As a young man, I often wondered what it was like for young women to serve Mormon missions. …actually, I didn’t. For a variety of reasons, I was pretty clueless. Even after serving my own two-year mission, I displayed a chronic lack of understanding about the experiences of women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
What I could have benefited from was a candid mission memoir like recently published The Legend of Hermana Plunge. Written by Angela Liscom Clayton, the book captures the volcanic ups and downs of serving a mission in the Canary Islands in 1989-90. The terrain and culture were exotic and the experiences of young missionaries proved to be as well. After reading the book, I scored the opportunity to interview the author. Our Q&A session provides just a sampling of what Angela’s excellent memoir offers readers.
INTERVIEW – PART ONE
Take us to a moment in your memoir that serves as a good teaser for prospective readers. What happens, and why is it significant?
Angela: There’s a passage in the first part of the book that explains where I came up with the tongue-in-cheek name Hermana Plunge that I used throughout my mission. I was pretty critical of the pep rally style meetings up to that point:
“After a few weeks in the zone, I decided in one meeting that I was going to top whatever energy Elder Fletcher threw out there, escalating the meeting to a fever pitch. I matched every challenge he gave us and increased it. I finally declared myself Hermana Plunge and walked out of the meeting to a nearby shop and had a new chapa (name badge) made that said “Hermana Plunge” which I wore off and on to demonstrate my fealty to mission culture. I began to sign my letters to President using this new alias as a way to demonstrate my enthusiasm and commitment. I still felt the same way about the goal setting, that it was all a performance, but it was still fun to join in. As with improvisation in theater, if you say yes to everything thrown at you, you can end up in a different place than you expected.”
Describe your mission in a nutshell:
Angela: I served in the Spain Las Palmas mission from spring of 1989 to summer of 1990. The mission included the Spanish-speaking Canary Islands, in the Atlantic Ocean, just west of Morocco, and the Portuguese-speaking Azores and Madeira further northwest in the Atlantic Ocean, and the Portuguese-speaking island nation of Cabo Verde, further south on the coast of Africa. Our mission was entirely made up of islands, so every transfer involved an inter-island flight or ferry. Some missionaries were trained in Spanish and some in Portuguese. Our president had served a Portuguese language mission, and his Spanish was a little rough as a result.
The weather was sunny and warm year-round in the Canary Islands, and there were a lot of tourists. The Canaries are like the Hawaii of Europe, and like Hawaii, the islands are volcanic with a dryer side on the south and a greener side on the north. On the most populous islands, there were branches in all the major cities. Less populous islands might only have one branch for the whole island.
What sparked your desire to write a memoir? And what motivated you to see it through to publication?
Angela: We used to joke as missionaries that we should write a tell-all memoir because our mission had a lot of unique aspects to it, certainly when we talked to others who served elsewhere. But I really didn’t seriously consider it until I read Craig Harline’s memoir Way Below the Angels. The thought that kept coming to me was how male-centric these stories are, and for the elders, the experience really was very male-dominated at the time.
It took me a little time to get motivated to crack open my three-decades dusty mission box because a mission is hard and full of angst, and I had really mixed feelings about immersing myself in it again and bringing back all those contradictory emotions. But once I started to read through it all, it was very easy to write. It only took me a few months, and it came together very naturally once I decided how I wanted to tell the story.
Among the many passages which struck me, at one point you listed about 10 techniques you used to find people to teach. Almost all the methods used were sales tactics (albeit for religious ends). Couched deep in the list you say, “We fasted and prayed.” Tell us about the tension you experienced between physical and spiritual aspects of missionary work.
Angela: Yes, I think that you must be referring to the La Palma section. Man, that was a tough area! We were racking our brains every day trying to come up with a plan and dealing with our own and the elders’ discouragement. I never fasted more in my life than I did in that area. I was never really a big faster, and I’m still not. Because of our mission’s “Challenging and Testifying” approach, the focus was really more on the physical—just showing up—which sounds easy, but it really isn’t easy every day. The physical act of going out in the morning, knocking doors, talking to people on the street, these were the go-to strategies for me.
We added spiritual methods like fasting and praying when we were really feeling down in the dumps or specifically worried about someone we were teaching or a fellow missionary. The spiritual also came into play when we were teaching, but in general, we felt that if we just went out and talked to people, someone would talk to us. There were only a few times when I felt a strong impression to change where we were going, either for safety or for success.
Let’s change gears and talk worldly. The Legend of Hermana Plunge includes a fantastic bra story. Without repeating it, let’s say what starts as a discrete discussion between two sisters about bra size, soon escalates to include Elders, and later a female investigator. The passage is just one of many which reads funny and endearing, showing people being delightfully genuine. How suited were you for the unexpected ways mission life rips a person out of her comfort zone?
Angela: I was unprepared for the hyper-controlled atmosphere in the MTC, and leaving there was a huge relief. I had times when I was greatly stressed out due to additional responsibilities. Mostly if I made friends with my companion, I felt like I could deal with just about anything that happened. I was very lucky in that regard. I would certainly credit my mission more than anything else with helping me to be comfortable in my own skin. I really learned to laugh at myself and to make friends with a wide variety of people that I would otherwise not have befriended.
END OF INTERVIEW – PART ONE
Keep your eyes peeled for Part Two of my interview with Angela Liscom Clayton, author of the new mission memoir The Legend of Hermana Plunge. We’ll talk candidly about the dynamics between elders and sisters and discuss how the mission changed her. You can read an excerpt of the memoir at Amazon. The book is available in both paperback and Kindle editions from BCC Press.
Questions for Discussion:
Have you read The Legend of Hermana Plunge yet? If so, what was your reaction?
Are you familiar with the “Challenging and Testifying Missionary” approach? What do you think of it?