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Family meets fiction

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

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/4/2014 (1222 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.

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


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

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.

Read more by Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson.


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

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