How did I get here? An Introduction

If you had asked me about Mormon literature a decade ago, I probably would have said “what’s that?”. My mom had a few books of poetry by Carol Lynn Pearson and I sometimes enjoyed the fiction in the Ensign or New Era, but growing up I was largely unaware of most Mormon cultural baggage. I was raised primarily in Southern California, and my dad has been inactive for most of my life. My mom took us to church every week and we sporadically had scripture study and Family Home Evening, but I don’t remember much emphasis being placed on cultural Mormonism in my home. While other Mormon families were listening to the Osmonds, my parents preferred The Rolling Stones (I was a little dismayed in seminary to learn that some people thought the Stones were evil).

I did grow up in a home filled with books; my dad favors science fiction, thrillers, nonfiction and horror. My mom prefers historical fiction and “classics”. I was an early, voracious, and indiscriminate reader. I went through phases of infatuation with things like Sweet Valley High,The Babysitters Club, and Nancy Drew but by the time I reached high school I mostly read historical fiction and ‘deeper’ (i.e. serious and depressing) authors like Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Thomas Hardy. I consistently cultivated a dislike of fantasy, science fiction, and most contemporary teen fiction.

After high school I decided to attend BYU, which was both a positive experience because I got to meet so many other Mormons and a negative one because I realized that I was still a nerdy social outcast even when surrounded by other Mormons. By my junior year I had settled on being an English major because I loved to read books (at this point in my life I still had few concrete plans for my future). After that year ended I left to serve a mission in Spain.

I returned from my mission and came back to Provo in time for spring term at BYU. The day after I arrived in town was my birthday, and a friend with whom I had served appeared at my door with a gift for me. It was a copy of Rumors of War, the first book in Dean Hughes’ Children of the Promise series. Apparently my friend’s sisters had liked it and so he thought I would like it too. It turns out that I liked the book quite a lot; I had never read a novel with Mormon characters, and I already loved historical fiction about World War Two. The book was a perfect fit for me. This particular young man and I started dating and were married shortly before the end of the year. He was also an English major, but more interested in creative writing than literary criticism (as a side note, we are no longer married).

Our first semester as a married couple we took a young adult literature class together. This class was critical to me for several reasons: first it opened my eyes to the possibility of ‘good’ literature existing beyond the classical canon, second it introduced me to some wonderful LDS authors writing for the national market, and third it got me reading outside of my comfort zone (hey, I can read and enjoy books about guys who play sports). The following fall my husband took a class on LDS literature; I had wanted to take the class, but my schedule didn’t allow me to so I just read most of the books along with him. The first book I read was Angel of the Danube by Alan Rex Mitchell. That book was another eye-opener for me. I had served a mission in Europe and could really relate to most of the book’s major plot points. Here was someone writing seriously about issues in my life, without easy answers or clichés. The next book I read was Doug Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods , which, while totally different in style, had the same effect on me. Thayer’s work reminded me of some of my favorite authors from high school; I think he is as close to Steinbeck as we have in the Mormon literary world. At the same time I discovered the personal essay and journals such as Irreantum, Segullah, and Dialogue and I have never looked back.

Last spring I needed a job and applied for a part-time position at my local library. I live in Utah, so I made the assumption that at least one of the interviewers was LDS, and even if none of them were they would at least have heard of Mormon literature. I somewhat hesitantly mentioned that I liked to read Mormon lit, and then waxed rhapsodic about my recent reading of George Handley’s Home Waters. Thankfully one of my interviewers is the main buyer for LDS fiction for the library, and they all were impressed by the fact that I read and pay attention to the world of Mormon literature. I have to admit that I was a little excited to add ‘librarian’ to my credentials, rather than just ‘avid reader’, since so many people I interact with here and in other forums seem to have more ‘legitimate’ titles like ‘writer’, ‘publisher’, ‘playwright’, or ‘professor’. So, I offer my thoughts to you first as a reader and admirer of literature, and secondly as a professional who works with books and readers. I’ll try not to make my future posts so self-referential and self-indulgent, but maybe I can redeem this one by asking you a question. How did you discover Mormon literature?

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10 Responses to How did I get here? An Introduction

  1. Th. says:

    .

    I’m so excited to have Jessie here. Great addition!

  2. Wm Morris says:

    I had had a smattering of experiences with Mormon literature as a teenager (Orson Scott Card, Dean Hughes, Kristen Randle’s first novel [she was my Sunday School teacher at one point -- this was before she started writing YA and got big on the national market]), but I didn’t really understand Mormon literature as a category until I started attending the Berkeley Institute, which had four or five shelves worth of Mormon literature. I can’t remember the first thing I read (I think it may have been Under the Cottonwoods, actually), but at some point early on, I read the Cracroft and Lambert anthology A Believing People. Those first few experiences with Mormon fiction caused me to do some internet searches, which led me to the AML-List archives. That was the fall of 1997. I’ve been reading and writing about Mormon fiction ever since.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    My mom worked for Ricks College in the theater department and one of the faculty members directed an adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Folk of the Fringe story “Pageant Wagon.” That was probably the first time it occurred to me that someone from my religion/culture had written about it. Years later, I read Levi Peterson’s The Backslider and realized that great art could come from that culture/religion.

