“What are our responsibilities when we love someone and they want to die?” – Miriam Toews

Among the many exciting writers heading to Galway for this year’s Cúirt is award-winning Canadian author Miriam Toews whose latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows, has garnered rave reviews and figured prominently in many ‘books of the year’ lists.

The novel charts the fraught yet loving relationship between two sisters, famous concert pianist Elf and her younger sibling Yoli, divorced and broke. Elf suffers from acute depression and desperately wants to die; Yoli just as desperately wants her to live. The ensuing life or death struggle between the sisters draws heavily from Toews’s own life; her sister Marjorie committed suicide in 2010, as did her father twelve years previously. While this might lead one to expect that All My Puny Sorrows would be a story of unremitting pain and grief that is not the case; it is also full of humour and vitality, acute insight and tenderness. In the words of The Sunday Times it is ‘a tour de force of mingled tragedy and comedy.’

Miriam Toews grew up in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, some forty miles from Winnipeg. Her novels include A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans and Irma Voth, and she has also written a memoir about her father, Swing Low.

The sisters Elf and Yoli in All My Puny Sorrows are also Mennonites yet both of them have managed to escape the sect’s conservative strictures. “The way the characters are depicted in the book are very true to my real life experiences,” Toews tells me, speaking by phone from her Toronto home. “My mother was really into protecting my sister and I –and my father too- from the harsher elements of the community. She came from a family that had a bit more freedom. Not only was she protecting us from the harsh reality of my father’s illness she also protected us from that sense of judgement, guilt and shame. We went to church regularly and heard all that stuff there but home was a tolerant, loving place full of laughter and I do credit my mother for creating that kind of environment. My sister and I were always encouraged to do our own thing –go to university, speak our minds, not be afraid, and that was very unusual in that community.”

“I was lucky in that my sister was six years older than me,” Toews continues. “When she became a teenager she would go into Winnipeg, where she’d see movies and buy records by people like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and the Stones so I got to hear all that stuff. Although my father was very devout he didn’t really mind and my mom encouraged it, in fact she got me my first Led Zeppelin record. She was an exceptional person.”

Toews has also drawn on her Mennonite background in A Complicated Kindness and Irma Voth. What kind of responses has she got from the community? “Reactions are across the board,” she replies. “They don’t necessarily voice disapproval but I can certainly feel it. There are Mennonites who are angry about stuff that I write but it’s something that I’ve got used to having grown up in that community, it’s not something I was surprised by. What I was surprised by was having people who were supportive of my work and would come to me and say ‘that was my experience too’. Even very conservative Mennonites, old men, wrote letters saying ‘this is a difficult book with a harsh assessment of the Mennonite community, but it’s necessary if we’re to make changes and become more tolerant and loving’ so the reaction has been mixed and continues to be.”

I ask Toews how she would compare her two books which arose from the tragic suicides in her family. “With Swing Low I was attempting to understand why and how my father had got to the point where he took his own life,” she states. “When he died it was a huge shock, I couldn’t believe it, I had never thought that could happen to him. I knew he was suffering profoundly from depression but that he would take his own life was still a shock. Twelve years later when my sister took her own life it was not a surprise. She had indicated very clearly that she wanted to die and she had made attempts, it was clear that it was going to happen.You don’t ever really accept it; we didn’t want it to happen, we did whatever we could do to prevent it. All My Puny Sorrows, for me, was a way of thinking about survival, about how we were going to go on as a family afterwards not ‘how could this have happened?’ What are our responsibilities when we love someone and they want to die? That’s basically what the book is about.”

In the novel Elf is a highly gifted artist and a charismatic presence, qualities which Toews’s sister also possessed in real life as Miriam explains, her sisterly love palpable as she talks; “Marjorie was a really accomplished pianist though she wasn’t actually a concert pianist like Elf. She could have been, but with her depression it was difficult. She taught me an awful lot, she brought literature and poetry and music and drama and art into the household and she had a dramatic personality. I was always so intrigued by her and then she’d go into her dark place when she’d cut herself off from us and retreat and that became the rhythm of life. She was always a huge support in my life and in my writing and my kind of chaotic unconventional lifestyle. She was always that solid source of love that I could always count on.”

All My Puny Sorrows paints an unflattering picture of the medical professionals treating Elf, who tend to be officious and lacking in empathy. Toews notes that often this was her family’s actual experience; “When I finished the manuscript and gave it to my mum I asked her if she thought I was too hard on the healthcare system and psychiatry in Canada and she said ‘no, you could have been a lot harder’. Of course there are individuals within the system that are genuinely compassionate and competent but the system itself is broken. A lot of services are underfunded and there is still that stigma to mental illness, even within these places where there should be care and understanding.”

Toews’s forthcoming appearance at Cúirt will be her first time reading her work in Ireland but interestingly it is not her first time in Galway; “I was here once when I was young,” she reveals. “I was 18 years old, cycling around, and have really fond memories of it. I stayed for a few days. We were so broke, we stayed with some university students who we met in a bar. We had a fantastic time, the hospitality was lovely!”

Miriam Toews will read from and discuss her work at the Town Hall on Friday, April 22nd, at 4pm. The event will be chaired by journalist Paula Shields. Tickets are €8.

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