Claire Sorensen and Dr. Cindy Brewer
From feminism to Marxism, moral to multi-racial criticism, writings from the colonial era have been intensely analyzed by scholars. Thanks to their studies, we have been provided with important but general contextual knowledge of colonial literature. However, one vital subset of this field, colonial missionary literature particularly by women, has been, with few exceptions, almost entirely ignored.
In fall 2008, I traveled with Professor Cindy Brewer to participate in BYU’s study abroad program in Vienna, Austria. While there, I enrolled in Professor Brewer’s honors course that explored colonial literature with a special emphasis on female missionary literature. With the guide of reference books like The Rhetoric of Empire and novels like Robinson Crusoe, Professor Brewer helped me understand for myself the context and rhetoric of post-colonial literature, a literary category known for its intense racial and culturally biased themes. It was in this class that I discovered the writings of a post-colonial German missionary named Frieda Pfinzner, a female author who seemed to completely ignore the post-colonial stereotypes in her fictional children’s stories. It was in this class that I began my research adventure.
Instead of visiting sunny Greek beaches or the English Stonehenge on my weeklong fall break, I traveled with Professor Brewer and four other students to the Mission 21 Archives (filled with missionary and colonial texts) in Basel, Switzerland and then to the Zentralbibliothek (national library) in Zurich, Switzerland. Throughout our time in beautiful Swiss country, I searched for signs of who I then called Frieda Pfinzner, but there was no record of her in the Mission 21 Archives. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t until Professor Brewer encouraged me to search for records of Frieda online that I found any new information. A few modified Google searches later, I had discovered that Frieda’s actual last name was Plinzner with a “Pl” and that she had eventually taken the name of Zeller. Once I began searching for “Frieda Plinzner Zeller,” records popped up all over the internet and, upon our arrival there, all over the Zentralbibliothek in Zurich. We discovered a number of books written by Zeller that weren’t yet part of our assortment on the Sophie website (sophie.byu.edu), a handful of which Professor Brewer ordered and added to her personal collection. These discoveries were incredible for me, a novice researcher new to the art of digging up information never before noticed by modern-day scholars.
Two years later, I pulled out those books to again delve into the world of Frieda Plinzner Zeller’s missionary narratives, this time under the tutelage of Professor Christian Clement. I made digital copies of the last two stories of our Sophie collection which had not yet been translated into English, “Malme Habsach und der Beduinen” (Malme Habsach [an Arabic name] and the Bedouins [Arabs generally living in the desert]), and “Als die Romungris kamen” (When the Romani [gypsies] Came). Just like the rest of Zeller’s texts, these two stories were printed in German fraktur, or old German script, which was used for German texts between the 16th and 20th centuries. With a fraktur chart in hand, I made my way through the two Zeller stories and transcribed them into modern German type. Once both stories were transcribed and quickly readable, I translated the German stories into English. This translation took much longer than I had expected, because there were old German words that are no longer used in modern language, as well as a sprinkling of Arabic words that were completely foreign to me.
To best review the stories I had translated, I placed Zeller’s stories once again into the greater post-colonial context, as I had done when I first discovered her literature. I had initially decided to look for signs of prejudice or racism in her stories, paying special attention to how she portrayed individuals of different races. Though Frieda Zeller recognized the cultural characteristics of her characters (i.e. skin color, language vocabulary, religious beliefs), she did not link them to the superior-inferior comparison that was so common in other post-colonial writing. Instead she showed children of differing ages and racial backgrounds coming to love their brothers and sisters of other races, and oftentimes accept Christianity in the end. Though Zeller’s religious persuasions had much to do with the lessons she taught through her stories, the distinguishing factor that sets her apart from other authors of her day, I think, is the fact that she did not show prejudice toward individuals of different races through the way that she treated them. She recognized the presence and beauty of cultural identity, but did not assume that identity ultimately defines an individual, that identity determines how an individual will act. This consistent theme throughout her works sets Frieda Plinzner Zeller apart from her contemporaries in an astounding way that was otherwise heard of in her day.
When I finished my work with these stories, I submitted the original texts along with my transcribed and translated versions to the Sophie website. Since this site is currently under construction, these stories are not quite available on the web, but will be added when the new website is launched.
Ultimately, my ORCA grant helped me to create my own definition of “research”: a fascinating pursuit of previously untapped stories of people from my history who lived and thought and wrote big, important things. Research is no longer a boring paper or an endless Internet search; this ORCA grant has given me a new outlook on learning things for my own benefit, as well as for the benefit of the greater educated community. I have learned that I can be the one to make something available to someone else, something that hadn’t been read or studied since it was originally written. With my ever-growing interest in post-colonial literature, I have continued to take literature classes that explore colonial influences on countries all over the world, not just Germany, which has greatly broadened my awareness of colonial discourse and rhetoric. I plan to continue working with the Sophie website and with post-colonial texts—especially that of Frieda Plinzner Zeller—to turn my findings into a conference paper or scholarly article that I can submit to either a conference or a scholarly journal. Overall, this research experience has been one of the most eye-opening educational encounters of my life. I am grateful for the privilege to have associated with the Office of Research and Creative Activities. They have indeed helped open my eyes to new discoveries in research and creativity.