“Writing is how I process things”: An Interview with Miriam Toews

By Sabrina Völz and Maryann Henck

Photo Credit: Carol Loewen

We met Miriam Toews at a reading in Hamburg on March 26, 2019. Toews was on a book tour to promote the German translation of her seventh novel, Women Talking. The novel is based on very disturbing events that took place between 2005 and 2008 in Bolivia. The German version, Die Aussprache, was published by Hoffmann und Campe in 2018. For her novel, A Complicated Kindness (2004), Miriam Toews won Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General’s Award. Since Toews will not be physically present at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2020 to represent Canada, this year’s guest of honor, this interview will hopefully help tie us over until her next visit to Germany.

SV: Do you consider yourself a Mennonite, a Canadian Mennonite, or a Canadian writer?

MT: I’m all of those things, but if you mean what kind of writer do I think I am, then the answer is none of them. I just think of myself as a writer. Period. I wouldn’t want to be imprisoned in some kind of box, or feel that because I’m a Mennonite, a Canadian, a woman, etc. I’d be obliged to write in some specific way.

SV: Please use three adjectives to describe yourself.

MT: Lazy. Stubborn. Restless.

SV: Which writers have influenced you most? What other influences do you consider important for your writing?

MT: Virginia Woolf. Nelson Algren. Roberto Bolano. John Steinbeck. Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Elena Ferrante. Mary Shelley. Natalia Ginzburg. Definitely movies. These days I’m really loving new Romanian cinema.

MH: There’s a saying that goes: “The deepest pain has no words.” Do you see a connection between art and trauma, i.e., what role could art in the form of storytelling and writing play in coping with traumatic events?

MT: For me, it’s huge. Writing is how I process things, how I stay sane, alive, and healthy. I have to write. I have to make sense of everything, trauma, life, absurdity, pain, joy through narrative. I don’t necessarily have to publish, but I definitely have to write.

MH: Do you have a mission as an author? Is it to speak the unspeakable or write the unwritable?

MT: Not at all. If anything, it’s to make people feel things, to make people laugh, to recognize themselves as human, and to feel some kind of consolation from that, some type of solidarity.

SV: Stylistically speaking, your most recent novel, Women Talking, is different from most contemporary Western novels in that it focuses on the many facets of orality at the expense of a traditional plotline. In what ways is orality in your novel a reflection of Mennonite culture?

MT: It definitely is. The language of the Mennonites, Plautdietsch, is an unwritten language, so the stories I’ve heard and which are a part of me have been passed down, orally, through the generations. I’d always wanted to write a book about a group of Mennonite women sitting around and talking because I have such vivid memories of that. Apart from the men, and discussing all subjects under the sun. A lot of laughing, a lot of gossip, a lot of existential philosophizing. Although the women wouldn’t have characterized it that way.

SV: Keeping in mind that Women Talking is based on events that actually happened in the insular Mennonite colony of Manitoba, Bolivia, from 2005 to 2009 and that plain groups, like many other religious and ethnic minorities, are especially concerned about their representation in the media, how have members of the Mennonite communities reacted to your novel with its outspoken, questioning female characters?

MT: I think I’ve always had outspoken, questioning female characters as protagonists, and I’ve been writing about patriarchal violence in my community for a long time. I get a lot of support from Mennonites, but also criticism and hatred. There are many men and a few women who would prefer I was silent. Or dead. I don’t worry about it. I feel the support that I do get from other Mennonites, religious and secular, and I’m grateful for it. There are many Mennonites attempting to shed light on the violence within these communities and advocating for change. It’s not an easy fight.

SV: Women may talk in your novel, but most of the men do not. The eight male perpetrators who spent four years attacking and raping the Mennonite women of Molotschna colony are silenced. Their crimes are left to the imagination, and they do not have a chance to explain any potential mitigating circumstances that might help readers understand how such horrendous acts of repeated violence could happen. Why is that? Do you think the media and society in general place too great a focus on perpetrators, terrorists, and other criminals at the cost of the victimized?

MT: Yeah, I do. I didn’t want to re-create or re-enact the attacks. That felt like another violation. And an act of de-humanizing. I was interested in what the women would do, how they would respond. And what their options meant in terms of the effect on their lives and their faith.

SV: In the end, the protagonists in Women Talking take a completely different path from the one the actual women of Manitoba Colony chose. Do you think the term ‘modern fairytale’ accurately depicts the novel’s end?

MT: I like the sound of that but I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate. I think fairytales are stories that are moralistic or improbable. I prefer to think that some day these oppressed Mennonite women (and others) will liberate themselves, and I know that in fact many are doing it all the time. It’s not easy and it’s painful but it’s happening. Women are leaving, families are leaving, there’s constant migration and departure within the Mennonite community. Some choose not to leave, and that’s a decision. If it’s not coerced that needs to be respected as well. Every option that the women have is high stakes: to stay, to leave, to fight. All of these options are difficult, dangerous, and painful.

SV: What can readers expect from Miriam Toews in the future?

MT: A novel about three generations of women from one family called Fight Night.

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