Nomi Nickel's family is falling apart. First, big sister Tash fled their Mennonite village. Soon after, Mom followed. "Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing," Nomi tells us at the outset. "If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can't because we're waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back."
Nomi's narration is a genuine wonder. "The narrative voice is so strong," a Guardian reviewer marveled, "it could carry the least eventful, least weird adolescence in the world and still be as transfixing."
Toews (pronounced taves) herself was raised Mennonite in small-town Steinbach, Manitoba. In addition to two previous novels and 2001's poignant Swing Low, a biography of her father, she has written for This American Life and the New York Times Magazine.
More than a barbed polemic, A Complicated Kindness is the story of a bright young woman straining under the pressure of family, boys, and authority, common enough conflicts drawn here in extravagant, heartrending particulars. Head-scratching details emerge so inconspicuously, in fact, and Nomi's trenchant commentary is stitched in with such insouciance (to use one of her boyfriend's favorite words), that in this moving, timely portrait of the havoc religious fundamentalism has wreaked on one well-meaning family you rarely sense the author is actually trying to indict anyone.
"There is a kindness here," Nomi assures us, "a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of the people when they look at you and don't know what to say. When they ask me how my dad is, for instance, and mean how am I managing without my mother."
Sharp and often howlingly funny—but insistently generous—A Complicated Kindness is my favorite novel of 2004.
Dave: I was describing A Complicated Kindness to a coworker as a novel not so much about losing your religion as having it stripped away from you. Nomi only reluctantly surrenders her faith.
Miriam Toews: First she's taken the whole idea of believing and subverted it a bit. Traditional Christianity, for instance, would teach that everybody will be together again in heaven after death. She's turned that into having faith that her splintered family will one day be together and happy again, but here on earth.
I wanted to show how the fundamentalist interpretation of religion or Christianity was destructive in the Nickel family. But the other elements of the faith that Nomi takes on—hope and love and forgiveness and tolerance, all of the good things—she believes in them and she tries to live them to a certain degree.
Dave: As she grows up, she begins to understand that the simple things you believe in as a child aren't as straightforward as you assumed. She's isolated, cut off from other ways of life, but she's rebelling like so many other sixteen-year-old girls.
Toews: She's sixteen. She's still on that cusp, still a kid in many ways. She remembers the love that she felt as a child, the nurturing. The entire community knows her. She feels at home. But as she gets older, as you say, she realizes that it's not that simple. There is something else going on. You almost have to turn a blind eye to it if you're going to live happily in that community.
The people of the community, the individuals, are like individuals everywhere: there are good ones and bad ones, but most of them are in between, like all of us. It's the culture of control that complicates their decency.
Dave: Nomi's boyfriend works at a lifestyle museum. Tourists come not only to the museum but to the village itself to catch a glimpse of these people living out of time. Her culture is constantly on display. I wondered how that might affect a teenager trying to grow up in it.
Toews: People comment on that. There was a Mennonite Village Museum when I grew up, so that is taken right out of my own life. It was a pioneer village—I worked there, too; I knew all about the history—but I think I just took it for granted.
It's weird that they're this Disneyfied attraction. They're unusual. They're living apart from the world. They dress differently. You have these ideals and you're actually attempting to live them out. People are curious about it.
Dave: There's a scene where Nomi and a shopkeeper only half-jokingly consider whether cooling yourself with an electric fan in the summertime is a sin of vanity. Do you recall any particularly bizarre regulations from your own childhood?
Toews: The whole idea of a soft-topped car was considered frivolous, vain, and worldly. Or having harvest gold appliances—because I was a kid in the seventies, that's where my references come from. Also avocado green. If you were serious about your religion, you would have a white fridge.
Of course it was absurd and funny. I come from a reasonably liberal, tolerant home; the community at large was different, but a lot of Mennonites make fun of it all the time. There are many degrees of being a Mennonite. It's not unlike being Jewish in terms of being a secular Jew or an orthodox Jew. There are many different shades of conservatism within the Mennonite faith.
