Beyond Mission Stories: Voicing the Transnational LDS Experience
Despite Mormonism’s impressive international presence, much of contemporary Mormon literature is situated squarely in the United States, something of which Mormon writers and literary critics have long been aware. In his 1974 essay “Digging the Foundation: Making and Reading Mormon Literature,” for instance, Mormon author and critic Bruce W. Jorgensen criticized A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints, the first published anthology of Mormon literature, for its lack of international vision. “The editors note,” Jorgensen observed, “that we are ‘a world church,’ yet their selections implicitly define Mormon literature as a subspecies of American literature.” Jorgensen then expressed “hope for an expanded, multi-ethnic edition,” which, of course, never materialized.
Interestingly, while there has been no shortage of Mormon literature anthologies over the years, a majority of them have only anthologized American writers who write about American characters, settings, and issues. Indeed, many of these collections draw heavily upon a rural Utah aesthetic characterized by irrigation imagery, red rock, ranching, and other aspects of rural Mormon life. Only the most recent anthology of Mormon fiction, Angela Hallstrom’s Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, has shown any real interest in stories that address the transnational experience, although, to be sure, many of these stories are about American missionaries in transnational settings and do not fully engage the perspectives of non-American Mormons.For my presentation, therefore, I intend to look at a few contemporary Mormon stories that go beyond missionary fiction and strive to give voice to the many non-white, non-American Mormons in the world. I will look especially at Todd Robert Petersen’s Long After Dark (2007), which contains two short stories about Mormons who are neither white nor American. At the same time, however, I intend to raise ethical questions about these transnational stories, particularly “Quietly,” which takes place in Rwanda. What, for example, are the implications of a white American Mormon giving voice to African Mormon characters? Moreover, what do such acts of literary ventriloquism suggest about Mormon literature and the way it situates itself in relation to the American Church and the global Church respectively? Ultimately, through my presentation, I hope to provide insight into these questions and generate a discussion on how best to encourage efforts towards making Mormon literature more than some “subspecies of American literature.”