“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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