Miriam Toews (//; born 1964 in Steinbach, Manitoba) is a Canadian writer. She won the Governor General's Award for Fiction for her novel A Complicated Kindness, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for The Flying Troutmans and All My Puny Sorrows. In 2010, she received the Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award for body of work. She had a leading role in the feature film Silent Light, directed by Carlos Reygadas and winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, an experience that inspired her fifth novel, Irma Voth.
Life and Work
Toews grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba, the second daughter of Mennonite parents. Through her father, Melvin C. Toews, she is a direct descendent of one of Steinbach's first settlers, Klaas R. Reimer (1837-1906), who arrived in Manitoba in 1874 from Ukraine. Her mother, Elvira Loewen, was daughter to C.T. Loewen, a respected entrepreneur who founded a lumber business that would become Loewen Windows. As a teenager, Toews rode horses and took part in provincial dressage and barrel-racing competitions. She left Steinbach at eighteen, living in Montreal and London before settling in Winnipeg. She has a B.A. in Film Studies from the University of Manitoba, and a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King's College, Halifax.
Toews wrote her first novel, Summer Of My Amazing Luck, while working as a freelance journalist. The novel, which depicts the evolving friendship of two single mothers in a Winnipeg public housing complex, grew out of a documentary Toews was preparing for CBC Radio on the subject of welfare mothers. It was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, a prize Toews would win with her second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding.
Toews has written for CBC's WireTap, Canadian Geographic, Geist, The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, Intelligent Life, and Saturday Night. In 1999, she won a National Magazine Award Gold Medal for Humour. She is the author of The X Letters, a series of personal dispatches addressed to the father of her son, that were featured on This American Life in an episode about missing parents.
Toews' father committed suicide in 1998. His death inspired Toews to write a memoir in her father's voice, Swing Low: A Life. The book was greeted as an instant classic in the modern literature on mental illness, and it won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. In spite of a lifelong battle with depression, Toews' father was an active and well-respected elementary school teacher who lobbied to establish Steinbach's first public library. After his death, the Steinbach Library Board opened the Melvin C. Toews Reading Garden on the grounds of the library he worked to create. Toews' sister and only sibling, Marjorie, committed suicide in 2010, almost 12 years to the day after her father.
A Complicated Kindness
Toews' third novel, A Complicated Kindness, is set in East Village, a small religious Mennonite town much like Toews' native Steinbach. The narrator is Nomi Nickel, a curious, defiant, sardonic 16-year old who dreams of hanging out with Lou Reed in the 'real' East Village of New York City. She lives alone with her doleful father, after the departure of her older sister and the unexplained disappearance of her mother. Unlike her father, who is a dutiful member of the town church, Nomi is rebellious by nature and her compulsive questioning brings her into conflict with the town's various authorities, most notably Hans Rosenfeldt, the sanctimonious church pastor.
A Complicated Kindness was highly acclaimed nationally and internationally, with the character of Nomi Nickel invoking comparisons to J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. It won the 2004 Governor General's Award for Fiction, described by the jury as "an unforgettable coming-of-age story... melancholic and hopeful, as beautifully complicated as life itself." It was also shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It spent over a year on the Canadian bestseller lists and went on to win the 2006 edition of Canada Reads, the first book by a female writer to win the competition.
The Flying Troutmans
The Flying Troutmans is a road-trip novel narrated by 28-year-old Hattie, who takes charge of her teenage niece and nephew after she learns that her sister Min is checked into a psychiatric ward. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, Hattie enacts an ill-conceived plan to find the kids' long-lost father in California.
The novel was awarded the 2008 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The prize jury called the novel "a love song to young people trying to navigate the volcanic world of adult emotions." The novel was also longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and named a Globe and Mail Best Book.
Irma Voth and Silent Light
With her fifth novel, Irma Voth, Toews returned to Mennonite settings, re-examining the ways in which communities can limit personal freedom, and how belonging can turn to estrangment when old and new value systems clash. The novel opens in an old order Mennonite encampment in Mexico's Chihuahuan desert. 19 year-old Irma Voth has been banished to a neighbouring farm by her strict, religious father after secretly marrying a non-Mennonite Mexican. Her new husband disappears and she is alone to tend to the farm, but her world is transformed when a visionary filmmaker from Mexico City arrives to make a film about Mennonites. Irma is hired as a translator for the film's female protagonist, and her involvement with the shambolic and wildly creative film crew brings her into dangerous conflict with her father, while at the same time helping her better understand her place in the world. When her father's violence escalates and the tragedy that has haunted her family begins to surface, she and her two younger sisters flee, eventually arriving in Mexico City, where they must embrace the ways of the city in order to survive.
