"Look out Newfield, the prodigal son is back in town."
Except, it’s southeastern Manitoba, and K.R. Byggdin has had the area on their mind for four years before coming back to it.
The debut author and Niverville expat is back in the prairie province they once called home to tour their upcoming novel Wonder World, a self-described complicated love letter to the community they grew up in.
The novel revolves around 27-year-old Isaac Funk, a Mennonite-born, queer man who left his hometown of Newfield, Manitoba for Halifax, Nova Scotia to explore his authentic identity. After receiving an inheritance from his late grandfather, Isaac must come back to face the friends and family he left a decade earlier and decide if he wants to, once again, make Newfield his home.
Through clever prose, factual and fictional comparisons to towns in the Southeast, and a bit of good-natured poking at Mennonite traditions, the writing both draws those familiar with the area into the novel and illuminates the history of the region to those who may be unfamiliar with rural ways of life.
The novel draws a comparison to Byggdin’s life as they, too, left their home of Niverville to live in Halifax in 2015 to follow creative pursuits.
A recent graduate of Dalhousie University, Byggdin, 30, received grants and opportunities to further their book project. Through mentors at the Banff Centre’s Emerging Writers Intensive, Byggdin wrote, edited, then wrote again, to finalize their story.
The novel, set in a fictional town within a factual region, presents that way for a reason, Byggdin said.
"Newfield is not Niverville," they said in an interview. "It’s not not Niverville, but you know, it’s a separate space."
"I was so fully immersed in life in southeastern Manitoba; all of its lovely quirks, all of the things that make this place special…this is a place that I know really well and wanted to respond artistically to growing up here."
Authors from the Southeast have long used Mennonite lifestyles in literary works. Steinbach-based author Andrew Unger and expat Miriam Toews gained popularity through their published works, which explored fictional characters with factual lifestyles, all while making light of cultural cliches specific to the Southeast.
While Byggdin is not ethnically Mennonite, their adolescence was steeped in Mennonite ways of life, prompting their desire to write about it.
"Some of the things I really love about Mennonites and wanted to write about it is there is that strong sense of community and family and connection with others," they said.
Any reader familiar with southeastern Manitoba will be sucked into the specific references to Steinbach and surrounding communities; Wonder World even makes a fictionalized mention of the Niverville Pop Festival, a rock fest held on an acreage on the edge of town in 1970 to raise money for Lynne Derksen, a woman who suffered injuries and required an oxygenator after falling from a hayride.
The one-day festival attracted tens of thousands before a thunderstorm struck and left hundreds of cars stranded until farmers — many of whom were Mennonites — heeded the call to get motorists back to Highway 59.
The festival is just one slice of history used in the novel to exemplify the diversity the region has always had, Byggdin said.
"We’ve been part of the culture and and part of the fabric of what makes up these Mennonite communities."
The novel focuses on a character who fled home because of their identity and Byggdin said the story can serve as a reminder of the LGBTQ community in the Southeast. They said they wrote the novel for a younger version of themselves and for others who may be struggling with their identity while living in a small town.
"I understand how some folks might say, ‘Why would you set a queer novel here?’ But also my response would be like, why not set a queer novel here, in this place? I understand myself both through the lens of queerness and through the lens of small-town Manitoba life."
Byggdin will be touring Wonder World through Winnipeg at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Saturday, April 23 and through Steinbach at The Public Brewhouse and Gallery on Tuesday, April 26. Copies of the book are also available locally at the Mennonite Heritage Village gift shop.
Touring the novel through the Southeast is a full-circle moment for the author.
"This is a part of our world here in southeastern Manitoba we don’t talk about, but it does exist and it is important."