Miriam Toews launches Canadian writers series

On Sept. 22, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author Miriam Toews. Teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report. The Canadian Writers in Person reading series is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Writers’ Union of Canada.

Miriam Toews (pronounced teives) was born in 1964 in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Man. She left at 18, living in Montreal and London and touring Europe before returning to earn her BA in film studies at the University of Manitoba. Later she moved with her children and partner to Halifax to attend the University of King’s College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism. Upon returning to Winnipeg with her family in 1991, she freelanced at the CBC, making radio documentaries. When her youngest daughter started nursery school, Toews decided it was time to try writing a novel.

Right: Miriam Toews

Toews’ read from her award-winning novel, A Complicated Kindness (2004), which follows the experiences of Nomi Nickel, a 16-year-old girl growing up in a Mennonite village in Manitoba. “As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” Many students echoed the thoughts of one critic who said her novel “has real authority. You – as they say – are there, like waking up in a crazy Bible camp or witnessing an adolescent tour guide tear off her uniform and make a break for the highway.” When asked about how she achieves such authenticity, Toews said she drew on her own teenage experiences and those of her children. The review from one of her teenagers: “better than I thought it’d be.”

Despite the novel’s exploration of the destructive elements of life in a small religious community, Toews said: “I hope that people will recognize that there are aspects of it that I really love and really miss.” Out of respect for her father, a faithful Mennonite, she held off writing the novel until after his death. There are echoes of that relationship between Nomi and her father (Toews gives an even more touching tribute to her father in the 2004 biographical Swing Low, A Life) and the conflict between their love and religion is what makes the “complicated kindness.” Toews is not critical of the religion itself but of “the way the religion is being interpreted, a culture of control and that emphasis on shame and punishment.” She created Nomi’s terminally ill friend Lids to represent everything that is pure and loving, and also to show the cost of being human: “Because she represents the ideals of the Christian community, she could only be pathologically ill.”

As the evening drew to a close, an interesting piece of Canadian literary trivia was revealed: Miriam Toews has three spleens. She explained that after getting an ultrasound because of abdomen pains, her doctor told her that she had “accessory spleens. Spleens represent bile, so I guess I have a lot!”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. Watch YFile for an account of author Nicole Brossard’s Oct. 6 reading.

Chris Cornish recently graduated from the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies with a BA (Honours) in liberal studies. He is currently working on a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at York.