Toews has said that Irma Voth was inspired in part by her own experience as lead actress on the film set of Silent Light, the 2007 film written and directed by Mexican filmmaker, Carlos Reygadas. Reygadas invited Toews to do a screen test for the role of Esther, a conservative Mennonite wife, solely on the basis of seeing her author photo on the back flap of a copy of A Complicated Kindness. The film won a number of awards including the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Toews was nominated for best actress at Mexico's Ariel Awards for her performance.
Filmed in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, the film depicts the same Mennonite community that features in Toews' novel. "Irma Voth and Silent Light provide interesting counterpoint views of a culture as seen through the eyes of an outsider. Of course, Reygadas and the fictional filmmaker in Irma Voth portray a society within its insular context, a culture out of time and place, while Toews and Irma Voth have learned to coexist in both worlds."
All My Puny Sorrows
All My Puny Sorrows recounts the tumultuous relationship of the Von Reisen sisters, Elfreida and Yolandi, the only children of an intellectual, free-spirited family from a conservative Mennonite community. Yolandi, the novel's narrator, has always lived in her sister's shadow: whereas Elfreida is a gifted, beautiful, happily married, and much celebrated concert pianist, she is something of a failure, with a floundering writing career and teenage children from separate fathers. Yet it is Elfreida who suffers from acute depression and a desire to die, much like her father before her, who killed himself by stepping in front of a train. When Elfreida makes a second suicide attempt on the eve of an international concert tour, Yolandi makes it her mission to save her sister, even as Elf begs her to accompany her to a Swiss clinic and enable her death. Yolandi writes: "She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”
Toews has said that the novel draws heavily on the events leading up to the 2010 suicide of her own sister, Marjorie.
All My Puny Sorrows won the 2014 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The jury described it as "a haunting novel of tremendous feeling, beautifully written and profoundly humane... Miriam Toews, a dazzling literary alchemist who manages to summon all the joyous and heart-breaking humanity of her characters, has produced a work of astonishing depth. Reading it is an unforgettable experience." The novel was also shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize and is currently in contention for the 2014 Folio Prize.
- Summer of My Amazing Luck, Turnstone Press, 1996, ISBN 0-88801-205-5
- A Boy of Good Breeding, Vintage Canada, 1998, ISBN 0-676-97719-7
- Swing Low: A Life (non-fiction), Vintage Canada, 2000, ISBN 0-676-97718-9
- A Complicated Kindness, Knopf Canada, 2004, ISBN 0-676-97613-1
- The Flying Troutmans, Knopf Canada, 2008, ISBN 978-0-307-39749-2
- Irma Voth, Knopf Canada, 2011, ISBN 978-0-307-40068-0
- All My Puny Sorrows, Knopf Canada, 2014, ISBN 978-0-345-80800-4
Selected awards and honours
- 1996 John Hirsch Award for Summer of My Amazing Luck
- 1998 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for A Boy of Good Breeding
- 2000 Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction for Swing Low: A Life
- 2000 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for Swing Low: A Life
- 2004 Governor General's Award for A Complicated Kindness
- 2004 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist for A Complicated Kindness
- 2004 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for A Complicated Kindness
- 2004 The Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction for A Complicated Kindness
- 2005 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year for A Complicated Kindness
- 2006 Winner CBC Canada Reads 2006 for A Complicated Kindness
- 2006 Honorary Doctorate of Literature, Brandon University, Brandon, Manitoba
- 2008 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for The Flying Troutmans
- 2010 Writers Trust Engel/Findley Award
- 2010 Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law, University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
- 2012 Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction finalist for Irma Voth
- 2013 Order of Manitoba
- 2014 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for All My Puny Sorrows
- 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist for All My Puny Sorrows
Notes and references
- Miriam Toews at The Canadian Encyclopedia.
- Vogt, Erich (2013). The Steinbach Saga: The Story of The Vogt-Block Family and the Reimer-Wiebe Famliy. Altona, MB: Friesens Inc.
- Mills, Rachel (September 2005). "Masculinity, Entrepreneurship and Religion: Lumberman C.T. Loewen of Steinbach, Manitoba". Journal of Mennonite Studies 23.
- Friesen, Ralph (2009). Between Earth and Sky: Steinbach, the First 50 Years. Steinbach, MB: Derksen Printers Ltd.
- Byrne, Kathleen (April 26, 1997). "Welfare! Single mothers! Illegitimacy! Jokes! Leacock-nominated novel will no doubt be targetted by book-banners for its high immorality content". The Globe and Mail.
- "Seven gold, six silver for Saturday Night: Magazine Awards". The National Post. May 27, 2000.
