Miriam Toews: ‘Forgiveness is a religious construct, a means of maintaining the status quo’

·12-min read
Miriam Toews on leaving the Mennonite community: ‘Sometimes you just have to go running in the opposite direction, smash things to the ground in your mind’  (Getty)
Miriam Toews on leaving the Mennonite community: ‘Sometimes you just have to go running in the opposite direction, smash things to the ground in your mind’ (Getty)

How do you talk to children about suicide? When Miriam Toews’ father took his own life in 1998, her own were just eight and 11 years old. The author admits that she was “feeling probably more stricken, more surprised than they were”. Looking back, she reflects: “I probably handled the conversation badly.”

Talking to me over Zoom from the home she shares with her two adult children and four young grandchildren in Canada, the award-winning writer of seven bestselling novels, including 2018’s Women Talking, tells me how the conversation went. First, Toews told her daughter: “Grandpa was hit by a train.” The child took that in, until later she came back and said: “But grandpa wasn’t blind.” Toews admitted that was true – he would have seen the train. Later, her daughter said: “Grandpa wasn’t deaf.” That too, she conceded, was true; he would have heard it. She exhales. “Then, y’know, you have to talk about it, why he would do that. This concept of suicide. You have to talk about depression, despair and choice... to a child.”

Toews grimaces, flips up her palms and shrugs at the necessity of the conversation. She’s a lively, birdlike conversationalist, tilting her head to absorb my questions, pecking thoughtfully through the themes, tipping back in her chair to laugh. She speaks with the directness readers will recognise from her books, which often use quirky humour to skewer the illogic of religious and social injustice. I wondered if she’d be a little more cautious and grand after Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Women Talking won the Best Screenplay Oscar last year. But she’s as open and chatty as one of her narrators. A born storyteller, she bounces between her adult voice and those of her small grandchildren as she imagines the questions they’ll come to ask in the future.

Because 12 years after her father’s suicide, Toews’ older sister Marjorie ended her life in precisely the same way. “By then my kids were adults,” she says. “But when my grandchildren were born, I realised they would get to a point where they’d want to know what happened to my father and my sister. ‘How did they die?’ WHAT?!’ I knew there would be hard questions to come. I wanted them to see that, yeah, this is in their family. Maybe it’s in their genes. Maybe they will be afraid or freaked out, like I was, like my kids were. You need to be aware, to be alert to the signs. I wanted to show them how to live with this knowledge, with this dark cloud... So I wrote Fight Night.

Fight Night is the story of a scrappy-smart nine-year-old girl called Swiv, struggling to make sense of her family history. Toews (whose name is pronounced to rhyme with staves) summarises Swiv’s predicament: “Her father’s gone. Her mum is a nutcase. She’s been kicked out of school and she’s terrified that her grandmother – who’s taken on the role of her teacher – is going to kick the bucket. Swiv is desperately afraid that she’ll kill herself like other family members did. So she’s frightened that she’ll be alone in the world. That was relatively easy for me to tap into.”

Although the novel tackles dark subjects, Toews’ quirky, sweary prose glitters with wit and insight. Within a couple of pages, readers are welcomed into an anarchic world of in-jokes and blunt, bodily realities. As Swiv is trying to process her mother’s geriatric pregnancy (“which doesn’t mean she’s going to push an old geezer out of her vag”, she writes), her grandma has the TV constantly tuned to British murder mysteries and repeats of Call the Midwife. “Grandma says these British women sure scream a lot.” Outside of the home, anti-authoritarian Grandma gleefully aims her garden hose at passing policemen and threatens to urinate in the lobbies of corporate office blocks if they refuse her access to their toilets. It turns out Grandma was raised in a deeply religious town in which she tells Swiv: “The church... all those men... they took something from us. They replaced tolerance with condemnation, our desire with shame, our feelings with sin, our wild joy with discipline, our imaginations with rules, our empathy with sanctimoniousness, threats, cruelty, our curiosity with isolation, wilful ignorance, infantilism, punishment!”

Toews knows this first-hand. She was born in Steinbach, Manitoba in 1964, the second daughter of Mennonite parents. Looking back, Toews thinks she was “probably about nine, about Swiv’s age” when she “started to become aware” of the restrictions of the conservative Christian community. “I was kind of a solitary kid,” she explains. “I only had one sibling – who was six years older than me – and in my community most kids were one of 12 or 13. My mother was a 13th kid! So I became a thinker. Embryonic questions started to form. I was trying to figure out what I was doing in that place.”

‘Fight Night’ by Miriam Toews (Faber)
‘Fight Night’ by Miriam Toews (Faber)

With their house full of books, the Toews were “unusual” members of their congregation. “My father [Melvin] was a teacher,” she says. “And my mother Elvira, oh, she wanted to do SO MANY THINGS!” She hammers home each missed opportunity with her hands. “My father was a conservative Mennonite man. I think at times he felt emasculated, he wanted her to do the wifely things. But she joined an orchestra, she went to university. He didn’t want her to go, but at the same time he loved her, he admired and respected her. When she graduated from university he was the proudest man in the room. So he was conflicted.” At one point Elvira even wanted to run for mayor, but Toews’ dad “was so freaked out. He didn’t want that kind of spotlight on her, or on him. He already felt persecuted in that town for not being the typical man...”

When Toews hit her teens, she became very critical of her family’s faith. “I got sharp to the hypocrisy. I saw the lack of love, tolerance, compassion, inclusivity that was being preached in church every day but wasn’t being performed when it came to, say, kids who were gay. We felt the hatred and condemnation around homosexuality and the pressure to just reject these kids, to shun them. Then there was the silencing of women, the rules about what women were and were not allowed to do.” She shakes her head. “I could read the Bible for myself by then, y’know? I could see that it was being interpreted to the advantage of the male elders. So I was being put in a subservient position along with my mother, my aunts, my sister...”

