Many Mennonites took offense

I hadn’t heard of Miriam Toews until I read this New Yorker profile of her.

Toews, who is fifty-four, is one of the best-known and best-loved Canadian writers of her generation. She grew up in Steinbach, a town founded by Mennonites in the province of Manitoba, for which the colony in Bolivia was named. (“Toews,” which rhymes with “saves,” is as recognizably Mennonite as “Cohen” is Jewish.) Her fiction has often dealt with the religious hypocrisy and patriarchal dominion that she feels to be part of her heritage, and with a painful emotional legacy, harder to name but as present as a watermark. Her father and her sister both died too young, and she sees a certain Mennonite tendency toward sorrow and earthly guilt as bearing some responsibility for their deaths.

Her father and sister both committed suicide, we find out later.

One segment of my family tree is Mennonite, which I find deeply weird. My maternal grandfather moved from farm to town (in Iowa) and he must have left the Mennonite part decisively behind, because I don’t remember even hearing the word in childhood. Not so with Toews.

Over a lunch of butter-chicken rotis, the conversation turned to Toews’s novels. An Elvira-like figure appears in just about all of them, pragmatic, comical, full of good sense, though some of these incarnations are more fictional than others.

Elvira is her mother.

“I have no secrets left, and that’s O.K.,” Elvira said. “I stand behind Miriam one hundred per cent. She has a mind I don’t have, and I know that. And with what they call your coming-out story—”

“Coming-of-age story,” Toews said. “ ‘A Complicated Kindness.’ ”

The novel, published in 2004, is narrated by sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel, who has begun to rebel against the repressive religious culture of her small Mennonite town. It won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and became a best-seller, the kind of book that gets assigned in school and included on lists of novels that “make you proud to be a Canadian,” and it turned Toews, a niche, indie sort of Canadian writer, into a famous one. It is a master class in schputting; not even Menno Simons, for whom the faith is named, gets away with his dignity intact, and many Mennonites took offense.

Do I want to read a novel narrated by a teenage girl who has begun to rebel against the repressive religious culture of her small Mennonite town? Oh hell yes.

Of course there was angry reaction.

“It was Marj who also really helped me a lot, who told me, ‘Listen, people are going to come after you, people will be angry,’ ” Toews said. “She told me to say this thing I’ve said for so long, and so often, which is that it’s not a critique of the Mennonite faith or of Mennonite people but of fundamentalism, of that culture of control. I wish that people who felt that they were being personally attacked could step back and say, ‘Maybe she is really talking about the hypocrisy of the intolerance, the oppressiveness, particularly for girls and women, the emphasis on shame and guilt and punishment.’ ” Her voice was catching. “We all have a right to fight in life.”

This happens with all religions. They all treat women as dangerous rebellious contaminants, and they all control and punish them harshly. We all have a right to resist.

It is not lost on Toews that her separatist ancestors’ fates have depended on those who wield worldly power, or that their pacifism has often been contingent on the conquest of other peoples. The founders of Steinbach came from Russia in the eighteen-seventies, at the invitation of the newly formed Canadian government, which offered them land that had been wrested from people of the First Nations. The newcomers belonged to a particularly punitive sect of Mennonites. Harmonizing while singing hymns was considered sinful, and so was dancing. Trains might encourage contact with the outside world, so Steinbach had no station. Someone who was thought to have done or said something unacceptable could be shunned by the church, and cast out of the community.

By the time Toews was born, in 1964, shunning was no longer official practice, but the atmosphere remained oppressive, nosy, censorious. “It’s a town that exists in the world based on the idea of it not existing in the world,” Nomi Nickel says.

Rather like spending your whole life committing suicide.

2 Responses to “Many Mennonites took offense”