- Toews, Miriam (2000). "The X Letters". OpenLetters.net.
- Barber, John (April 8, 2011). "Miriam Toews: It’s a Mennonite thing". The Globe and Mail.
- Lyon, Annabel (July 22, 2000). "Ode to a divided life: In a memoir of her father, a lifelong manic depressive, Miriam Toews masters the literature of the blues". The Vancouver Sun.
- Penner, Jim (June 22, 2000). "Members’ Statements: Melvin C. Toews Reading Garden". Legislative Assembly of Manitoba.
- Pountney, Christine (February 27, 2012). "Miriam Toews: Staying power". Nuvo Magazine.
- Richardson, Bill (May 1, 2004). "Dark, funny, sad, superb". The Globe and Mail.
- Schillinger, Liesl (January 23, 2005). "'A Complicated Kindness': A Prairie Home Companion". The New York Times.
- Caldwell, Rebecca (May 10, 2004). "Growing up in a one-church town". The Globe and Mail.
- Cook, Meira (August 2004). "A Complicated Kindness". Border Crossings 23 (3): 135–138.
- Salem-Wiseman, Lisa (August 2004). "The unbeguiling life". Books in Canada 33 (5).
- Shilling, Jane (January 31, 2009). "The starving, silent sibling". The Daily Telegraph.
- Caldwell, Rebecca (17 November 2004). "Toews, Dallaire win G-G awards". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Gessell, Paul (October 27, 2004). "Munro and Toews square off among Giller, G-G hopefuls". National Post.
- "IMPAC Longlist 2006". International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
- "And The Winner Is A Complicated Kindness". cbc.ca. 22 April 2006. Retrieved 11 October 2013.
- Wagner, Vit (17 November 2008). "Miriam Toews wins Writers' Trust fiction prize". Toronto Star. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
- "Manitoba's Miriam Toews wins Writers' Trust fiction prize". CBC Arts. 17 November 2008.
- "Munro, Toews nominated for big European prizes". Quill & Quire. 10 March 2009.
- "The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews". Women's Prize For Fiction. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
- Jackson, Marni (April 8, 2011). "Irma Voth". Maclean’s.
- Shabi, Rachel (July 15, 2011). "Irma Voth by Miriam Toews". The Guardian.
- Russo, Maria (September 23, 2011). "A Novel and a Memoir of the Mennonite Way". The New York Times.
- Houpt, Simon (May 12, 2007). "Miriam Toews: from author to actress". The Globe and Mail.
- O'Boyle, Michael (2008-02-20). "'Light' shines at Mexico's Ariel Noms". Variety. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
- Wall, Catherine E. (November 2012). "Miriam Toews. Irma Voth". World Literature Today 86 (3).
- Bland, Jared (April 18, 2014). "All My Puny Sorrows: Miriam Toews’s latest is a funny novel honouring deep sadness". The Globe and Mail.
- Taylor, Catherine (June 23, 2014). "All My Puny Sorrows review: 'biting black humour': This tragicomic story of a suicide bursts with ramshackle, precious life". The Telegraph.
- Davies, Stevie (July 9, 2014). "All My Puny Sorrows: darkly fizzing tragicomedy". The Guardian.
- Charles, Ron (November 10, 2014). "Book review: ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ by Miriam Toews". The Washington Post.
- Bethune, Brian (11 October 2014). "Miriam Toews wrestles with suicide in her latest quest for narrative truth". Maclean's.
- Dundas, Deborah (November 4, 2014). "Miriam Toews wins $25,000 Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize". The Toronto Star.
- "Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize: 2014 Winner". November 4, 2014.
- "Giller shortlist features Miriam Toews, David Bezmozgis among books in battle for $100,000 prize". National Post. 6 October 2014.
- "The 80 books nominated by the Folio Prize Academy". The Folio Prize. 14 December 2014.
- "Manitoba Rewards Complicated Kindness". The Globe and Mail. 25 April 2005.
- Wigod, Rebecca (29 June 2005). "Alice Munro 'author of the year': Miriam Toews and B.C.'s Ronald Wright have won awards from the Canadian Booksellers Association". The Vancouver Sun.
- "Miriam Toews awarded $25K prize". CBC. 2 November 2010.
- "Awards Writers' Trust of Canada". Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award. Retrieved 19 November 2011.
- "Shortlist announced for Canadian Authors Association 2012 Literary Awards". thebpc.ca. 22 May 2012.
- "Order of Manitoba recipients announced". Winnipeg Free Press. 10 May 2013.
- Carter Flinn, Sue (12 May 2011). "Miriam Toews receives Order of Manitoba". Quill & Quire.