Miriam Toews

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Miriam Toews
Born 1964
Steinbach, Manitoba
Occupation novelist
Nationality Canadian
Period 1990s-present
Notable works A Complicated Kindness, Irma Voth, All My Puny Sorrows

Miriam Toews (/ˈtvz/; born 1964 in Steinbach, Manitoba) is a Canadian novelist and writer.[1] She won the Governor General's Award for Fiction for her novel A Complicated Kindness (2004), 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 her body of work.

She had a leading role in the feature film Silent Light (2007), set in a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico. It was written and directed by Carlos Reygadas, a Mexican filmmaker, and it won the Cannes Jury Prize. This experience informed her fifth novel, Irma Voth, published in 2011.

Life and work[edit]

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.[2] Her mother, Elvira Loewen, is a daughter of the late C.T. Loewen, a respected entrepreneur who founded a lumber business that would become Loewen Windows.[3][4] As a teenager, Toews rode horses and took part in provincial competitions ranging from dressage to barrel-racing. 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 (1996), while working as a freelance journalist. The novel, which explores the evolving friendship of two single mothers in a Winnipeg public housing complex, developed from a documentary which Toews was preparing for CBC Radio on the subject of welfare mothers.[5] It was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. Toews won the latter prize with her second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding (1998).

Toews has written also 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.[6] She is the author of The X Letters, a series of personal dispatches addressed to the father of her son, which were featured on This American Life in an episode about missing parents.[7]

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.[8][9] Toews' father suffered from depression much of his life, but he 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.[10] Toews' older sister and only sibling, Marjorie, committed suicide in 2010, almost 12 years to the day after their father.[11]

After that, Toews moved from Manitoba with her two children and her mother to Toronto, where they share a three-story house. She said the best way of dealing with the past was her work.[8]

A Complicated Kindness[edit]

Toews' third novel, A Complicated Kindness (2004), is set in East Village, a small religious Mennonite town much like her 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.[12][13]

A Complicated Kindness was highly acclaimed nationally and internationally, with the character of Nomi Nickel invoking comparisons to J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield.[14][15][16][17] It won the 2004 Governor General's Award for Fiction,[18] described by the jury as "an unforgettable coming-of-age story... melancholic and hopeful, as beautifully complicated as life itself."[18] It was also shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize[19] and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.[20] It spent over a year on the Canadian bestseller lists and went on to be selected for the 2006 edition of Canada Reads, the first book by a female writer to be chosen.[21]

The Flying Troutmans[edit]

The Flying Troutmans (2008) 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.[22] The prize jury called the novel "a love song to young people trying to navigate the volcanic world of adult emotions."[23] The novel was also longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction,[24][25] and named a Globe and Mail Best Book.

Silent Light and Irma Voth[edit]

Toews has said that her fifth novel, Irma Voth (2011), was inspired in part by her experience in playing a lead role in Silent Light, the 2007 film written and directed by Mexican filmmaker, Carlos Reygadas. It was set and filmed in a historic Mennonite community in Chihuahua. Reygadas invited Toews to do a screen test for the role of Esther, a conservative Mennonite wife, on the basis of reading her third novel and seeing her author photo on the back flap of a copy of A Complicated Kindness.[26] They worked from a script in the Low German dialect still used by this Mennonite community, which neither the director nor Toews understand.[8] He used other Mennonite non-actors in many parts in this work. The film won a number of international awards, including the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Toews was nominated for best actress at Mexico's Ariel Awards for her performance, one of nine nominations for the film.[27]

Silent Light and Irma Voth both explore views of a culture as seen through the eyes of an outsider.[28] Toews explores the ways in which communities can limit personal freedom, and how belonging can turn to estrangement when old and new value systems clash. Irma Voth learns to live in both worlds.[28]

The novel opens in an old order Mennonite settlement in Mexico's Chihuahuan desert. (Note: Its members are descendants of early 20th-century immigrants from a larger colony in Canada, from which Toews' family was descended. These facts are not given in the novel.) Nineteen-year-old Irma Voth secretly married a non-Mennonite Mexican man. When her strict, religious father learned of her marriage, he banished her from his household to a neighbouring farm. After her new husband disappears into the drug trade, Irma tends to the farm alone. Her world is transformed when a filmmaker from Mexico City arrives with his crew to make a film in this Mennonite community. Irma is hired as a translator for the film's female protagonist, and her involvement with the wildly creative film crew brings her into more conflict with her father, who disowns her.