She laughs at one memory of her mother talking with a group of older women in the late 1970s. “One of them said, not actually that judgementally, ‘Elvira’s a feminist!’ And my mum was shocked. She said, ‘Oh no! No-no-no-nooooo...’ Then later she realised, ‘Oh yeah! I am one of those, actually’.”

I could read the Bible for myself by then, y’know? I could see that it was being interpreted to the advantage of the male elders

Toews’ older sister Marj was also bringing feminist fiction into the house. At school, literature was strictly policed and Toews recalls trying to write a book report on JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, only for her teacher to insist the offending book was brought into class to be destroyed. But at home, the Toews girls read Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. They began to live double lives. “It would never have occurred to my parents that we were getting into the city, going to bookstores and record stores, going to bush parties and drinking, getting stoned. That was so far from their reality.” Her laugh crumples into a sigh. “It’s typical for teenagers in those communities to have one existence, in which you’re going to church, putting on the dresses, and then another, secret life the elders don’t see.”

Underneath it all bubbled Melvin Toews’ undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The emotional poles of his condition seemed to project themselves into his daughters. Marj became depressive and Miriam became a livewire and a joker. She tracks the distinctive humour in her books to her early determination to lift first her father’s and then her sister’s spirits. “I assumed this role of the family clown,” she says. “It was the best thing in the world if I could see my dad crack even the glimmer of a smile, you know?”

The minute Toews graduated from high school, she hot-footed it out of Steinbach, heading for Montreal. There she shaved her head and pogoed to punk music. The Mennonites would have shunned her if she hadn’t rejected them first. “It seemed like the only thing to do,” she tells me. “Sometimes you just have to go running in the opposite direction, smash things to the ground in your mind.” By 22 she’d given birth to a son whose father fled the scene, leaving her struggling to support herself through a film degree at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. (She would later anonymously publish a series of letters to her child’s absent parent titled “The X Letters”).

It was the best thing in the world if I could see my dad crack even the glimmer of a smile, you know?

Next, she fell in love with a street performer who dressed as a radioactive Elvis and juggled machetes while wearing stilts. They had a daughter. Toews became a journalist and journalism led to fiction. Her first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck, was written while juggling deadlines and childcare. “A reader asked why I broke up the prose into those little chunks,” she says. “It was simply a function of the circumstances of my life at the time. The spaces in my mind became spaces on the page because I never had the sustained time or focus.” She tells me she recently saw a New Yorker cartoon that reminded her of those days. “It was of a woman looking into one of those mirrors with three sections. She’s saying to her reflections, ‘You clean the house and do the laundry while I take the kids to school’. It’s so hard. You think, I’ll do 45 minutes of writing and THEN these 400 million other jobs...”

Toews’ big breakthrough came with her third novel, A Complicated Kindness (2004). She hadn’t felt able to write about the Mennonite community while her father was alive. But after his death, the lid was ripped off feelings she’d been burning to explore. Set in a fictional version of Steinbach, the novel followed a teenager (not unlike the 16-year-old Toews) railing sarcastically against the joyless hypocrisy of the faith.

Women Talking found Toews exploring, in what she prefaced as a “wild act of female imagination”, just how damaging the Mennonite philosophy had proved to women living in the faith. It’s based on the true story of more than a hundred women and girls in a Bolivian Mennonite colony who weak up to discover that they had been raped in their sleep. The attacks are denied or dismissed by colony elders – who suggest that the women have invited demons into their rooms with impure thoughts – until finally it is revealed that a group of men from the colony are spraying an animal anaesthetic into their victims’ houses to render them unconscious before assaulting them. Toews’ novel zooms in on the 48 hours in which the town’s women have to choose whether to forgive their assailants or leave the only lives they’ve ever known and risk eternal damnation.

Sarah Polley, winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for ‘Women Talking’ (Getty)
Sarah Polley, winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for ‘Women Talking’ (Getty)

“Forgiveness is a religious construct, a means of maintaining the status quo,” Toews tells me today. “In my community, forgiveness is all. But forgiveness can be permission. It can mean nothing changes. So, what good is it?”

When Polley’s riveting film of the book (starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw and Frances McDormand) was released in 2022, Toews pleaded with MGM and Orion to premiere it in a Mennonite community. “I tried to tell them, although nothing I said had any impact. Sarah was really concerned about being accused of appropriation, of telling a story she had no right to tell. It turns out she didn’t have to worry. The Mennonite community loved it. They had never seen themselves on the screen before and they were singing along with the songs, reciting the prayers. One woman who had never seen a movie before said she felt like she was INSIDE the film. It was wonderful for me to think it was playing at a cinema in my hometown, which I was forbidden to enter as a child.”

Does Toews think the novel and film are changing things for Mennonite women? “Absolutely. The story generated so many conversations. Change doesn’t come easily – or I guess maybe ever – in the Mennonite community. But... yeah. There’s hope, I think.”

Hope also lies at the core of Fight Night. Toews’ big message – to her grandchildren and her readers – is delivered by the inspirational Grandma Elvira towards the end of the book. Showing little Swiv how to question authority, embrace her body without shame and seize every opportunity for laughter, Elvira preaches that we should “fight to love, fight to love ourselves, fight for access to our feelings, for access to our fires”. This passionate sermon comes grounded in the compassionate understanding that “some of us lose the fight... oh, it can bring a person to her knees... kneeling on the train tracks”.

‘Fight Night’ is published by Faber and released in paperback on 1 June