Tag Archives: miriam toews

Miriam Toews Has A Complicated Relationship With Her Home Town

Alexandra Schwartz writes a lengthy feature in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine about author Miriam Toews who was born and raised in Steinbach, Manitoba.    

Toews’ eighth novel Women Talking will be released in the United States this week. Covers for the British, Italian and German editions of Women Talking are featured on Toews’ media sites. Schwartz interviewed Toews both in her current Toronto home and during a trip, the two made to Steinbach to explore Toews’ roots, since characters and locations inspired by Steinbach people and places figure prominently in Toews’ novels.

Schwartz also interviewed Steinbach teacher Andrew Unger who studies Toews’ best selling novel A Complicated Kindness with his high school students. Unger once featured Toews on his popular satirical Daily Bonnet website where he mused about why there wasn’t a giant statue of Toews in her hometown.  Of course Unger was ‘schputting’- a Low German word for making fun of something or being irreverent about it. ‘Schputting’ is explained in The New Yorker article with reference to Toews’ own writing.

Unger wasn’t ‘schputting’ however when he told The New Yorker that Steinbach hasn’t really acknowledged the accomplishments of Toews.  “We’ve done nothing as a community to recognize or honour her.”

Why hasn’t Steinbach recognized a woman The New Yorker calls one of Canada’s best-loved and best-known writers, a woman who has won international literary prizes and whose work is critically acclaimed?

I think one reason is that Toews’ books fictionalize real events and people. Steinbach residents who have knowledge of those same events and people tend to get upset because Toews didn’t write about them accurately.   

I was connected in several ways to the Toews’ family and have sometimes caught myself saying as I read Miriam’s books, “But that’s not the way it happened.”  I know that Toews is writing fiction but I understand how some people might be unsettled reading her fictionalized version of true events.

Toews’ mother Elvira puts it even more strongly in The New Yorker article when she talks about people who say her daughter “just tells lies.”  Mennonite novelist Dora Dueck confesses on her blog she initially struggled with something similar while reading Women Talking.  Dueck has high praise for the book but says she had to lecture herself that it was a novel and not journalism.

Another reason why Toews may not be lauded in her hometown is that the predominantly Mennonite population is troubled by her honest revelations about the abuse, oppression and hypocrisy particularly directed towards women by the historically entrenched patriarchy in Mennonite churches and the church’s tendency at least in the past, to ignore or silence people with addictions, mental health issues and family dysfunction.  The devastating consequences of these kinds of attitudes are being brought to light every day in every kind of church denomination but Toews’ books focus on the Mennonite church and so some Mennonites might feel they have been singled out for unfair criticism.

To balance Toews’ perceived lack of popularity in her hometown one has to remember she gives voice to many people who know from first-hand experience that her accounts of growing up in in a small conservative community, and her characters’ experiences with the church ring true, no matter where they live or what religious affiliation they might have. Toews may not have enough fans in her hometown to be given recognition with her name on a building, or street sign, or piece of public art, but she does have a multitude of fans around the world who appreciate her and love to read her books.  

Other posts

Are Men and Women’s Friendships Different?

Mennonite Nuns

Violence in Christian Families

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An Interesting Interview

Had an interesting hour or so with Canadian actor Christopher Hunt last Friday.  He was in Steinbach to do interviews and collect background information for a play he is writing based on Miriam Toews’ book Swing Low about her father’s struggle with depression and eventual death. My friend Rudy linked me up with Chris and we met at a Steinbach restaurant to talk about what I remembered about Melvin Toews who was my teacher, colleague, my husband’s colleague and my son’s teacher.  Chris said Miriam Toews has given the project her blessing and he had already interviewed her.  

I hadn’t heard of Chris before but after our talk I did a little online research and discovered what an accomplished actor Chris is with a nearly three decades long career in Canadian theater. He has been in so many different plays in places across Canada and has won any number of acting awards.  It will be interesting to see what kind of play he will write. I will certainly want to see it when and if it hits the stage. 

Other posts………

All My Puny Sorrows

An Alphabet for Steinbach- My Home Town

She’s Gone

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Fact or Fiction?

toews_allmypunysorrows_coverI just read Miriam Toews’ latest book All My Puny Sorrows. Although it’s fiction, Miriam has said that some events in the novel are based on incidents in her family’s life.

Elf and Yoli, the main characters in All My Puny Sorrows, grow up in East Village. The Canadian Encyclopedia entry about Miriam Toews states that East Village, a setting she uses in several novels, is simply a thinly fictionalized Steinbach, the town where both Miriam and I grew up.  One event described in All My Puny Sorrows is the founding of the public library in East Village.

Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre- site of the first public library in Steinbach

Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre- site of the first public library in Steinbach

The story of how the first library in Steinbach finally opened its doors in 1973 is one I know well. In 1997 I wrote an account of that history for the official opening of the new Jake Epp Library. I interviewed many people who had been instrumental in the library’s establishment. Miriam’s reference to her father’s role in that event, or rather, the role played by Elf and Yoli’s father in All My Puny Sorrows, reminded me of the many people who worked so hard to make sure Steinbach would get a public library.

   Local teacher Ted Klassen and Grace Mennonite Church pastor Leonard Epp, first approached town council about a library in 1968. A businessman on council told Epp a library wasn’t necessary. “I became very successful,” he said, “without ever reading books.”

   Mary Barkman established the Friends of the Library organization in 1969 and pursed the dream of a library for Steinbach over a period of four years with dogged determination. She petitioned government ministers, provincial officials, members of the legislature, and town councilors repeatedly. At the official opening of Steinbach’s first public library the audience was told it was largely due to the efforts of Mary Barkman that the library had become a reality. She was helped by other members of the Friends of the Library including Lydia Epp, Joanne Banman, Bert Suss and Melvin Toews.

 Jake Epp, the former federal cabinet minister, after whom the current library is named, was one of Steinbach’s town councilors at the time the Friends of the Library approached the council. Defying the generally negative reaction of his fellow councilors, Epp supported the Friends of the Library, commending them for their tenacity. It was Epp who appointed the first library board consisting of Mary Barkman, Melvin Toews, Mary Rose Derksen, Dennis Giesbrecht and Jim Penner. 

   Gladys Barkman and Iris Loewen were the first librarians. They helped clean and paint the space the town council had assigned the library in the present Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre. They unpacked all the books for the library and used their engineering and carpentry skills to set up the shelves that had been shipped to the library unassembled.

   Miriam Toews’ parents Melvin and Elvira also helped to get the library going. On two separate occasions they took on the task of going door to door in Steinbach collecting petition signatures. The first time was in hopes of getting enough support to hold a referendum on a regional library. The second time was after the provincial government had passed a bill making it mandatory for towns to establish local libraries if 8% of its electorate petitioned them to do so.

   Miriam Toews describes these signature- collecting forays in All My Puny Sorrows. “For weeks my father would walk the streets of East Village with his clipboard and ballpoint pens knocking on doors and begging for support.”

Miriam’s page long account of the founding of the library in East Village is mostly fictional, but it does highlight the idea that starting a library in Steinbach wasn’t easy. It only happened because of the hard work and effort of many dedicated people.

Other posts about Steinbach…….

An Alphabet for My Home Town

The Old Kornelson School

I Was A Treble Teen

 

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