  4. Eugene England introduced me to Mormon lit when he taught a summer school class for the U–probably during the time he was being roughly treated at BYU.

    We read The Backslider, The Giant Joshua, Under the Cottonwoods, and Virginia Sorensen’s Where Nothing Was Long Ago as well as short stories and essays. I was amazed to find really good literature by Mormons.

  5. Jessie says:

    Kristen Randle was one of the LDS authors whose work I was introduced to in my YA Lit class–some of the others were Louise Plummer, Ann Cannon, Carol Lynch Williams, and Kimberly Heuston (and the class was taught by Chris Crowe).

    I really love, love Virginia Sorensen’s work, and when I finally read The Giant Joshua a few years ago I was surprised by how accessible and readable it was. I can’t drive through Saint George without thinking about that book. I must confess that I have never read The Backslider–that should be on my list this year.

    And Th–you flatter me :) But you didn’t answer my question…

  6. Kalekea says:

    I had never heard of the term ‘Mormon literature’ until I moved to Utah and heard you speak of it. However, doing my masters in social work at UH, people constantly asked about ‘relating to your culture’, which meant nothing to me, as I was never terribly proud of being caucasion, much less thought much about the culture. (The question was more generally referring to Asian or Polynesian cultures). But with all this talk, I reached a point where I realized that I WAS influenced by my culture. But my culture had nothing to do with my ‘ethnicity’ – it had to do w/my religion: Mormon culture! And I had already been reading authors like Gerald Lund, Dean Hughes and other LDS authors, as well as other Christian authors. I enjoy reading things that I can both relate to and learn from. I often note authors and books you’ve mentioned reading, to check out for myself. And now I just got some more ideas from the comments. Thanks.

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    Okay, a long answer here, but oh, well…

    As a teenager in the late 1970s, I was aware of early popular Mormon literature (e.g., Saturday’s Warrior, Jack Weyland), though my own interests were primarily science fiction and fantasy. After coming to BYU in 1978, I started to get involved with the sf&f community there, including The Leading Edge magazine. As an English major (BA and MA) and an intern in the Humanities Publications Center, I was also aware of some of the more literary stuff, and in fact I proofread galleys for a collection of Doug Thayer short stories. I also taught a class that used Edward Geary’s Goodbye to Poplarhaven (a collection of personal essays/reminiscences) as a text, which I much admired.

    It always seemed to me that for a believing Mormon, questions about the value of literature are inextricably tied to one’s understanding of the gospel. As a doctoral student at UC Riverside, I was frustrated that this wasn’t a perspective I could talk about in my classes. About that time, Scott Parkin introduced me to AML-List, where the quality of the conversation and the ability to talk about literature in gospel perspectives captivated my interest.

    Eventually I bailed out of my doctoral program, but my involvement in the Mormon lit community continued. Although my initial interests centered primarily on Mormon-informed literary theory and on sf&f by Mormon writers, over time I got to know about a lot of good literature that was being published dealing with the LDS experience, some of which I started reading and reviewing. Eventually I wound up (to my surprise) writing my first published novel (No Going Back) about a largely neglected aspect of Mormon experience: that is, what it’s like to be a believing member of the Church who also happens to be same-sex attracted.

    So the short answer, I guess, is that I’ve always been aware of Mormon literature to some degree. I have to admit, though, that even I didn’t go out of my way at all to read it until I started being exposed to a lot of the good stuff as a side-effect of my involvement with AML-List. Even now, my mother (a retired English teacher) has read a lot more Mormon literature than I have.

    A final thought: My experience with No Going Back and other Mormon titles suggests to me that there’s a fairly largely potential audience out there that *could* be interested in realistic Mormon fiction, but that isn’t currently looking for Mormon literature, either because the “bug” has never bitten them or because they associate it with Jack Weyland, Saturday’s Warrior, Shirley Sealy, etc. They may read historical fiction, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that contemporary Mormon experience might be captured in a way that might speak meaningfully to them. I don’t know any way to reach them except one-on-one, by reading books and pushing them on people: “Here, I think you might like this.”

  8. Jessie says:

    Jonathan,

    I bought a copy of Goodbye to Poplarhaven at DI a few years ago and I really like it too. It’s an excellent book.

    I do plan to address the idea of reaching out to readers that like realistic, contemporary fiction in another post. My thoughts are a little too long for a comment. We had a short conversation about LDS lit last year in my book club and everyone had the same reaction that you describe: “Anita Stansfield, Jack Weyland, blech!” I will elaborate on this more in my next post :)

  9. Th. says:

    .

    I don’t know how to explain it was possible for me to be both blech and yet have a driving interest in and love for books like Curtis Taylor’s The Invisible Saint. Although if you had asked me I would have claimed not to believe in a Mormon literature, I was constantly looking for one. Exactly when I realized I had faith a MoLit could exist, I’m not sure, but I suppose it must have been before I first joined the AML List in 2002. But when exactly? I don’t know.

    I think most Mormon readers are as I once was—-unwilling to consciously desire true Mormon literature, believing it does not exist, yet constantly hoping that someone will thrust a Bound on Earth or a Long After Dark into their hands and force them to read it.

    We have the orange juice, we need to share it.

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