Dave: Your parents both went to graduate school.
Toews: They were better educated than I am. They both got their Masters degrees.
Dave: And yet you only remember going to one movie as a child.
Toews: The Swiss Family Robinson. I think I used that one in the book, too.
See, my family was quite tolerant, but we belonged to the most conservative congregation in town. There was this weird disparity. We weren't really supposed to go to that theater because we weren't supposed to be seen there. It wouldn't look good, so it was a big deal.
My best friend at the time was able to go, so I desperately wanted to go also. Finally my mom just said, "Fine, go," understanding, of course, that this was ridiculous. The Swiss Family Robinson!
You could say it magically changed my life. I have a degree in film studies. Movies are as important to me as books. I love them. I would see three movies a day if I could.
Dave: It must have been odd to study film alongside people who grew up with movies.
Toews: They could talk about all the classics that I had to learn about in school and on my own.
I think that whole idea of restricting things from your children and every last thing being a sin...it seems counterproductive. Those of us who were rebellious —and it wasn't any huge rebellion we were going through; it was pretty typical—but you go overboard. Not that getting a degree in film studies is going overboard, but you tend to strike out against those strictures.
Dave: The book is very funny, but I would hesitate to call it a comic novel. You've stitched the humor in so thoroughly, almost as if to call as little attention to it as possible. Were you consciously trying to maintain a balance?
Toews: I had an idea of Nomi's voice. This sounds so banal and cliché, but I wanted it to be as funny as it could possibly be and as sad as it could possibly be at the same time.
If the humor seems embedded in a sadder context it's because I wanted them to go hand-in-hand. I didn't want it to be slapstick. That's my favorite kind of writing, the stuff that I like to read.
I wanted it to be of the time and place, of her state of mind. She's quite depressed, and her humor would take that on. It would be informed by a real despair.
Dave: Despair, but not irony. It's not the detached sort of irony that's more common in fiction today.
Toews: It's interesting that you mention that because some people say that it's steeped in irony. But I agree with you. That certainly wasn't what I was intending. Nomi calls it as she sees it.
Dave: If her sister had written the book, the tone would probably be more ironic. Tash is too pissed off and too disrespectful of the community. She considers herself outside of it, whereas Nomi doesn't quite yet.
Toews: That's exactly true. Tash has already said, "Screw you, I'm out of here. I don't need any of this." Whereas Nomi is halfway there, but she feels like she can't leave, this is her home.
I want to be accepted here. This is all that I know. I long for the outside world, but I'm afraid of it. I hate this place. I love this place. I love Travis. I hate Travis. She's terribly confused.
Dave: Who are some novelists you think of when you say you're writing what you like to read?
Toews: It changes. Do you know Joy Williams? Maybe people wouldn't call her a comic novelist, but I sure think she's a brilliant, dark writer.
Dave: What's the last book you read and immediately passed on to someone else?
Toews: Actually, it's nonfiction: Random Family by Adrian LeBlanc. It follows three families that the author spent time with over ten years, living with these people. The story is just heartbreaking, it's so beautiful. And it's so well done. It reads like a novel, and yet these are real people.
Dave: When you left Steinbach after high school, you moved to Montreal. Did you go directly from one to the other?
Toews: I went to a small town in Quebec, north of Montreal, for the first six weeks to study French.
Dave: What was it like to have come from such an isolated community and suddenly find yourself in a big, thriving city?
Toews: It's funny because I think Steinbach would be considered one of the most conservative places, if not the most conservative, in the whole country, and Montreal is the most liberal.
It was exciting and it was stimulating. I loved the cosmopolitan culture and its physical beauty, but at the same time I was stuck in between worlds and wondering where I was going to best fit in. I felt like an outsider in my own town as a teenager, and I certainly felt that way in Montreal. I'm not a part of this community, clearly, but I can't go home.
