Miriam Toews’s Mennonite Conscience – The New York Times


TORONTO — Miriam Toews woke up the other night, her heart racing. She wasn’t having another dream about her sister’s violent death, or her father’s, or the rapes suffered by the women at the center of her latest book, “Women Talking,” to be released April 2 in the United States. This night, her Mennonite conscience had found something far more mundane to worry over: Toews had promised the department store saleswoman who so kindly helped her pick out the right pants for her 83-year-old mother, Elvira, that she would send a complimentary email to her boss, and she’d forgotten.

So, the celebrated writer — who in Canada is more famous than many hockey players — crept out of bed, made her way down to the living room and turned on her computer.

“I wondered about myself at that point,” said Toews (pronounced taves), sitting in the small, brick Victorian house she shares with Elvira and her common-law spouse, Erik Rutherford, in a dense, downtown Toronto neighborhood. It’s a world away from the small Mennonite town of her childhood, Steinbach, Manitoba.

“Now I’m here and what do I do? Think about Steinbach all the time,” said Toews, 54. “I must be nearing death.”

“Women Talking” is her eighth book and the one that most firmly directs its gaze at the moral failings of — and her hopes for — the small Protestant sect in which she was raised.

It is based on the real-life horror story of women in an ultraconservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia, who woke up to headaches, bloodied sheets, and bruised bodies. Many believed they’d been attacked by demons. After more than three years, two men were caught in 2009, and seven more confessed to spraying a bovine anesthetic into their neighbors’ homes at night, and then raping the unconscious women and girls.

Toews first heard about it through the “Mennonite grapevine,” and the story wouldn’t release its claws. The colony was named after her home province of Manitoba. It was much more traditional than Steinbach, eschewing electricity, motorized vehicles and all entertainment. But the foundation was the same. She imagined the Bolivian women as her kin, even giving them her family names, and set them in a hayloft to debate three options — do nothing, fight or leave. In reality, the women stayed. In Toews’s fictionalized version, that was not an option.

The book is a feminist manifesto that delicately unwraps the horror, but also bubbles with the love and wry humor that has endeared Toews to readers.

“I wanted them to explore the questions I’ve had, more or less, my entire life,” said Toews, who although she’s recently become a grandmother, still looks like a teenager. On a recent day, she hadn’t passed a brush through her straw-colored hair, instead tying it up in a hasty knot. She was wearing her favorite Neil Young shirt which she admits she’d also worn the day before.

Steinbach is set in the flat Canadian prairies, about 40 miles southeast of Winnipeg. Toews grew up in an unusual Mennonite family, with just two children — both girls — and parents who encouraged critical thought and rebellion. But still, her dominating memories were the hard church pews, where she sat up to three times a week, and “the emphasis on shame and discipline and punishment and guilt and guilt that permeated the town.”

“If you don’t end up filled with self-loathing and or guilt and or inexplicable rage, living in that community, then you are not paying attention,” Toews said.

She left as soon as she graduated from high school for Montreal, a French-speaking city two days away by train, and built a life that surely would get her shunned by her Mennonite brethren, had she not already left the church. She shaved her head and followed punk bands. By 22, she was a single mother of a son, living on welfare and finishing a film degree at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Then, she fell in love with Neal Rempel, a street performer who dressed as a radioactive Elvis and juggled machetes from atop of stilts.

Together, they had a daughter and spent their summers traveling the North American festival circuit in a Volkswagen van. They were married by an overweight Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas after winning $300 at the blackjack tables.

“Freedom is her obsession. It’s her guiding principal,” said Mr. Rutherford, a writer who got together with Toews a few years after she and Mr. Rempel divorced. “That and loyalty.”

After trying her hand at radio documentaries — she later got a degree in journalism — Toews decided she was better suited to writing novels.

It was her fourth book, “A Complicated Kindness,” that made her a household name in Canada, winning the country’s coveted Governor General’s Award. Set in a Mennonite town modeled on Steinbach, it tells the story of a rebellious teenage girl who bristles at all rules, but stays to keep her father company after her sister and mother fled.

But in Toews’s own life, it was her father who left the family. A devout teacher who struggled his whole life with manic depression, he killed himself by stepping in front of a train in 1998. Twelve years later, Toews’s beloved older sister, Marj, committed suicide the same way, which sent the writer into a dense fog of grief.

Her father’s death, Toews said, freed her to write openly about her childhood town, without the heartbreak of hurting him. After “A Complicated Kindness” was published — it has been translated into 13 languages — she said it would be her first and last word on the Mennonite religion.

But seven years later, in 2011, she released “Irma Voth,” a book inspired by Toews’s debut role in Carlos Reygadas’ film about an old-order Mennonite community in Mexico. Toews, a foreign film junkie, loved the insights the set offered into the movie business. But it also gave her the plot for another novel about teenage girls who flee their repressive Mennonite community.

The movie, “Stellet Licht” (Silent Night) won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, and Toews received a best actress nomination for the Ariel Awards — Mexico’s equivalent to the Oscars — for her performance as a wife suffering from her husband’s adultery.

The irony, of course, is that while the women and girls in her novels always flee, Toews could never fully leave Steinbach herself. Unlike the Bolivian women she depicts debating in a hayloft, she has chosen the second option — to fight with her childhood community.

“I felt I had an obligation to write down hope for change for Mennonite girls and women,” she said about “Women Talking,” which has been optioned by the actress Frances McDormand and Plan B Entertainment for a film. “I hope the Mennonite patriarchy and the misogyny inherent in the fundamentalism that conservative Mennonites preach, that one day will change.”

She added, “So we can change as a community. I feel I am part of that.”

Steinbach has changed since Toews left more than 35 years ago. It’s more than doubled in size, opened a liquor store, held a gay pride parade and built many more churches. Reception to her books in town has been mixed, locals say. There has not been an outpouring of criticism or anger from the community’s elders. “But there has definitely not been much celebration or pride that you’d think there would be,” said Andrew Unger, a high school English teacher in Steinbach who includes Toews novels in his courses. He pointed out that Toews has not given a reading in town for 15 years.

“There’s been no recognition at all,” said Unger, who writes a satirical Mennonite blog called The Daily Bonnet. “There’s a reluctance to accept her back in the fold.”

Others, like the Mennonite farmer Will Braun, say they love Toews’s writing and consider her brilliant. But she is not authority on local Mennonites or, for that matter, ones living far away in Bolivia.

“She’s just too far removed at this point,” said Braun, a senior writer at the bimonthly magazine Canadian Mennonite.

Although she remains far away, in a city where she is far more likely to bump into a Tamil Hindu than a Mennonite, Toews still longs for acceptance in her childhood fold. She identifies as a “secular Mennonite” and loves to sit at the old piano on the ground floor of her home and sing Mennonite hymns with her mother.

“I know how difficult it is to leave, even when you know you are not being nourished and you know your rights and freedoms are not being upheld,” she said. “You are leaving the people you love and the place you know.”


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