She comes to better understand her place in the world. When her father's violence escalates as he tries to sabotage the film, the tragedy that has haunted her family begins to surface. Irma flees with her two younger sisters, including an infant, leaving their depressed mother behind. They settle in Mexico City, where the two older girls work at making a life, embracing the ways of the city in order to survive and raise their infant sister. Marni Jackson of Macleans noted the infant Ximena was a force in the novel, around which the older girls build their family and new lives.[29][30][31]

All My Puny Sorrows[edit]

All My Puny Sorrows (2014) 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. Elfreida is a gifted, beautiful, happily married, and much celebrated concert pianist, but Yolandi feels a failure by contrast, with a floundering writing career and teenage children from separate fathers.[32] Elfreida suffers from acute depression and a desire to die, much like their fictional father, 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.[33] Yolandi writes: "She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”[34][35]

Toews has said that the novel draws heavily on events leading up to the 2010 suicide of her only sister Marjorie. Both their father and Marjorie died on railroad tracks, 12 years apart, near their home in Steinbach.[36]

All My Puny Sorrows received starred reviews in Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly and was a Reference and Users Services Association Notable Book.[37] It also appeared on a number of year-end best-book lists, including The Globe and Mail,[38] The Boston Globe,[39] The Washington Post,[40] The New Republic,[41] and The Daily Telegraph.[42] The novel won the 2014 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.[43] 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."[44] The novel was also shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize[45] and the 2015 Folio Prize for Literature.[46] She is currently in contention for the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction[47] and the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.[48]



