to seed the introduction of a chapter with words and sounds and images that hint toward the ending.