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Lecture

Toews Lecture

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Department
English
Course
English 2060E
Professor
Prof
Semester
Fall

Description
Miriam Toews (b. 1964) Biography Toews was born and raised in Steinbach, Manitoba, which provided the model for the pioneer village simulacrum of East Village in A Complicated Kindness (2004). Her parents, like her heroines, were Mennonite, but as she states in interviews, her parents were far more permissive than the majority of those depicted in her fiction. Her family has inspired her writing to a certain degree most particularly her fictional autobiography of her father, a grade six teacher who lost a life-long battle with bipolar disease and committed suicide by kneeling in front of a train in the late 1990s. The fictional autobiography is called Swing Low (2000), but Toews novel explores grief and loss as much as Swing Low explores what her father might have communicated if he had been able to speak of his psychological difficulties. Certainly both works examine the impact of culture on expression. Toews also wrote two humorous novels, Summer of My Amazing Luck (1996), which was a Stephen Leacock award winner, and A Boy of Good Breeding (1998). She has since published The Flying Troutmans (2008) to critical acclaim. There are autobiographical parallels with her heroine beyond their shared grief and anger at their communities, real and fictional. Toews too left her hometown after high school. She lived in Montreal and London, toured Europe, and then returned to Manitoba to continue her education. Earning a B.A. in film studies at the University of Manitoba, she followed up with a bachelor of journalism from King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She also wrote freelance for many Canadian magazines before turning fulltime to fiction. Critiquing Intolerance A Complicated Kindness has an irreverent heroine, but Nomis humour is often bitter, and through her heroine, Toews rejects Mennonite intolerance and repression. I have seen the damage that fundamentalism can do, Toews has said in interviews. The way the religion is being interpreted, its a culture of control, and that emphasis on shame and public shame and punishment and guilt is not conducive to robust mental health. This emphasis on shame affected her father, she told Macleans. He was just sort of helpless in the face of all that silence, denial and religious oppression. As with our discussion of Atwoods The Handmaids Tale, however, I should caution that what Toews critiques is the way Mennonites interpret their religion, rather than condemning the religion itself, or all religious faith. Toews considers herself a Mennonite and is married to one. She and her husband live in Winnipeg with their three children. It's fundamentalism that she indicts, rather than the central faith or its adherents. There are decent and genuinely loving individuals in the Mennonite community, she told Caldwell. I know, obviously, there are going to be people who are unhappy with [A Complicated Kindness], but I hope they understand that its fiction. I wasnt trying to offend anyone. The thing is, within the Mennonite tradition, there is very little room for anger, youre not supposed to be angry. I know that there is disapproval, and that there will be a silent, sort of group pursing of lips, [questioning] what am I trying to prove? Who do I think I am? I understand that. I grew up with it. There is no doubt that Toews heroine is angry, and the novel examines her working through that anger. After all, as Toews writes, Loss inspired the story, loss with no answers, I think I needed to put that on Nomi.She was going to be the person who would take me through that process of dealing Above adapted and quoted from: "Miriam Toews: novelist." Contemporary Canadian Biographies. Thomson Gale, 2004. NA. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Gale. University of Western Ontario. 24 Aug. 2007 . Form Like many novels that centre on adolescent protagonists, A Complicated Kindness is a retrospective novel written in a first-person, confessional voice by a somewhat unreliable narrator looking back on the recent past. The first and best-known of this genre is J.D. Salingers A Catcher in the Rye (1951) whose narrator, Holden Caulfield, examines, a bit naively, the phoniness of the adult world around him with both cynicism and romance. One reviewer draws the parallel by claiming that Nomi Nickel is Canadas answer to Holden Caulfield. The reviewer might be referring to Nomis iconoclasm, her irreverence, or her at times painful confessions and revelations. In order to take on this teenage persona, youll note that the sentence structures in the novel tend toward a breakneck pace. This adds to the confessional quality due to unadulterated grief, and at times the innocence or lack of knowledge due to Nomis youth. The story we read is later revealed to be a project that she may or may not hand in, an accusation as well a confession. It is both. As Nomi writes, self- reflexively, Im only mentioning these things because they weigh on me. Not because I let them control my life. Or this story. Who cares about facts, right? Were talking about miracles (55). Your discussion questions for this novel will lead back to this form after the lecture. How would the novel change were it titled for the way things could have been? (242) Setting A Complicated Kindness begins with an introduction to Nomi and her surroundings: I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things entertaining. (1) On one level, this is a novel about one family, a family home, here, and reality of the family units instability revealed when members leave the unit: everything else leaves/and or disintegrates too. As Toews acknowledged in the interview Ive quoted from above, this is a novel about loss and grief. As a postmodern fiction, the novel cannot pose any easy solutions to the difficulties loss and grief. One traditional source of solace, religion or faith, is at the root of the familys difficulties. Therefore rather than being a potential solution, religion remains a source of questions and doubt. At the novels end were left with multiple possibilities but no solutions. That being said, the novels tone as youll note from what Ive just quoted from the novels opening lines and in every review on the front and back cover is wry, humorous, and quirkily wise, even as the narrator delves into the depths of loss and depression. That makes the story individual and its confessional, autobiographical format also individualizes the story. What Im suggesting is that Toews focus on the original and unique voice of her character, Nomi Nickel, is important especially in the context of regionalism, a subject I want to continue discussing in this lecture. A Complicated Kindness is not local colour writing, nor is the central character representative of a type that much early regionalist fiction supports such as an adulterous or uncommunicative farmwife or husband. Nevertheless, there are multiple levels to this book that connect is to a larger discussion of regionalism. Do we find the adultery in this novel that Calder finds so common in prairie realism? Unlike the physical isolation, the snowstorms etc. in Sinclair Ross The Painted Door, what drives Toews characters in this novel to it? East Village If we move out from the house to the community, were led to another less representative population than the farmers that Kroetsch and to a certain extent Rhodes and Calder use in their poetry. The East Village is populated by Mennonites, and therefore silence, according to Nomi: This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. Theres an invisible force that
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