And I wanted to fit in. I didn't want to live my life as an outsider. It was a lonely time, but very educational.
Dave: Describe the task of writing from your father's perspective in Swing Low.
Toews: When my dad was very sick in the hospital, the last couple weeks of his life, he was so confused. He didn't seem to be thinking straight. It was all very mysterious. I was trying desperately to encourage him, to help him, telling him things like, "You will be well again. Everything is going to be okay."
You'll see Mom again. Mom will be okay. At some point he asked me to write it down on a piece of paper, so he could look at it when I wasn't there, I guess. So I would write it down, and for a while that was good.
But then, as the days passed, he wasn't quite understanding anymore. He would read it to himself, and he would say, "You will be okay."
He needed to read I will be okay. That's how his brain was working. So then I would write, "I will be fine. I will get out of the hospital. I will be healthy again" for him, and that made sense.
After he died, I just carried on in that way because it seemed to make sense to me at the time. There was that reason for doing it, the natural progression of what I had been doing before he died. Also, I don't know how familiar you are with suicide, but when somebody you know and love has committed suicide it's so hard to understand. You just don't know how it could have happened. You want to be inside that person's head so you can figure out why this person made this choice. Was it rational? Irrational? Let's put everything together and see. I wanted to be inside his head, and in order to do that I had to become him.
Dave: Did you get a lot of feedback from other members of your family?
Toews: I worked with my mom and my sister very closely. And I talked to my dad's close friends. Some of my relatives told me what they remembered about him as a kid. I talked to other teachers that he had worked with. And I knew something, too: He had written stories about himself in a book for me, things that had happened to him. I pored over that.
I tried to get as complete and accurate a picture of him as I could. Everything that occurs in the book is what happened in his life.
It's hard to know where to shelve a book like that. Fiction? Nonfiction? I'm obviously writing from his point of view, and I'm not him, but everything is based on truth.
Dave: Nomi is thinking about social posturing when she writes, "I wasn't very good at it, but I liked the bullshit bravado of it, you know, the effort of trying to cover something up and show it at the same time."
The idea struck me as something a novelist would think: the key to artful storytelling is trying to cover something up and show it at the same time.
Toews: The understatement, the subtlety, the emotional honesty without giant flash cards and neon signs. I hadn't thought of that, but absolutely, that is what I would be trying to do as a writer and what most writers are trying to do, I think.
Dave: When Stoddart [a large, Toronto-based publisher and distributor] filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, many small publishers, bookstores, and writers in Canada suffered. That would have been just about the time Swing Low came out. How did it affect you?
Toews: It really bummed me out. It was depressing. Ultimately, it became a good thing for me, individually, but it was a really bad thing for a lot of small presses, for a lot of small bookstores, and for a lot of writers, period.
I could sense that something was going on with them. That was a hard time for me, after writing Swing Low. A very, very close cousin of mine committed suicide a couple years after my dad did, so I was dealing with huge holes. I was cynical about a lot of stuff and about writing, and I was thinking, I don't want to give another manuscript to Stoddart because there's something not right there. I was kind of fooling around with my writing and not getting serious about anything.
I owed them another book in my contract, but I didn't want to give them another book, so I was holding onto it. Then they went bankrupt, so I was free to start up a relationship with Knopf.
It worked out really well for me, but during that time I was thinking, To hell with this publishing thing. I know I'm going to write—I need to write—but I think I'll just type up copies of my stuff, staple them together, and give them to friends of mine. Christmas presents or something like that. Not that they would necessarily want them, but that was my frame of mind.
Dave: I've heard The X Letters read on This American Life, but have you done much shorter work?
Toews: Not much. I've written some shorter nonfiction, personal journalism type things for Geist magazine out of Vancouver, which is very good in terms of new writing and cultural stuff. Also for Prairie Fire and Saturday Night magazine. But for the most part, no, I haven't written a lot of shorter stuff. I've never written a short story in my life.
