Miriam Toews: When We Stop Being Terrified, We'll Begin to Be Kind

Interview by Will Johnson // from issue 3. Vol. 2

Miriam Toews has made a career of writing about uncomfortable and taboo topics. In her most notable and award-winning novels, A Complicated Kindness and All My Puny Sorrows, she draws on her family’s real-life experiences—including its tragedies—to explore uncomfortable fictional terrain, touching on weighty topics such as mental illness, suicide and the failings of institutionalized religion. The Humber Literary Review’s Will Johnson caught up with Toews to talk about Christianity, the meta-elements of her storytelling and how exactly she’s retained
her sense of humour through it all.

WJ: I first read A Complicated Kindness as a Christian teenager, and what I found most startling/thrilling was how your protagonist, Nomi Nickel, articulated personal misgivings I had about religion, ridiculing the ideologies I was just beginning to question. I felt like it gave me permission to voice my own questions, and to share my own experiences—though it often felt like there was no appropriate place to do so. In a world that’s increasingly secular, but still grappling with intense religious upheaval, what role do you think fiction can have in helping people sort out their relationship with the supernatural?

MT: I feel like the supernatural is something different from religion, even if many religions begin with stories of supernatural happenings. But I think fiction, and art in general, can give comfort and consolation similar to the kind provided by religious stories. 

We’re made to think about our special significance and profound insignificance all at the same time, and although it’s a contradictory thing to indulge in so much self-scrutiny with the dispassionate understanding that you’re really nothing and of no account, it can be freeing; it can bring relief and renewed hope, at least momentarily.

WJ: When your older sister Marjorie passed away in 2010, I’m sure many readers felt like they’d lost both a real person and a beloved character. I could feel Marj’s spirit in Tash from A Complicated Kindness, Min in The Flying Troutmans and Aggie in Irma Voth. But to me All My Puny Sorrows felt the most real, the least fictionally decorated, and it was basically impossible to engage with the book without being aware of its devastating real-life context—impossible to think about Elf without also thinking about Marj. What consideration did you give to the meta-interplay between your sister and her fictional counterpart?

MT: I wanted to capture Marj’s essence, in Elf, and also as many details as possible. I wanted my readers to feel her pain, her anguish, and to feel as confused about what to do about it as Yoli is. My sister was brilliant and she fascinated me, but she was a real person, with moods and an everlasting playfulness and infuriating habits and a kind of barely controlled wildness, something like rage but more like a deep, deep sensitivity to the suffering of others. 

My sister was one of my first readers, and my muse. She intrigued me and still does and always will. I’ve tried to understand her, in my fiction, and to understand my own self within her orbit.

WJ: Near the beginning of AMPS, the nurses watching over Elf make the mistake of equating intelligence with a desire to live. This is only one of the errant beliefs that your characters carry around with them about the mentally ill, and you’ve demonstrated how this ignorance informs the decisions being made by health care practitioners and ultimately leads to tragedy. What, in your opinion, are some of the most common and toxic beliefs people have about people with mental health struggles, and how can we begin to dismantle them?

MT: Fear is the thing that drives most misunderstanding. I can’t imagine a more terrifying thing than the slow or fast colonization of your mind from the effects of mental illness, or the loss of your self, of your vitality. We have a tendency as humans to belittle or mock the thing we fear, because it makes us feel brave and in control. 

When we stop being terrified, we’ll begin to be kind. And also curious, hopefully, about mental illness, enough to try to understand how it works and how it can be treated. Probably one of the more toxic beliefs people have is that those afflicted with mental illness are not trying hard enough to be well, and therefore they’re somehow responsible for making themselves sick. Or that they are somehow untrustworthy and can’t handle responsibility. 

WJ: You’ve written that “suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia.” This feels especially relevant following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report, which has forced Canadians to acknowledge the intergenerational impacts of colonialism. Regardless of race, it seems like we all carry this residual pain around with us, but do you believe there’s a way to work toward healing? How?

MT: Well, I can’t imagine human beings not carrying some pain around with them at any given point in their lives, regardless of how much healing occurs. We’re not good to each other, that much is evident. We cause pain. We cause harm, on so many different scales. 

We need, collectively, to understand how easily and off-handedly we hurt other people, how systematically, how cruelly, and to work diligently toward being kinder and fairer before we can begin to heal. 

WJ: According to your character, Yolandi, in the Mennonite community “therapy was seen as lower even than bestiality because at least bestiality is somewhat understandable in isolated farming communities.” Where do you think this resistance comes from? And you’ve been quoted as saying psychiatry is still in the “dark ages”? How so?

MT: Well, I just thought that was a pretty good joke: that bestiality is more acceptable than therapy. The idea of seeing a therapist in a lot of Mennonite communities would be misconstrued as a lack of faith in God’s ability to guide you through life. If you absolutely have to talk about it, go and see your pastor, or just tough things out, regard these struggles as tests from God, or punishment for some sin. Pray. Go to church. Submit to the will of your husband and/or your pastor. Trust and obey. And ask to be forgiven. 

But of course there are more enlightened Mennonite communities and individuals who believe in the usefulness of therapy. My mother was a marriage and family therapist in her/our Mennonite hometown and she had many clients, but often they’d see her secretly, or they’d want to know if she was a Christian therapist. 

Is psychiatry still in the dark ages? Yes, maybe even the age before the dark ages. I’m not sure that being stripped of your clothing and placed in a windowless room by yourself for days on end will ever result in anything like “healing.” Try to imagine going to the hospital with chest pain and shortness of breath and being told you can’t be treated until you admit that you want to or have tried to kill yourself or harm somebody else. 

WJ: You told the Guardian that in writing AMPS you didn’t want “rage to infect the tone” of the novel, but some would argue that you and your characters have a right to be furious, and I would characterize a lot of your work as hyper-angry, though it often comes out in a dark, sarcastic way. If you’re not going to get angry, what’s the alternative?

MT: My characters get angry, definitely, but what I meant was that I want the overall feel of the book to be, at the end, like a warm caress, to be loving and hopeful and humane. Hopefully my readers will move with me through the different moods of the book, the anger, awkwardness, sadness, whatever it is, and take it all in, but that we’ll come out on the other end feeling calm, maybe poised for some kind of action, maybe reflective. 

But I don’t think there’s an alternative to anger. We do need to get angry. Rage is useful and it’s the first step toward change. I don’t want to stay angry, certainly. I’d rather allow the anger to propel me forwards toward some kind of useful action. But we can’t deny the necessity or the justification of anger. 

WJ: Through all these intense experiences, how do you retain your sense of humour? And what advice or hope can you offer to people who are going through what you did?

MT: About the sense of humour, I don’t know. I don’t think I have to work at retaining it; it retains me. It carries me along. It’s just an instinct, to make a joke, to laugh, to mimic. 

I really don’t know how that all works. My sister was exactly the same way. I guess it’s genetic. Advice? To find people you can trust and to talk to them. To try to find a way of accepting and understanding the choices that other people make, even to honour them, because you don’t want to succumb to those things we were talking about earlier: rage, bitterness, crushing guilt, hopelessness.


MIRIAM TOEWS is the author of five previous novels: Summer of My Amazing Luck, A Boy of Good Breeding, A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans, and Irma Voth, and one work of non-fiction, Swing Low: A Life. She is a winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Writers Trust Marian Engel/Timothy Findley Award. She lives in Toronto.