Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Family meets fiction

Manitoba-born author plumbs her own life to address life-and-death questions in latest novel

  • Print
Manitoba-born author plumbs her own life to address life-and-death questions in latest novel.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Manitoba-born author plumbs her own life to address life-and-death questions in latest novel. Photo Store

Miriam Toews is an open book -- at least that's the impression you get when looking at her body of work and the ways it parallels her life.

Through her six novels (including All My Puny Sorrows, released today) and one work of non-fiction, Toews has balanced grief and turmoil with humour, creating a space for her characters between nostalgia and subtle social commentary.

Her community of characters inhabits a space not unlike fellow Manitoban Margaret Laurence's Manawaka stories -- place shapes the people in her stories.

"I like to think of all of my books as being from one big happy, or not so happy, family," Toews explains by phone from her Toronto home. Toews is in Winnipeg Wednesday to launch All My Puny Sorrows at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

All My Puny Sorrows tells the story of two sisters -- Yolandi (or Yoli), a Toronto-based writer, and Elfrieda (or Elf), an internationally renowned concert pianist based in Winnipeg.

Like Tash and Nomi in A Complicated Kindness, Elf and Yoli grow up in the fictional Manitoba town of East Village, a stand-in for Toews' own hometown of Steinbach. "There are so many callbacks and echoes (in All My Puny Sorrows) to some of my other books," says Toews.

"I like to think of Elf and Yoli as older versions of Tash and Nomi."

Elf struggles with mental illness; when she first appears in All My Puny Sorrows she's in a Winnipeg hospital, recovering from an attempt on her own life. Yoli spends much of her time back in Winnipeg, grappling with Elf's desire to die as Yoli tries to convince her to live.

Elf eventually asks her sister to take her to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, to help her end her life; Yoli is then forced to wrestle with whether or not to help her die.

Fictional embellishments aside, it's a scenario that closely parallels Toews' own life. As she got set to deliver the first draft of Irma Voth in 2010 -- a novel about two sisters and their family's turmoil in a Mennonite community in Mexico -- Toews' sister Marjorie took her own life.

And like Elf, Marj had asked her sister to take her to Switzerland.

While Marj's death would serve as the impetus for All My Puny Sorrows, Toews couldn't immediately start unpacking her feelings through writing.

"During the next year I worked on the (Irma Voth) edits," Toews explains. "There was also a period of grieving and of healing, and of trying to get settled in Toronto."

It wasn't until 2012 that Toews was able to start writing through the experience of losing her sister.

Toews never had expectations All My Puny Sorrows would help bring some sort of closure to her grieving process -- in fact, she's not so sure such closure is possible. "We live with opening the door, with what we experience, and not letting it paralyze us. If closure existed, I'm not sure I'd want it."

But writing her way through the process has long been Toews' coping mechanism for life's hardships. "Making order out of my own personal chaos, making sense of my own experiences... if there's a certain way of doing that, that's what I do."

The novel comes at a time when the right-to-die debate is once again making headlines thanks to the two private members' bills on the subject introduced by Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher.

Toews thinks Canadians are ready for that conversation.

"I think that we're becoming more and more aware of the 'under-the-table' practices of doctor-assisted suicide and of end-of-life issues. I feel confident that most Canadians would opt to reduce patient suffering, and to respect the individual's right to choose the treatment in which that is best achieved.

"In the case of my own family members, I wish there had been an option for them to die peacefully, in the arms of people who loved them, rather than alone and violently and shrouded in secrecy."

Toews hopes her writing can help others. "(The novel) is meant to be, hopefully, an entertaining and dramatic story of a few people in an extraordinary and yet surprisingly common circumstance -- above all, it's a fiction, and I think that's where its potential value lies," says Toews.

"If it's affecting, then it may supply a helpful emotional backdrop to discussions around assisted suicide."

While the Prairie writer has taken herself out of the Prairies, the opposite is not entirely true.

"In a way I feel like a bit of an ambassador. I'm always talking about, remembering, ambassadorizing Winnipeg."

Toews pauses, then adds, "Winnipeg is my heart."

 

For a review of All My Puny Sorrows, see the Books section in Saturday's Winnipeg Free Press.

 

ben.macphee-sigurdson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2014 C1

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 15, 2014 at 7:17 PM CDT: Fixes time of April 16 event.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Stuart Murray announces musical RightsFest for CMHR opening weekend

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE APORIUS/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS STANDUP - pretty sunflower in field off HWY 206 near Bird's Hill Park Thursday August 09/2007
  • Challenges of Life- Goose Goslings jump over railway tracks to catch up to their parents at the Canadian Pacific Railway terminalon Keewatin St in Winnipeg Thursday morning. The young goslings seem to normally hatch in the truck yard a few weeks before others in town- Standup photo- ( Day 4 of Bryksa’s 30 day goose project) - Apr 30, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should confessions extracted through Mr. Big police stings be admissible in court?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google