Year Title Role Notes
2007 Luz silenciosa Esther

Selected awards and honours[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Miriam Toews", The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  2. ^ Vogt, Erich (2013). The Steinbach Saga: The Story of The Vogt-Block Family and the Reimer-Wiebe Famliy. Altona, MB: Friesens Inc. 
  3. ^ Mills, Rachel (September 2005). "Masculinity, Entrepreneurship and Religion: Lumberman C.T. Loewen of Steinbach, Manitoba". Journal of Mennonite Studies 23. 
  4. ^ Friesen, Ralph (2009). Between Earth and Sky: Steinbach, the First 50 Years. Steinbach, MB: Derksen Printers Ltd. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ "Seven gold, six silver for Saturday Night: Magazine Awards". The National Post. May 27, 2000. 
  7. ^ Toews, Miriam (2000). "The X Letters". OpenLetters.net. 
  8. ^ a b c Barber, John (April 8, 2011). "Miriam Toews: It’s a Mennonite thing". The Globe and Mail. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Penner, Jim (June 22, 2000). "Members’ Statements: Melvin C. Toews Reading Garden". Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. 
  11. ^ Pountney, Christine (February 27, 2012). "Miriam Toews: Staying power". Nuvo Magazine. 
  12. ^ Richardson, Bill (May 1, 2004). "Dark, funny, sad, superb". The Globe and Mail. 
  13. ^ Schillinger, Liesl (January 23, 2005). "'A Complicated Kindness': A Prairie Home Companion". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ Caldwell, Rebecca (May 10, 2004). "Growing up in a one-church town". The Globe and Mail. 
  15. ^ Cook, Meira (August 2004). "A Complicated Kindness". Border Crossings 23 (3): 135–138. 
  16. ^ Salem-Wiseman, Lisa (August 2004). "The unbeguiling life". Books in Canada 33 (5). 
  17. ^ Shilling, Jane (January 31, 2009). "The starving, silent sibling". The Daily Telegraph. 
  18. ^ a b Caldwell, Rebecca (17 November 2004). "Toews, Dallaire win G-G awards". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 10 October 2013. 
  19. ^ Gessell, Paul (October 27, 2004). "Munro and Toews square off among Giller, G-G hopefuls". National Post. 
  20. ^ "IMPAC Longlist 2006". International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 
  21. ^ "And The Winner Is A Complicated Kindness". cbc.ca. 22 April 2006. Retrieved 11 October 2013. 
  22. ^ Wagner, Vit (17 November 2008). "Miriam Toews wins Writers' Trust fiction prize". Toronto Star. Retrieved 10 October 2010. 
  23. ^ "Manitoba's Miriam Toews wins Writers' Trust fiction prize". CBC Arts. 17 November 2008. 
  24. ^ "Munro, Toews nominated for big European prizes". Quill & Quire. 10 March 2009. 
  25. ^ "The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews". Women's Prize For Fiction. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 
  26. ^ Houpt, Simon (May 12, 2007). "Miriam Toews: from author to actress". The Globe and Mail. 
  27. ^ O'Boyle, Michael (2008-02-20). "'Light' shines at Mexico's Ariel Noms". Variety. Retrieved 17 October 2013. 
  28. ^ a b Wall, Catherine E. (November 2012). "Miriam Toews. Irma Voth". World Literature Today 86 (3). 
  29. ^ Jackson, Marni (April 8, 2011). "Irma Voth". Maclean’s. 
  30. ^ Shabi, Rachel (July 15, 2011). "Irma Voth by Miriam Toews". The Guardian. 
  31. ^ Russo, Maria (September 23, 2011). "A Novel and a Memoir of the Mennonite Way". The New York Times. 
  32. ^ Bland, Jared (April 18, 2014). "All My Puny Sorrows: Miriam Toews’s latest is a funny novel honouring deep sadness". The Globe and Mail. 
  33. ^ 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. 
  34. ^ Davies, Stevie (July 9, 2014). "All My Puny Sorrows: darkly fizzing tragicomedy". The Guardian. 
  35. ^ Charles, Ron (November 10, 2014). "Book review: ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ by Miriam Toews". The Washington Post. 
  36. ^ Bethune, Brian (11 October 2014). "Miriam Toews wrestles with suicide in her latest quest for narrative truth". Maclean's. 
  37. ^ Hoffert, Barbara (February 10, 2015). "Notable Books and More - ALA Midwinter 2015". Library Journal. 
  38. ^ "The Globe 100: The best books of 2014". The Globe and Mail. November 21, 2014. 
  39. ^ "Best Fiction of 2014". The Boston Globe. December 6, 2014. 
  40. ^ "The Top 50 Fiction Books for 2014". The Washington Post. November 20, 2014. 
  41. ^ Schama, Chloe (December 31, 2014). "The Best Fiction of 2014". The New Republic. 
  42. ^ "The Best Books of 2014". The Daily Telegraph. November 3, 2014. 
  43. ^ a b Dundas, Deborah (November 4, 2014). "Miriam Toews wins $25,000 Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize". The Toronto Star. 
  44. ^ "Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize: 2014 Winner". November 4, 2014. 
  45. ^ "Giller shortlist features Miriam Toews, David Bezmozgis among books in battle for $100,000 prize". National Post. 6 October 2014. 
  46. ^ Dundas, Deborah (February 9, 2015). "Miriam Toews Shortlisted for Folio Prize for Literature". The Toronto Star. 
  47. ^ "Awards Longlist". The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (American Library Association). 
  48. ^ Brown, Mark (March 9, 2015). "Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist Mixes Grief and Joy". The Guardian. 
  49. ^ a b "Manitoba Rewards Complicated Kindness". The Globe and Mail. 25 April 2005. 
  50. ^ 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. 
  51. ^ "Miriam Toews awarded $25K prize". CBC. 2 November 2010. 
  52. ^ "Awards Writers' Trust of Canada". Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award. Retrieved 19 November 2011. 
  53. ^ "Shortlist announced for Canadian Authors Association 2012 Literary Awards". thebpc.ca. 22 May 2012. 
  54. ^ "Order of Manitoba recipients announced". Winnipeg Free Press. 10 May 2013. 
  55. ^ Carter Flinn, Sue (12 May 2011). "Miriam Toews receives Order of Manitoba". Quill & Quire. 
  56. ^ "Folio prize shortlist shows literary novel is far from dead, says head judge". The Guardian. 9 Feb 2015. 

External links[edit]