Dave: Are you working on something now?
Toews: I am working on another novel.
Dave: Are you familiar with Sarah Harmer?
Toews: Of course! I've seen her in concert.
Dave: I was in a coffee shop this morning, and they were playing her on the stereo. It made a good accompaniment to A Complicated Kindness.
Toews: Do you know the band The Weakerthans? They're a Winnipeg band. They're really good. You should check them out. Sarah Harmer sings on one of the tracks with John Samson, the lead singer. It's a beautiful song.
Dave: I'm calling from New York, as you know, and she's actually here the next two nights.
Toews: Are you going to go?
Dave: I want to, but I have commitments on both nights. The big problem is that just before I left Portland I was invited to a formal party. It sounds great, but I have to get dressed up for it and I don't have anything but jeans.
Toews: Well, you need to hit some sort of second-hand store, just get some old suit.
That's my biggest problem these days, too. You know The Giller Prize? It's this big deal. My husband has to wear a tux and I have to wear a dress. Lately I've been going to all these festivals to do readings, and I'm used to just shuffling around my house in pajamas.
Dave: When do they announce the Giller?
Toews: Thursday in Toronto, so we'll fly out Thursday morning and come back on Friday.
Dave: And you won't know whether you've won until the ceremony itself?
Toews: That's right. Nobody knows. And it's televised—this is so typically Canadian. Of course my kids and some of my family will be gathered here, watching me lose to Alice Munro.
Dave: You never know. She'll come out with another amazing collection of stories soon enough, anyway.
Toews: I was listening to a radio interview she did a couple days ago, and she was actually saying that she has another collection coming out in a couple years. So I was thinking, Oh, okay, so she'll have a chance then.
Dave: And she's going to be so full of lifetime achievement awards before you know it, what's another Giller Prize?
Toews: Really. Come on, people! But I figure if I lose to Alice Munro that just makes sense within the grand scheme of things. I'd have no problem with that. And then if I lose to somebody else, that would mean that Alice Munro and I lost together. It's a kind of a winning situation regardless.
Dave: Tell me something about yourself that I'm completely unaware of.
Toews: I'll tell you something: I have three spleens.
Dave: I'm not sure where to go with that.
Toews: This is something that nobody knows. Well, my friends know it. I just found out.
I was having some gallbladder pain—my gallbladder's fine, not to worry —and I had an ultrasound. The doctor found out that I have three spleens.
She said it's nothing to worry about, but I just love the metaphorical significance. You can function with no spleens, of course. People have them removed, and they're fine. So it's not that I can auction them off on eBay or anything like that. But it's not a bad thing. My doctor doesn't quite understand how this came to be, but I think we can let that remain a mystery.
Is that a good enough answer?
Dave: You win. Best answer ever to that question.
Toews: Nobody's ever asked me that in an interview. I've always wanted to tell someone, but I never wanted to just tell them because it would sound like I'm trying to be circus-freaky and more interesting than I really am. But in fact it's true.
Dave: Will your earlier books be published in the U.S.?
Toews: Probably not my first novel. Turnstone Press is a small, local press, and I'm not sure what they're doing with it. Vintage is bringing out Swing Low again. A Boy of Good Breeding is coming out with Vintage, too, but my editor and I have been making major edits. It's been overhauled, and it's coming out sometime in '05.
A Complicated Kindness was shortlisted for each of Canada's most prestigious literary awards, The Giller Prize and The Governor General's Award. As its humble author suspected, Alice Munro wound up winning the Giller for her latest collection of stories, Runaway. Toews, herself, celebrated a few days later when her novel earned the Governor General's Award. (Don't look now, but Canada's fiction team is poised for gold at next spring's Literature Olympics in Mumbai.) Miriam Toews spoke from her home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on November 8, 2004.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State