Cover Story

A Complicated Kind of Author  by Di Brandt
A Complicated Kind of Author

Herizons: I’m so delighted to be able to chat with you about A Complicated Kindness. I imagine this book took a lot of courage to write. Can you talk about that a bit?

Miriam Toews: I was kind of nervous when it came out. I knew that some Mennonites would be upset about it, but that’s something I’m used to—obviously. The surprising thing is the number of Mennonites who support it, even some very conservative ones. I’ve been completely amazed by that, and grateful. They understand that it’s a critique, essentially, of fundamentalism and that particular culture of control and punishment, and so many people, not just Mennonites, have been affected by that sort of thing. The novel is both funny and tender, and scary and sad—a complicated emotional landscape that is very compelling.

Do you have a theory of comedy that helps you negotiate desperate—and tragic—situations with such finesse?

Miriam Toews: Not really a theory, no. But the combination of those things has always been, in my mind, the essence of life, a very natural thing. I grew up with a father who suffered intensely from depression and was often fearful, justifiably, I think, of much in life and the world. But I also grew up with a mother who absolutely embraces life, is afraid of nothing, and loves to laugh. So that might have something to do with it. This is the second novel you’ve written with a prominently absent mother in it (after The Summer of My Amazing Luck, your first book).

 Can you talk about the ongoing importance of this motif in your writing generally?

Miriam Toews: I’m not sure. The relationship I have with my mother is so strong and loving and fun, that maybe I had to, in order to have a character who was working through something difficult, have her gone— dead, or missing, or whatever, just absent—in order to create that conflict for my character. And, to get all psychoanalytical about it, I’ve been trying to understand my father for a long time now, and I think that in my own life, growing up, etcetera, my mother was sort of this buffer between him and me, in that she kind of protected me from his sadness and tried to make life fun and upbeat all the time.

So maybe, in order for my character to understand her father better, and assuming that my characters are in some ways me, that particular buffer has to be removed. So I kill off the mother in my fiction! Ha, ha. But seriously, that’s just one way of examining it, and probably not that valid. I’m through with dead mothers now anyway. I’m moving on. Toronto playwright Karen Hines has her zoned-out character Pochsy say: “We live at a time when imagining a meaningful future is irrational and unrealistic” (The Pochsy Plays, 2004).

A Complicated Kindness flirts with notions of apocalypse, too, but where Hines identifies the problem as a lack of spiritual and psychic depth in contemporary culture, combined with the spectre of environmental disaster due to over-industrialization, your novel puts the blame on fundamentalist religious practices which stifle progressive imaginative life. Would you say these diagnoses are two sides of the same coin, or are they very different visions of cultural malaise in our time?

Miriam Toews: Yeah, I think they’re similar. Fundamentalism offers a really simplistic, easy version of things to believe in.

All those difficult, unanswerable questions that real life asks, are answered. And there’s no room for subversiveness or critical thinking, or even much thinking of any kind. And there are people who appreciate the simplicity of that, and who find it comforting—and who would rather take orders, however absurd they may be, than find their own way in life. I guess that, taken to the Nth degree, would result in complete totalitarianism, and those who defy the rules would be labelled anarchists, and all rational thought would be out the window and that would be that.

But that’s a real kind of “endtimes” scenario. I’m not actually that pessimistic yet. One of the most often-told stories in Canadian literature is the story of a gifted young person who feels stifled by his or her small rural community and lights out for the freedom and opportunities offered by the city.

Your story gives it a really unusual and unexpected twist: By the end, others have left the small town, but the young narrator is still there, holding the fort, so to speak. Can you comment on the surprise ending?

Miriam Toews: I guess I wanted readers to make a leap of faith—or not. They can believe that Nomi leaves the town, or they can assume that she doesn’t. I thought that was kind of a nifty ending, considering that the book has a lot to do with faith.

But also, I wanted to make Ray’s leaving town be a sacrificial thing, that he loves Nomi truly and unconditionally, and so he knows how desperate she is to leave the town, and also knows that she will never leave him. So by leaving himself, he sets the stage for her to leave, to be free. And she has to make the final choice herself. Will she or won’t she?

Ray is a devout believer and churchgoer, and Nomi isn’t, but they respect each other, and to a certain degree understand why the other is the way he or she is. Ray is flawed, and sad, and messed up in his own ways, like we all are; but for me, he demonstrates what I believe is true Christianity, and pure paternal love.

Thank you for writing a novel about the Mennonite practice of shunning–a really painful social gesture that was intended originally as a utopian non-violent means of practising social control. Instead of locking people up for misdemeanours, they would be sent away in order to give them a chance to reconsider their actions and live in freedom, and to protect the community from disorder (not unlike the ending of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, where the two characters who have disrupted the social order of the traditionalist Inuit community are sent away). However, as you depict it, shunning has become a sinister form of stifling imaginative self-expression and exercising control over free-thinking community members by mean-spirited church leaders. Can you comment on the practice of shunning and what has gone wrong with the Mennonite utopian project—or do you think it was wrong-headed from the beginning?

Miriam Toews: I can’t help but think it was a bad idea from the get-go. Yes, it still goes on all the time in Mennonite communities. People who say it doesn’t are in absolute denial and are showing a complete disregard for the feelings of the people who have suffered from it.

It might not be called shunning anymore, but it happens all the time, in different ways, and it’s so destructive and sad and ridiculous and hateful. I’ve never understand how a church that preaches forgiveness and love and charity can condone a practice that is so cruel. I should also say that there are individual Mennonites, and Mennonite congregations all over the place, who believe, like I do, that shunning is an evil practice and will have nothing to do with it.

And I also have sympathy for people—for instance, parents of rebellious teenagers—who are expected by the church to “discipline” their kids through shunning or whatever else, but can’t find it in their hearts to do so. Sometimes those parents leave their church and “keep” their kids, which is how it should be, of course. But it’s a very difficult decision for them to make, when the church has been so central to their lives.

This is your first novel about Mennonites. What is the importance of this heritage and cultural identity for you as a writer and as a person?

Miriam Toews: Well, as a writer it gave me some interesting material to work with. You know the old cliché: Write what you know. But I’m pretty sure I’m finished writing about Mennonites, along with dead mothers. It’s time to move on, like I said, and challenge myself creatively.

As a person, I have mixed feelings about being a Mennonite. I’m weirdly proud of it. But that’s tempered, of course, with feelings of shame and self loathing, the normal stuff. I admire Mennonites’ history of doing their own thing, and of being resourceful, and of attempting to live peacefully, and lovingly, and cooperatively. I also believe that Mennonites have a kind of twisted, wacky sense of humour that I happen to really love, and I’ve noticed that I laugh really hard with other Mennonites over the same dumb stuff. It’s hard to explain. It might be some kind of leftover translation from the Low German to English type of thing. I’m not sure. I’m also married to a Mennonite, although he considers himself not to be one, really, although he really is. We argue about it, in a joking way. He’s a secular Mennonite, like me.